Ikea’s winning philosophy

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Ikea’s winning philosophy

Every move of furniture giant Ikea, which is scheduled to open its first Korean branch later this year, is attracting fevered public attention. A few days ago, Ikea disclosed the prices it will charge on 20 furniture items it plans to sell in Korea. Many local newspapers and broadcasting agencies reported the news along with the analysis that the low prices that Ikea is famous for are going to cause big problems for domestic furniture companies who will have to compete against the Swedish retail giant.

It is widely known how Ikea manages to sell its products for such low prices. It doesn’t only achieve economies of scale through mass production - the advantage of a super success - but also cuts costs by making and selling products of minimalist design in the tradition of Scandinavia that are assembled by the consumer. Ikea’s products are sold in packs that consumers take home themselves and put together. That helps the company save on logistics and labor costs.

In exchange, the consumers have to take the trouble to haul the products home and assemble the furniture themselves. That can lead to some tense evenings and weekends between spouses. But Ikea has the knack of making such inconvenience actually appeal to consumers as an attractive element of its product line, as the title of the Korean version of former German journalist Rudiger Jungbluth’s book “Ikea Bulpyeoneul Palda (Ikea Sells Inconvenience)” suggests. (The original title is “Die 11 Geheimnisse des Ikea-Erfolgs” which means “The 11 Secrets of Ikea’s Success.”)

Ikea constantly delivers to consumers the message that the company pursues “Democratic Design.” The company asserts that it makes its effort to lower prices in order to offer products of good quality and intelligent functions to as many people as possible. And, to achieve affordable prices, the company proposes consumers take the trouble to participate in the completion of furniture pieces at their homes.

As the company actively promoted the philosophy of “Democratic Design,” it came to have many fans - not only customers but actual aficionados - in many different countries. Korea is no exception. Beginning in the early 2000s, before Ikea unveiled a plan to open a Korean branch, fans of Ikea appeared, particularly those who had studied in Europe or America. Some Korean consumers say they buy Ikea products through overseas purchase services because buying Ikea furniture “looks cool.” What a strange phenomenon that a byword for cheap furniture has become a target of conspicuous consumption!

This could be partly because it is not easy to buy Ikea furniture here as the company’s Korean branch has yet to be opened. Scarcity adds its own luster to purchases for the home. But it’s not the only reason. A big reason is that Ikea has a clear design philosophy that appeals to Korean consumers, who have begun in the recent decade to seriously care about the design philosophy behind everyday goods.

It was 19th-century English artist and designer William Morris who started the philosophy of changing people’s lifestyle and society through design. What is interesting, however, is that Morris hated mass production, which is the source of Ikea’s global power. Morris, who led the Arts and Crafts Movement, admired medieval craftsmen, whom he thought created each tapestry, piece of furniture and wall decoration out of a deep reverence for nature and a respect for the patterns found therein.

One of Morris’s famous quotes is, “To give people pleasure in the things they must perforce use, that is one great office of decoration; to give people pleasure in the things they must perforce make, that is the other use of it.”

However, the romantic idea of Morris, who was also a socialist, contained contradiction. As his furniture and interior design company Morris & Co. rejected mechanical mass production and made elaborate handiworks one-by-one, production costs were high and, accordingly, the objects prices had to be high. The workers in Morris & Co. must have found “pleasure in the things they must perforce make,” as Morris desired, since they went through a creative working process instead of simple mass production procedures. Still, the products of Morris could not give the general public, especially the low-income classes, the “pleasure in the things they must perforce use” - because they couldn’t afford to buy them.

It was the 20th-century Bauhaus school of design and architecture in Germany that succeeded Morris and solved his contradiction. The founder of Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, followed Morris’s philosophy: The form of a product should be in harmony with its function and designs of various items (including furniture and home appliances) should be consistent while improving the quality of a user’s life.

But Gropius pursued designs fit for mass production as he knew Morris’s hatred of mass production clashed with his philosophy of design for the improvement of the general public’s lifestyle. As a result, the Bauhaus style was created - functional yet beautiful design represented by minimalist geometric forms appropriate for mass production.

The most powerful and influential successor to Bauhaus is Ikea (even though quite a few fans of Bauhaus dislike the idea). “Mass-market design like Ikea’s would be inconceivable today without the Bauhaus,” said the then-director of the Bauhaus foundation, Philipp Oswalt, in an interview with the Guardian, a British newspaper, in 2009.

What links Bauhaus and Ikea is their design philosophy that considers society’s overall quality of life and their cost reduction strategy. Ikea is effectively promoting that philosophy and creating customers with high loyalty. Korean companies need to remember this as an important survival strategy for all enterprises selling consumer products.

*The author is the culture desk chief of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

BY Moon So-young
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