A man in a white shirt making a bed.

IKEA explores multifunctional furniture to push limits of small space

More than half of the world’s population live in urban areas today – a share expected to grow to two thirds by 2050. For many people living in big cities, the space they can fully make their own is limited. IKEA is exploring different solutions to help people make the most of their space at home, with a range of multifunctional furniture being one of them. We spoke to Yasushi Kusume and Mauricio Affonso about what small space living looks like today and how a range of multifunctional furniture from IKEA might help make it bigger.

When Yasushi Kusume goes back to his native Japan for a visit, he rents an apartment for the duration of his stay. It’ll be a standard, small Tokyo apartment; conveniently located, functional, and simple at 20-25 square metres. It’s perfect for his usually annual, month-long stays, and allows for a space of his own in one of the world’s populous mega cities.

“My sister’s apartment is quite small for me to stay there”, says Yasushi, smiling knowingly as he adds: “From my point of view”.

The perception of space and its size can be quite relative and subjective, and that’s not lost on Yasushi. Not least as he’s spent recent years indulging his curiosity learning more about urban small space living as Exploration Leader and Innovation Development Manager at IKEA. Work that has led to explorations in making multifunctional furniture, as well as many other small space solutions.

“More and more people live in highly dense cities, and our reports show that the global average space at home per person is twenty-four square metres. In a mega city, it’s fifteen”, Yasushi explains.

A man in a brown jacket and blue scarf standing in a room.
Yasushi Kusume, Exploration Leader and Innovation Development Manager at IKEA.

It’s data that has served as springboard for IKEA to have a closer look at life at home for people at the intersection of increased urbanisation and decreased personal space.

What does the everyday look like for them in the home? What would they like for it to look like? And what are the challenges they face in making that everyday a reality? 

Our reports show that the global average space at home per person is twenty-four square metres. In a mega city, it’s fifteen.

Yasushi Kusume.

To try to answer these questions and more, Yasushi and his team at IKEA spoke to seasoned big city dwellers living in small spaces, both shared and single, ranging mostly from 15-75 square metres—and the occasional even smaller space—in New York, London, and Tokyo. The conversations offered a range of personable insights and inspiration for the team to work with.

“In New York, we interviewed some people we would call extreme users of small spaces that outsource life", Yasushi shares.

He explains further: "These people have an apartment but use it just to sleep. All other places, like the kitchen and the shower, would be completely packed with stuff. If they want to have a shower, they go to the gym. If they want to eat, they go to the restaurant. And if they want to meet a friend, they go somewhere else".

Meanwhile, in London, people shared wishes for a more adaptable home that’s also easier to pack up in a move, without compromising on familiarity in a new space. And in Tokyo, many brought up points relating to danshari, a Japanese concept representing not only an uncluttered, calm, and clear home but also living with a few things that stand out in it.

“One thing I was quite surprised by is that many people want to have a guest visit them even in a small space, for dinner or to share a hobby”, Yasushi notes. “So, we had to look at how to change an environment from private to social in a way that helps people be good hosts even in a limited space.”

A sketch of a flexible solution for eating, sleeping and dining.
Early sketches of a multifunctional furniture concept that combines social space with private space.

Turning small space insights into furniture

IKEA is no stranger to solving challenges relating to space in the home with smart storage solutions, and the right ones can go quite a long way in making a space feel bigger. The range of multifunctional furniture currently being explored at IKEA seeks to add flexibility to that, to also allow for different activities within the same space, and a personal touch. While making it more accessible for more people.

“The concept of home is no longer a constant. Many people who live in urban areas see home as temporary rather than permanent, especially those who live in small spaces. We’ve learned that they tend to be renters and move a lot compared to others”, Yasushi says, explaining the insight that led to designing this particular range in a way that does not require the multifunctional furniture to be attached to the wall.

Another takeaway from the small space living insights – as well as other projects explored – is the question of assembly. An age-old IKEA matter that can bring about feelings of accomplishment as well as frustration, it was important to keep in mind throughout the development. It’s also being further investigated to facilitate disassembly and reassembly as well, to make the furniture solutions easier to move with as living situations change.

Two people assembling an IKEA product.
A man with his back towards the camera pointing at a detail on a shelf.

Multifunctional furniture to bring different environments to life

A coffee table and storage that can moonlight as a dining table complete with seats. A sizeable furniture solution that makes for something of a Swiss army knife for life on limited square metres. And a desk-and-bed-solution perhaps particularly apt for the times.

A man in a white shirt is folding a bed together.
A man in a white shirt sitting on a stool at a desk.
Mauricio Affonso, Innovation Development Leader at IKEA.

It’s about the need for creating completely different environments.

The nature of this kind of multifunctional furniture – not least prone to bulkiness, complexity, and a premium price – called for early fast-paced prototyping to really be able to see the proportions and get a feel for it in real life. A closer look at the mechanism, functions, and risk assessment fit for each solution closely followed. But the work also goes far beyond function.

“It’s about the need for creating completely different environments. Many of the solutions that we’re working on are meant to transform your space and create the right atmosphere, whether it’s for privacy or for socialising. You don’t get that with a sofa bed.”

A man standing next to a table and an armchair.
Mauricio Affonso shows different uses of one of the multifunctional furniture solutions currently in exploration at IKEA, with space for dining, sleeping, and relaxing.
A man standing next to a bed, putting his hands on a pillow.

Mauricio’s own favourite solution so far, should he have to choose? Perhaps the most multifunctional of all, lovingly nicknamed Swiss within the project team.

“It’s everything you need within the footprint of a bed. It shows how we can really do so much in just one product”, he says enthusiastically, referring to the solution that makes for a bed, sofa, dining space, and storage all in one. “I think it’s kind of a benchmark for the whole project, a box of surprises that speaks to the potential and versatility of a small space”.

The IKEA range of multifunctional furniture for small spaces will be piloted in Poland and Hong Kong markets in 2023. The concepts currently under exploration will be displayed in their prototype stage at the IKEA Museum, as part of the “Existence Maximum – big ideas on small spaces” exhibition from 15 December 2022 to 3 September, 2023.