Two persons outside a round white building under a blue sky.

Small space living in infinite space

Who would better understand extreme small space living than those training for space travel? We returned to the Utah desert and the habitat designed to simulate a mission to Mars. This time we brought IKEA furniture for the limited space shared by the scientists.

Whether you live in a tiny Tokyo loft apartment that looks more like an office cubicle, or you are an early bird sharing a small place in Manhattan with night owls, small space living is a challenge. IKEA has been working with developing small space living solutions for a long time, and home visits are one way to test and improve IKEA products. Stepping into someone’s everyday reality is a perfect way to learn about the challenges and possibilities when space is limited. Why not learn from those who truly know what extreme small space living is about – people preparing for a trip into the infinity of space.

The Mars Desert Research Station is located in the Utah desert. It features a duplicate of a habitat designed for the human exploration of Mars, and The Mars Society chose the desert location because of its Mars-like terrain and appearance. Researchers and students from all over the world come here to study how humans can survive on the Red Planet.

People unloading a lorry into a white building with a metal door.

The habitat — a domed cylinder that measures about 8 metres in diameter — is where the six-person teams live and work for weeks. On the lower deck, they share a lab and a workshop area, and the upper deck consists of a kitchen and six tiny bunk rooms for sleeping and privacy. How the small space in the habitat is divided into work and sleep areas are very well thought through, says Dr Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society.

“We chose to maximize communal space and minimize private space. Each crew member has a small bunk they can retire to when they want to be alone, but the space they share is fairly large. This decision was based on field experience in the Arctic, where I observed that in good expeditions people chose to hang out together in the main tent, and only retire for sleep in their private tents,” says Robert.

A very small room with a bed with white bed linen, a white wall lamp and a black stool.

Clear-glass helmets stacked on a black shelving unit beside two oxygen tanks on the floor.

How is the sleep-wake cycle affected when you share a small space with a crew?

“It is necessary to have the whole crew on the same sleep-wake cycle. This is necessary anyway, to maximize the social space of the crew. When you want to be alone, you can go to your bunk and read. Or, if everyone is upstairs hanging out around the kitchen table, go downstairs and get some work done,” says Robert.

How do you stay healthy in the habitat? Work out? Yoga?

“Some crews work out, either individually or together. Some just maintain a very energetic exploration program. Hiking in a spacesuit is a workout.”

A man and a woman with yellow chairs and black stools in a doorway, with mountains in the background.

Lab equipment and a metal table lamp on a white table by a window.

Christina Levenborn, who has worked as an interior designer for IKEA for many years, stayed in the spacecraft-like environment together with an IKEA team two years ago to experience shared small space living and how that might be relevant to urban life in megacities. She evaluated that experience and has now returned with carefully selected IKEA products for the habitat to test how existing IKEA products can be used in this extreme “home” and how they can be improved.

What kind of IKEA products did you bring?

 “We tried to work with products for small space living situation that could be arranged in a flexible and multifunctional way. For the habitat, we brought products on wheels for mobile living, stools for seating and table surfaces and stackable chairs for saving space.”

A man working with lab equipment on a table by a window, beside a telescope and a trolley with more equipment on it.

The very first challenge they had to tackle was the round walls when installing a kitchen on the upper floor. For the lab and the workshop, they used the durable and lightweight storage system BROR, designed for heavy work. In the outside lab, they used KULLABERG stool, KUNGSFORS kitchen trolley and BEKANT desk with a sit and stand function.

“In a small space where many people have to share workspaces, it is important to be able to adjust to everyone’s needs, whether they prefer to work standing or sitting. Same thing with the stools that are adjustable and can be used either for sitting or as a table surface. The chairs are stackable, and the trolley is easy to move around,” says Christina.

People working with technical equipment inside a round white room with white cabinets on the wall.

What do we hope to learn from the “home visit” at MDRS in Utah?

“We always want to test and improve our range, and from MDRS, we hope to learn more about living in extremely small spaces and how our products can be used. There is also knowledge to gain about the scarcity of material, repurposing and sustainable living. Preparing for this kind of scarcity on Mars puts a focus on all the good things we have on earth that we take for granted,” says Christina.

Brown, black and metal pots stacked on grey metal shelving, in front of ribbed-glass windows.

A team of researches in front of a round white building.

At IKEA, we will continue learning from people living in extreme living spaces to test and improve our range. Stay tuned for more stories!