A long, curved wooden bench with its seating formed by interlacing rope.

Curved bench developed during Design Indaba

IKEA designer Mikael Axelsson is working together with the Nairobi-based Studio Propolis to develop a curved bench. Last week, during Design Indaba in Cape Town, they met to develop their ideas and prototypes a step further.

Bethan Rayner and Naeem Biviji are a husband and wife duo behind the Nairobi-based Studio Propolis. They have been collaborating with Mikael Axelsson since late last year.

It was in October that sixteen designers – four in-house IKEA designers and 12 designers from seven different African countries – took part in a collective brainstorming session in Älmhult, Sweden. They decided that the theme for their collaboration would be modern rituals.

Bethan, Naeem and Mikael decided to develop a round bench that can be a dining space, a living space and used in public space. It brings people together during the daily rituals of eating and socialising. On its own, the curved bench sits two people comfortably. When you put several together it can become a circular social space.

A sketch of a benches and table that together form a circular shape.

In the original sketches, the team thought that three benches together would make a full circle. After the time in Cape Town, the circle was divided in to five benches instead. This meant that even with four benches you can still create a circular space, but with small gaps in-between for easier access.

They also decided to develop a small stool, that can be used in-between the benches if more seating is needed. “It’s nice that you can fit in so many people in a small space,” says Mikael Axelsson.

Bethan and Naeem came to Cape Town with 1:1 and 1:5 models of the bench. Mikael also produced several models at the Prototype Shop in Älmhult.

Originally the team wanted to use a layered glue wooden material but the connections been the legs and the frame would be too costly. Mikael says they haven’t completely given up on this idea, as they really like the expression. They are looking into using a turning technique to make the legs of the bench, with wooden treads to attach to the bench itself. Mikael says it’s a little like a “big wooden screw.”

“The tricky part,” he said, “is that you want to maintain the expression that was present in the original idea and make it affordable.” Mikael reflected that not every designer thinks about construction and packaging so early in their design process, as they do at IKEA.

Three people inspecting a wooden bench that one of them is sitting on.
Creative meeting in Cape Town. Naeem Biviji, Mikael Axelsson and Bethan Rayner discussing their curved bench.

Experimenting with tradition

As part of Bethan and Naeem’s work in design and architecture, they have experimented with weaving, a technique connected to African traditions. In the images here, the weaving for the seat is using a cotton chord, but the team are looking into using natural fibres.

In the next phase of the project, Mikael will keep making prototypes in Älmhult and Bethan and Naeem in their studio in Nairobi. Experimenting with weaving techniques will be part of this. The weaving used in the final product will be dependent on the production methods, it has to be both quick to make and strong.

As the bench is an arc, it’s tricky to weave the seating. The designers took the chance to do a research trip to a small-scale supplier who specialises in weaving in Cape Town. With the supplier, they were able to look into what was possible and then continue working with some new prototypes the next day. A classic element of IKEA production, bringing a supplier’s knowledge into the design process at a very early stage.

Sketches of a long, curved bench.

The design team is experimenting with woven seating fabric. Not easy to do on a curved frame.

A layer of interlacing, white string over a wooden frame.

Since they’ve all been together in Cape Town they have made a lot changes to the proportions of the bench. The team noticed that when the benches were stacked on top of each other, the stack was too high, so they just chopped off the legs.

Mikael said it’s much easier to do this whilst working on a prototype side-by-side with the people you’re collaborating with. “You can touch it and feel it, change the dimensions if need be, add new wooden pieces if necessary,” says Mikael.

The team has been working together via Skype, email and telephone for almost six months. And despite this taking place over a shaky line between Älmhult and Nairobi, when they all met again Mikael felt like he already knew Bethan and Naeem quite well. He’d seen them working in their enormous studio over Skype. 

Four people looking at pieces of wood on a table.
Bethan and Naeem from Studio Propolis showing Marcus Engman, Head of Design at IKEA and designer Johanna Jelinek their works-in-progress.

Fashion designer Laduma Ngxokolo has been collaborating with Mikael to make a rug that complements the circular bench. As an in-house IKEA designer Mikael tends to work across most categories of furniture design, however, patterns are something he has not encountered so often. “The patterns are amazing, really beautiful,” says Mikael about Laduma’s work. 

Mikael hopes that IKEA customers will see this collaboration as something new and fresh. He wants the skills of the African designers that he has been collaborating with to shine through. The great thing about collaborations, says Mikael, is that everyone brings skills to the table and has the chance to keep new knowledge for the future. “It’s the best thing to come here, it doesn’t make sense to sit in Älmhult when you’re designing for people who live all over the world,” says Mikael.

Sketches of various placements of benches and tables combined.
The bench can be used in different constellations: living, dining and in public space.

Mikael Axelsson has been an in-house IKEA designer since 2013. He has a passion for design in which function, construction and aesthetics can coexist and strengthen each other. 

STUDIO PROPOLIS is a Nairobi-based design workshop set up by husband and wife team Naeem Biviji and Bethan Rayner in 2005. Their work combines a formal education as architects with an informal training as furniture makers. They are passionate about making things and work with different materials across disciplines and scales. The relationship between locally available materials and their own craft culture informs how they make and design. Their workshop forms the core of their studio practice.

Laduma Ngxokolo is a knitwear designer promoting Xhosa culture on the international runways as well as creating socially conscious design.

Design Indaba has become a respected institution in the global creative landscape, based on the foundation of their annual Festival that has attracted and showcased the world’s brightest talent since 1995. today it comprised of a world-renowned Conference, an online publication, a Social DoTank and an annual Festival of Creativity. In 22 years, the Design Indaba Conference has grown to become one of the world’s leading design events, hosting more than 55 speakers and over 5000 delegates annually.