We often hear of the phenomenal success of IKEA products. Case in point, the BILLY bookcase, sketched by Gillis Lundgren in 1978 on the back of a napkin. Now, there are 60-odd million BILLY bookcases in the world. That’s nearly one for every 100 people. And even as you read this, which takes no more than 3 seconds, a BILLY bookcase rolls off the production line of the Gyllensvaans Mobler factory in Kattilstorp, a tiny village in southern Sweden. Humble bookcase. Overwhelming success.
On the other hand, seldom do we hear of any IKEA fail. Maybe because they simply fold up and die a quiet flat-packed death. But recently at the Democratic Design Days in Sydney, as reported by news.com.au, Marcus Engman, IKEA’s global design head revealed one of the biggest #fail in the history of the company.
The a.i.r sofa.
“This is one of the biggest mistakes in IKEA’s history. An amazing fiasco,” he said. And he had a front-row view of the deflating of what first appeared as a winning concept.
When the idea landed on Mr. Engman’s desk in the mid-80s, it seemed ingenious.
“It’s one of those eureka moments when you sit around the table and instantly feel this might be the best IKEA idea ever,” Mr Engman said. “What could be better and more flat than doing air and to sell nothing and get paid for it? That was the starting point?”
IKEA thought the a.i.r. sofa would be sold flat and then inflated at home. A fabric slipcover then wraps around the inflated sofa like a regular sofa.
“The idea would be to fill it with air from a hairdryer as we realised almost all homes around the word had hairdryers,” said Mr Engman. But the assumption proved incomplete. IKEA thought people would have the sense to inflate the sofa with cold air from their dryer. That didn’t happen.
“People usually have them on hot and we didn’t think of that because if you have it on hot and attach it to plastic, it melts it.”
And the worst thing was — despite its fancy “airtight” valve, it leaked. Customers woke up to a floppy, crumply sofa.
The other issue was its lack of weight. Its selling point was it was so light, you could pick it up with one hand and vacuum beneath it. But its lightness proved to be the final straw.
“We didn’t think if you sit on something that is so light it has this tendency not to sit still. You were actually floating around in your living room,” he explained. “And it had this squeaking noise; every time you moved you could hear it.”
Facing this epic fail, they got rid of the a.i.r. sofa at a big loss. You would think IKEA would be all the wiser. But no. They still dabbled with inflatable furniture in the 2000s. On the second run, it was designed as safe seating for children. They reinforced the valves, tested it to death and it looked promising. But the old issue of leaking came back to haunt.
Mr. Engman views this as a learning experience. He sees it as a failure they could have prevented if they had the 5 Democratic Design core values in place back then. The core values are form, function, quality, sustainability and low prices, which the a.i.r. sofa failed on all counts.
Will the third time be the charm? “No,” said Mr. Engman “We’re a little bit smarter now.”