How IKEA, MoMA Connect With Design Talent

IKEA wasn’t just one of the first mass-market companies to sell design, it was also among the first to sell designers, running their names—and often black-and-white pictures of them—alongside each product. The MoMA Store, on the other hand, has relied less on designers’ names than on the beauty and functionality of their objects. The result is that while MoMA offers a limited, highly edited collection of goods, Ikea offers thousands of items designed for different needs and tastes.

How do these different retail philosophies affect which designers’ products are carried in each store? On Monday, May 16, as part of Metropolis’s “Next Generation: Crossing Cultures” seminar, Lars Engman, the design manager of Ikea’s PS Collection, and Bonnie Mackay, the creative and marketing director of MoMA Retail, discussed the ways that they search for new products and talent.

For designers in the audience aspiring to a place on either store’s shelves, there were two messages: Make It And They Will Come, or Send It Out And Pray That They Chose It From The Pile.

Engman, who spoke more about Ikea’s design philosophy than about his search process, said that talent is often funneled to him through his contacts at design schools in 30 countries. Indeed: he receives hundreds of portfolios from graduating students each year. Mackay, on the other hand, traverses the globe looking for products; many of her finds seem to rely more on serendipity than research.

While wandering through the Marais in Paris, for example, Mackay spotted Marianne Olry’s delicate drop necklace sparkling in a shop window. It was a popular item in the MoMA store until Olry suddenly announced that it couldn’t be made anymore. Mackay discovered that the jeweler was creating the resin pieces by hand in a classic Parisian garret and persuaded her to make a simpler, less labor-intensive single-drop version of the necklace that MoMA now carries.

Another MoMA store favorite, Osamu Mita’s felted dot scarf, grew out of a practical intervention. When a MoMA associate went to visit a Japanese textile factory, it was so cold that its owner draped yards of Mita’s fabric around his visitor’s shoulders. The material was so beautiful that MoMA decided to sell it as a scarf, even if the multi-colored dots strayed from the store’s traditional palette of black, red, and gray.

Color, on the other hand, is a hallmark of Ikea’s design. According to Engman, the company divides its product line into four categories: Country, Scandinavian, Modern, and Young Swede. Despite Ikea’s Scandinavian heritage, its design team is global: the 16-member, in-house group hails from eight different countries, while the satellite team of seventy freelancers comes from around the world.

Though Engman didn’t reveal how to become an Ikea freelancer, he stressed one group of designers the company wants: women. “When a couple moves in together, everything the man brings in gets thrown away in a year,” he declared, adding that 80 percent of home-furnishing purchases are decided upon by women. As a result, his design team is primarily female, too.

Mackay also thinks from the customer’s point of view. Whenever she is considering a product for MoMA, she pictures the sort of person who might pick it up, try it out, and take out his wallet.

In short—and as Engman and Mackay reiterated—for the designer who is looking to break into the retail market, one adage above all is true: Know Your Customer. Then, with hope, they will come—and choose it.

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