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IKEA Quality

WRITER: HANNAH MAGNUSSON

A man standing in the forest, looking up towards the tree tops.
A photo of Jan Ahlsén, material and innovation specialist at IKEA.

"Just go look at people shopping for clothes. The first thing they do, they’re touching the material. If it feels good, like what you expect it to feel like, then ‘oh wow, that’s quality!’"

Close-up of a work bench with a bamboo worktop on top of a stainless steel bench.

The words come from Jan Ahlsén, Material & Innovation Specialist at IKEA. His love for natural materials started over 40 years ago, with solid wood. “It was by accident I made the switch to bamboo and other nature fibre materials. Now I challenge solid wood,” he chuckles with a twinkle in his eye. “But I believe that everyone has this innate sense of quality.”

A rocking-chair made of handwoven rattan, solid ash and steel, shown against a black background.

How would you describe that feeling?

“It’s about form and function. It’s about fulfilling my expectations, that the furniture works as I expect it to work when I use it. Quality is free - you see, quality itself doesn’t cost anything. It’s the errors that drive costs for both companies and consumers.”

A work bench with a bamboo worktop on top of a stainless steel bench, shown against a black background.

What’s your best shopping advice for spotting high quality?

“It’s a lot about where you are in life. If I’m married and have small kids, then of course I would buy a table with a melamine surface. I think we should help the customer with this. We need to tell them if they have kids who sit and hammer with toys, and the breakfast is all over the place, then there, that’s the table for them. But it can also be twisted around. A couple of years back, IKEA sold a dining table in pinewood and with no surface treatment on it. I had it at home, with small kids at the time. It looked terrible after a couple of weeks. There were marks and scratches everywhere. One year later it was beautiful. Every mark was like a memory. My table became my history book.”

“This is of course if you’re prepared to do some maintenance over time,” he adds with a smile.

Jan Ahlsén, material and innovation specialist at IKEA, holding a stool made of cork and powder coated steel.

How will IKEA use natural materials in the future?

“The IKEA spirit is fantastic because we dare to do things differently. If you look ahead to 2020, 2030, we know already now that we’ll use a lot more materials. But, we’re also aware of materials that don’t possess those expected limitations. An example of this is bamboo; you plant it, and seven years later you can harvest it, without having to replant it. The roots take care of that - extremely sustainable material, right? So, why don’t we do more! I can of course mention cork as well. We only “borrow” the bark, we never cut down the trees.”

“We’re also very aware of the waste that is being generated in the process, and have a lot of initiatives around this today. Going forward we’ll take care of bamboo waste by mixing it together with other natural materials. This turns into something that looks a lot like ceramic,” he points to his coffee cup on the table. “Technically it’s all there, now we just need to make it happen! I think there’s a lot of future there, even from a customer perspective, and IKEA product development is very much at the forefront of this.”

Rattan and paper are two other materials to keep an eye on in the future:

“It’s great for storage because it allows items to breathe, and it’s better for the environment. Materials like this give us that cosy feeling at home,” Jan concludes with a warm smile.

Did you know…

…that bamboo has the exceptional ability to cleanse the air from substances like benzene, formaldehyde, chloroform, carbon monoxide and xylene?

Unlike most trees, it only needs eight months to fully grow, and never requires replanting - it will continue to grow new shots from its root system. Lastly, let’s not forget to mention its unique ability to absorb moisture, handling the dampest of environments. Thanks to this, IKEA has created the essential bamboo-made collection, RÅGRUND.

…that there are 90 different types of rattan?

You might have seen it used for products like RÅDVIKEN, the funky and comfy IKEA PS GULLHOLMEN, and for stackable AGEN. It’s one of few materials that hold up to extremely high degrees of humidity. For this reason alone it’s a great material for outdoor use. As a bonus it’s comfortable and durable.

…that it takes about 20 years for a cork tree to fully grow?

The cool thing about cork is that the bark is what is carefully cut away while the tree itself survives, allowing it continue growing and producing fresh layers of bark. Then the process may be continued with 9-year intervals. Thanks to its peculiar cell structure, cork doesn’t absorb anything - which is why the SINNERLIG table won’t be ruined after those accidental spills of wine or coffee.

And some more highlights…