First lady of IKEA design

Karin Mobring

It was love at first sight when Ingvar Kamprad spotted a wooden chair by a designer named Karin Mobring in 1964. With an eye for materials and a talent for designing comfortable, quality furniture with wide appeal, Karin was about to become the first female IKEA designer.

More than half a century on, a renewed interest in her work has made her a big name in auction houses around the world and an important figure in IKEA's rich design (her)story.

A photo of designer Karin Mobring with a crooked frame drawn around her.

A passion for craft

Born in 1927 and raised in Östersund in central Sweden, Karin’s creative path began with ceramics. A few years into her studies at Stockholm’s University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, her interest turned instead to furniture and she enrolled in the school of the renowned Swedish furniture designer and master craftsman Carl Malmsten. Under Malmsten’s tutorage she learned about craftsmanship, quality and crucially, comfort.

After graduating in 1951, Karin returned to Östersund to help her father Arvid Persson, a civil engineer. She worked on the interior design of his projects, which included apartments, homes and offices. She also continued to draw furniture. Then, in 1964, a wooden armchair she designed was displayed at the Stockholm Furniture Fair. It was spotted and admired by Ingvar and Karin was hired to join the IKEA design team that same year, working alongside Gillis Lundgren, Erik Wørts and Bengt Ruda.

She made her debut In the 1966 IKEA catalogue with her peers. It included a number of products designed by Karin, including the PEGGY highchair, NIRAK hall mirror and INGRID chair.

Karin with colleagues Erik Wørts (left) and Gillis Lundgren (centre)

Icons in the making

By the 1970s Karin had become regarded as one of IKEA’s most productive and trendsetting designers. Her furniture design became prolific, from the LONDON series of chairs and footstools in lacquered beech with an upholstered seat and back to the AMIRAL armchair, launched in 1970.

Featuring a steel tubing frame with the seat, back and armrests made from high-end saddle leather from a local saddle maker in Killeberg, AMIRAL was a hit. However, the saddlery couldn’t keep up with the demand for the leather details and the construction of the frame meant the chair couldn’t be flat-packed, so it was discontinued. It returned later in a flat-pack version, upholstered in canvas.

LONDON Chair, launched in 1969

A new generation of homemakers

Although rooted in classic, rural Scandinavian style, Karin was also a very versatile designer, as her back catalogue of around 100 IKEA products attests. While the TORPET chair, inspired by the traditional Windsor chair, and the NATURA armchair illustrated her knowledge and respect for classics and craftsmanship, her KARUSELL coffee table made of particleboard and KATINKA chair and sofa in bent, lacquered plywood, designed in the popular 60s futuristic style, tapped into the zeitgeist.

KARUSELL chairs and KATINKA table, 1969

With the launch of KRUMELUR in 1972, Mobring was targeting a relatively new market for IKEA - the younger generation. The emergence of youth culture in the 1960s gave birth to a new breed of homemakers who weren’t looking for the classics found in their parents’ homes. They wanted bold prints, bright colours and new materials, along with affordability.

On the year of its launch, KRUMELUR with its curved, lacquered metal frame and seat constructed from fire hose fabric, propped with generous cushions, was featured on the front cover of the IKEA catalogue with the modest price tag of just 68 Swedish Kronor.

The STOCKHOLM collection

The 1980s, was about material wealth and extravagance, and IKEA faced an interesting challenge, to create "new antiques" for customers seeking a bourgeoisie look for their home. In keeping with the IKEA philosophy of design for all, later termed democratic design, it seemed unfair that the most beautiful Swedish furniture should be reserved for the rich. The STOCKHOLM collection, a range of products with a focus on quality, function and materials, would pay homage to the best of Swedish and Central European furniture traditions.

With her traditional, rustic upbringing and her training under the master craftsman Malmsten, not to mention her talent for interpreting modern tastes, Mobring was perfect for the job. Working in collaboration with fellow IKEA designer, Tomas Jelinek, a Czech designer trained in Central European furniture traditions, the debut STOCKHOLM collection was launched in 1985. Karin was to work on one more collection before her retirement in 1993, but STOCKHOLM continued.

The front cover of the first STOCKHOLM collection catalogue, published in 1986

Under the hammer

"Products such as AMIRAL and NATURA are appealing because they have a timeless design language which is retro, yet modern at the same time and works well with all types of interiors." - Maria Granström, Antiques expert

Karin Mobring passed away in 2005. Although her catalogue of more than 100 designs for IKEA are no longer in production, more than half a century on, her products remain popular. The trend for Scandinavian design, coupled with a growing interest in vintage IKEA furniture has created a renewed interest in her work. Classics such as the NATURA armchair and the original AMIRAL chair in leather from 1970 have become highly sought after on the vintage market.

“We’ve seen a lot more Karin Mobring furniture showing up at auction, and her work is becoming more expensive. Products such as AMIRAL and NATURA are appealing because they have a timeless design language which is retro, yet modern at the same time and works well with all types of interiors”, explains antiques expert Maria Granström. NATURA chairs have sold for as much as 14,000 SEK at auction in Sweden, while in the US, Scandinavian design collectors can expect to pay almost 3,000 dollars.

A lasting legacy

Few designers have made such an impact on the IKEA style. Karin's respect for craftsmanship, an understanding of the importance of quality materials and a talent for creating versatile, timeless products continue to inspire generations of IKEA designers to this day.