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International Design Museum in Munich Opens Democratic Design: IKEA
Bank "Eknov", 2006. Designer: Maria Vinka.

MUNICH.- »Beautiful shapes are there for everyone. And are not just for the museum!«

This exclamation in 1979 by the then IKEA Head of Design still sets the South Swedish corporation’s design agenda today – it has since its foundation in 1948 by Ingvar Kamprad morphed from a one-man store into the world’s largest interior furnishings company. And it has first and foremost been IKEA that has shaped the notion of »democratic design«.

This was precisely the slogan that IKEA used in 1995 for its highly experimental and individualistic »PS Collection« – which it presented in Milan of all places. In the middle of the Mecca of design, the Swedes indicated quite clearly that they wished to make functional, good design at a price that as many people as possible could afford. And they thus took a stance against those trends that wanted to transform design into a high-end status symbol to be found in the exclusive galleries or, like art, to be deliberately made only as »one-offs«.

Behind IKEA’s stance we can sense the impact of ideas such as »beauty for everyone« (Ellen Key, 1899), which had their roots in the reform movements of the 19th century and in the »Swedish model« of a modern, open, and egalitarian society with a social thrust to it.

Comparable approaches are likewise to be found in the German Werkbund, founded in 1907, in De Stijl, Bauhaus or the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. However, only rarely have high-quality designs really gone into mass production – which contrasts sharply with IKEA, where from the very beginning it was realized on the basis of decidedly entrepreneurial, economic strategies.

A decisive aspect is played here by the development of a specific formal idiom and range of products that bring together different design directions. On the one hand, Scandinavian Modernism with its preference for wood and organic shapes, and, on the other, the respective international trends of the day, such as the style of the 1960s so influenced by Flower Power and the idea of »Democracy from below«, not to mention post-Modernism.

Then there is the championing of »Swedishness« in all respects. Be it in the corporate colors of yellow and blue, emulating those of Sweden’s flag, the concentration on children’s needs, and the informal second-person singular used in dialog with clients, or the creation of a design line that references Swedish traditions. One needs to think only of Carl Larsson’s »House in the Sun« in the late 19th century or the plain noblesse of 18th-century Swedish furniture. Not to forget all the unconventional ideas by young new-generation Swedish designers the company has realized.

The production principles, such as simple DIY connections or space-saving packaging are reminiscent of the strategies that Michael Thonet deployed in the 19th century when turning his company into the world’s first mass producer of furniture and thus into a global player. On many levels, measures to enhance eco-friendliness and sustainability from an ecological, economic and social point of view have influenced the products’ design.

Die Neue Sammlung – The International Design Museum Munich – is devoting the very first major museum show to the topic of Democratic Design, and using IKEA as the example. The selected objects from six decades are placed in the context of design history when seen against the backdrop of the Museum’s standing exhibitions.

The focus will be on aspects such as System Billy, Do-it-Yourself, Design Process, Inspirations, Kids’ World, Material Change and Sustainability, and their roots in Swedish, not to say classical Scandinavian Modernism, from Aalto to the Danish influences of the 1950s and early 1960s.

The exhibits were drawn from The Neue Sammlung’s permanent collection, supplemented by loans from the IKEA Museum, Älmhult, and private loans from IKEA staffers.

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