Furniture design

‘Assembling the Future Together.’ – an interview with IKEA’s Marcus Engman

Marcus Engman, Creative Director at Ingka Group (IKEA Retail), provides an inside look into the brand’s “Assembling the Future Together” exhibit that marks the company’s 80th anniversary, as well as where the company is headed

Milan isn’t just the business, financial and fashion capital of Italy: it’s also home to Milan Design Week (MDW), the world’s largest annual design fair. This week, from April 18-23, the city has been abuzz with visitors to the furniture fair at the Rho Fiera Milano exhibition center, and to Fuorisalone, which is a host of correlated design events, shows and parties around the city’s neighborhoods. 

Since MDW was first launched in 1961, it’s been a can’t-miss opportunity for designers, artists, architects, creatives and professionals from related sectors to come together from all around the world, showcase new designs and creations, discover new talent and glean inspiration. 

One big brand that’s been participating since 1995 is global furnishing brand IKEA, which this year is celebrating its 80th anniversary. To mark this milestone birthday, its exhibit “Assembling the Future Together” explores the company’s past, present and where it’s headed.

IKEA ‘Assembling the Future Together’, Padiglione Visconti, Milan Design Week 2023

Visitors to IKEA’s space in the Visconti Pavilion in the Tortona District enjoyed taking a walk down memory lane amongst some of the brand’s most iconic designs as well as viewing its newest collection, Nytillverkad, which launches this July and is a unique take on some of its most classic pieces.

Most of us likely have at least one piece of IKEA furniture in our homes, as over the decades the furnishing giant has made easy-to-afford, flat-pack, assemble-at-home furniture and accessories a thing of legend, with some vintage pieces by now being incredibly difficult to find and at times worth a small fortune. 

We were excited to sit down for an interview with Marcus Engman, Creative Director at Ingka Group (IKEA Retail), who was here in Milan during the week. With decades of experience at IKEA, in his current role he spearheads initiatives like Atelier100, IKEA Festival, and IKEA at Fuorisalone. He also runs a conscious street wear brand and the creative collective SKEWED.

Marcus Engman _ Chief Creative Office at Ikea _ interview - Milan Design Week 2023
Marcus Engman, CEO & Creative Director at Skewed Productions; Chief Creative Officer IKEA Retail

Over the years, he’s been influential in championing IKEA’s Democratic Design model as well as making design more sustainable, which is also a theme at this year’s MDW.

Why is IKEA participating in Milan Design Week? How does the event contribute to spreading your design vision?

Marcus Engman:

“We’ve been at the Design Week or Fuorisalone for quite a while now, since 1995, which was the first time when we came. 

In 1995, we did the IKEA PS collection here, so there was a big launch. Ever since then, I think that we had a new view of how to meet and collaborate more with the rest of the design world than we had before. For us, this is a way of finding new talent, a way of showcasing where IKEA is going, next steps and so on. And it’s also a place to celebrate and have fun.”

IKEA Assembling the Future Together _ Milan Design Week 2023 _ interview with Marcus Engman _ Chief Creative Officer IKEA Retail
Press Conference – IKEA ‘Assembling the Future Together’, Padiglione Visconti, Milan Design Week 2023

This year, IKEA turns 80. MDW marks an important anniversary with an exhibition that explores the past, present, and future of the brand. What essential elements define your design and guide you towards the future?

Marcus Engman:

“I think how we design and how we’ve designed in the past and how we’ll design in the future is fairly the same. We have the same design ethos as we had back in the 1960s. We always start with the price tag first, because we think that if you don’t make great ideas accessible for many people, having great ideas is a little bit of a waste. So that’s what we are focusing on. And that’s why we call it “democratic design”, too. 

But along the way, from starting with price tags, we added some more things that made it even harder, actually, to make great products. So in addition to having great prices, we want them to be of great quality, they should be sustainable, and they should have a great shape as well. The form of things is super important.

And last but not least, since we’re Swedish, there’s function. If you look at our designs, a lot of them are driven by function, and how they are constructed makes them look a certain way.”

History Wall – IKEA ‘Assembling the Future Together’, Padiglione Visconti, Milan Design Week 2023

“Assembling the Future Together” is a powerful motto that deeply connects IKEA to people. Based on 80 years of innovations and learnings, how do IKEA products improve people’s home lives?

Marcus Engman:

“That’s a big question. How do IKEA’s products improve home life? I think in so many ways, but I would like to go back to what we are calling this exhibition, which is “Assembling the Future Together”. There is this “together” part that makes IKEA’s products good. We’re not doing it by ourselves somewhere in the middle of nowhere. We’re always doing it together with people. So it’s “together” with designers, “together” with product developers and engineers, but it’s also actually with the users from the very beginning. 

We’ve spent so much time doing home visits all around the world: thousands of them every year. We’re also doing our Life at Home Report to find things to design. So it’s made by people for people, and it’s actually our customers who make IKEA..IKEA; it’s not IKEA.”

IKEA Assembling the Future Together _ Milan Design Week 2023 _ interview with Marcus Engman _ Chief Creative Officer IKEA Retail
‘FUTURE’ installations dedicated to the 4 elements of Nature: earth, air, fire and water – IKEA ‘Assembling the Future Together’, Padiglione Visconti, Milan Design Week 2023

In 2023, world renowned American photographer Annie Leibovitz stepped into the role of IKEA Artist in Residence. What are the goals and ambitions of this collaboration, and why did you choose her for this role?

Marcus Engman:

“Our approach to the Artist in Residence comes from the result of this year’s Life at Home Report. I wouldn’t say we were disappointed, but more scared when we saw the results. One of the results is that 48% of people don’t recognize themselves in how life at home is portrayed. And that means that they don’t recognize how life at home is portrayed by IKEA, either.

So maybe we have to find new angles on things to really come closer to people and maybe shy away from the typical advertising way of showing things, concentrating on life more and coming behind people and what really resonates with them. 

So what better way of doing that than with the world’s best photographer, Annie Leibovitz?

Marcus Engman, Chief Creative Officer at IKEA Retail, and American photographer Annie Leibovitz, IKEA Artist in Residence

She has an incredible eye for things. And when speaking to her the first time, one of the most interesting things was that, as we always start with Life at Home and with home visits, her approach to doing pictures and portraits is to go home to people to get to know them through their homes, because she believes that that says more about people than what they say about themselves when you interview them.

That’s pretty close to how we think at IKEA, too. So it’s natural. And as everything at IKEA is driven by curiosity, we don’t know if we’re going to succeed with this, but we’re trying. We’re curious about it.”


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