Inventing Ikea’s future, assembly instructions not included

Ikea-funded design agency Space10 has been collaborating with artists and designers from around the world on speculative technology to envision the future of the home.

Everyday Experiments

Space10 is looking to lay out an alternative to the dystopian tone of “Black Mirror” and other near-future sci-fi films and shows.

Image: Space10

Imagine your living room coming alive with lush green grass and colorful flowers, allowing you to take a quick nature walk whenever you need a break. Or a speaker that visualizes sound, with colorful waves of virtual particles appearing on your living room floor. What if your shelves, chairs and plants all triggered sounds, allowing you to play your home like an instrument?

Those are just some of the examples of Everyday Experiments, a series of futurist concepts developed by artists and designers around the world for Ikea — only, you won’t find them at the chain’s furniture stores anytime soon. Everyday Experiments have been curated by Space10, an outside research and design lab funded by the Swedish furniture giant, with the explicit mandate to work “not for the Ikea we know today, but for the Ikea we envision tomorrow.”

“We’re not selling anything we’re making,” said Space10 lead design producer Georgina McDonald. Instead of prototyping products, Everyday Experiments is about figuring out how the world will look like in five to 10 years, and how Ikea will fit into that picture. “A big focus is to help close the imagination gap,” said Space10 head of concept Ryan Sherman. “Put a more positive and hopeful outlook on technology into the world.”

With 30 projects published to date, Everyday Experiments have formed a fascinating catalog of speculative futures. At the same time, the series has also become a case study for companies looking to push the boundaries in R&D, and an illustration of the limits of trying to look years ahead for a company whose business is squarely centered in the here and now.

Furniture as portals into virtual worlds

Space10 has been trying to invent the future on behalf of Ikea since 2015. The agency’s work has included a project that allows everyone to design and manufacture homes for bees, exhibits on the future of urban life and reports on subjects like shared living and the future of youth culture.

With Everyday Experiments, Space10 wanted to work with a wide variety of artists and designers from around the world on fast-track experimentation. The goal: quickly build a digital prototype, publish it and learn from the public’s response. “The benefit for Ikea is essentially to see what type of reaction we get from different concepts that we put out there,” said McDonald.

Image: Space10

To kick off Everyday Experiments, Space10 approached a number of artists and designers in early 2020, asking them to envision the future of the home using advanced technologies. “We started doing partnerships in April 2020, right when lockdowns had happened,” McDonald said. This led to many designers envisioning ideas to make the home more playful and educational.

Amsterdam design studio Random built a prototype for an AR experience called Hidden Characters that lets furniture come alive, complete with googly eyes and moppy hair. London- and Berlin-based Field.Systems imagined people using AR to build imaginary forts in their living rooms, all without having to move a single piece of furniture. And Danish design studio Set Snail reimagined Ikea wardrobes as portals into virtual worlds.

Augmented reality, blockchain and the home as the interface

Many Everyday Experiments make use of AR, in part because it helps to paint the picture for technologies that don’t quite exist yet. “It is a great vehicle for visualizing technology,” Sherman said. At the same time, AR is also a technology that will likely be part of that future itself, be it via AR glasses, or perhaps one day even high-tech contact lenses. “We do see augmented reality being a very plausible future,” he said. “AR has been able to bridge [the] physical and digital in a unique way. It's just like the home in itself becomes an interface.”

Other technologies Everyday Experiments have been exploring include IoT devices, screenless interfaces, spatial audio and blockchain applications. While Space10 initially gave its collaborators a fairly open brief, it has more recently taken a more targeted approach in its explorations, encouraging designers and artists to explore themes like privacy and trust, as well as sustainability and circularity.

On the privacy front, artists Nicole He and Eran Hilleli developed Invisible Roommates, a hypothetical AR app that visualizes the flow of data between devices in your home. Work on sustainability included Chain of Traceability, an experiment that uses blockchain technologies to help consumers identify their household objects and learn about their materials, manufacturing process and even the prior ownership of secondhand furniture. “Blockchain does offer a really interesting new interaction model with physical possessions in the home,” Sherman said.

Nicole He and Eran Hilleli's Invisible Roommates project for Everyday Experiments. Nicole He and Eran Hilleli's Invisible Roommates project for Everyday Experiments.Image: Space10

Getting shut down, hitting a nerve

Sustainability was also at the core of another experiment: Updateables from London-based design studio Oio reenvisions Ikea furniture as always evolving, with people turning chairs into shelves and shelves into tables over the course of years. “It is about updating itself and becoming relevant in new stages of your life,” McDonald said.

Combined with sensors and smarts, this could even point to a future in which our furniture anticipates our needs and reacts to them in various ways. “Your couch could actually send you a text message and say, ‘What happened to us? We had such a good relationship in 2015, and you haven't really used me for the past two years,’” she said. “‘I feel like we're drifting apart. How can I become relevant to you? If you’re not interested, I’ll put myself up [for sale].’”

Any move towards a circular economy would require significant changes from Ikea, which has perfected its way of manufacturing over the decades. “It would flip the entire business model of Ikea on its head,” said McDonald, who admitted that the company almost pulled the plug on the Updateables experiment. “We nearly got blocked, because it was too close to their business model.”

It’s not the first time this has happened. “Mostly because of patents,” explained McDonald. “Other tech companies might think, ‘Oh, is Ikea pouring money into this? Are they investigating this?’ The concern is that someone else will go out and patent every single thing associated with that potential concept and then create a kind of monopoly.”

The flip side of this is also true: If Ikea doesn’t want other companies to patent something, it may in fact be looking to use the technology itself. “When they shut down a project, we might be hitting a nerve, getting closer to what they're interested in,” McDonald said.

A positive spin on technology

Even with the occasional veto, Space10 has worked to rapidly grow the number of Everyday Experiments, with another 10 or so waiting in the pipeline to get published soon. The studio is also getting ready to release a short film about Everyday Experiments in September, and it has plans to explore other ways to exhibit the experiments in the near future.

Through this work, McDonald and Sherman are looking to lay out an alternative to the dystopian tone of “Black Mirror” and other near-future sci-fi films and shows. “‘Black Mirror’ is a future that is plausible,” said Sherman. “It does feel very close to home. But it's a future where technology doesn't work for us. What we're trying to do is create an alternate narrative to that where it can possibly work for us.”

A future, one might add, in which Ikea can play many different roles, with Everyday Experiments simply providing cues from the outside and leaving it up to the company to chart its own path. “If they like something, it's essentially theirs,” McDonald said. “And if we screw up, they don't have to take ownership.”


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