Two smiling men lying on their backs, side by side on a lawn.

Designing products for life

On the 31st of March, product developers Ricky Ericsson and Krister Nilsson will walk out of IKEA of Sweden in Älmhult for the last time. Going with them will be more than 80 years of knowledge about product development at IKEA. We caught up with them whilst they were on a short break from developing their last collection with IKEA, YPPERLIG, a collaboration with Danish HAY Design.

Ricky Ericsson and Krister Nilsson are both engineers. Ricky had planned to build bridges and roads for a living but took a temporary job with an IKEA supplier. He could do technical drawings, a skill at much needed IKEA. In 1975 he made a move to Älmhult and never left. “I am going to miss the possibility to travel and meet suppliers and watch production. And the social part, working in a team and working together. It’s not just a job, it’s a way of being together,” says Ricky.

In 1974 at the age of twenty-two, Krister Nilsson got his first job at IKEA. That he ended up at IKEA, is maybe not such a surprise. His father was there in the early days. Krister isn’t 100% certain, but he thinks he was employee number fifteen. Being born and bred in Älmhult, IKEA naturally runs in the family, his uncle was Head of the Prototype Shop. “Älmhult is a small community where there are plenty of jobs. Since I started, they have just rolled in. I’ve been lucky to have had so many and develop during this time. It’s been huge,” says Krister.

I am going to miss the possibility to travel and meet suppliers and watch production. And the social part, working in a team and working together. It’s not just a job, it’s a way of being together.

It was in the IKEA Test Lab that Ricky and Krister met for the first time. Back when it was located in the basement of the first IKEA store. Ricky came to do some tests, Krister was working there. It wasn’t until the nineties that they started to work together, in “bedroom and bathroom” as Ricky calls it, in other words, developing bedroom and bathroom products.

Developing future classics

Asking for a quick run-down of the projects they have been a part of is like falling into a rabbit hole of IKEA history. During their time at IKEA they, of course, played a role in developing IKEA classics. For Ricky, it’s KLIPPAN and POEM (now called POÄNG) and for Krister, it’s the PAX series. “Flat products are my home territory”, says Krister. Ricky is known for his extensive knowledge of working with metal and upholstery.

It was in Shanghai that Ricky and Krister took their partnership to the next level. Krister moved to there early in 2011 to establish the IKEA Product Development Centre. He describes the experience as his best years at IKEA – “even if they were towards the end.” It took him two years to convince his colleague to join him. “Ricky has an ability to teach others in an outstanding way,” says Krister, and there were lots of local employees who needed to learn about production.

A man looking sideways, standing next to a concrete wall.

Krister Nilsson, Product Developer

A black-and-white portrait of a smiling man with his eyes closed and hands half raised.

Ricky Ericsson, Product Development Engineer

Retirement plans thwarted

They’ve worked all over the world – from Eastern Europe and Italy in the 80’s via Thailand and China and now finally, back in Älmhult. Krister mostly has stayed on the product development side, but Ricky has strayed over into other positions in economy and purchasing. Valuable experience to take with him when developing products. Technically, Krister is a Product Developer, and Ricky is a Product Development Engineer. Ricky’s role is more focused on the technical parts but in their partnership “we’re not so much focused on roles, more on results,” says Krister.

The plan was to retire when they returned to Sweden in 2015, but, there was one last project that they couldn’t resist. Ricky couldn’t say no because developing products is just so much “damn fun.”  

A designer, they come in in the beginning and then step out. The product developer, they are there the whole way making improvements.

Most of the sketches for YPPERLIG, the collaboration with HAY Design, were complete upon their return to Älmhult. “It’s a big collection,” says Krister, “they were aiming for thirty-five pieces but no-one wanted to take anything away, so now it’s up around sixty-five.” The products are from a variety of categories, from sofas to serviettes. Half of which are being manufactured in Asia, giving you an idea of the expansive role of a product developer. Krister explained: “A designer, they come in in the beginning and then step out. The product developer, they are there the whole way making improvements.” Ricky continues, “it’s our job to manage the communication with the supplier and to ensure manufacturing of a collection, that there are machines that can do it.”

Ricky and Krister have built up an extensive network of suppliers. Krister makes the point that they normally are told what to do, but “if you have a relationship with them, then they open up, and we start to solve problems together.” They both find this dialogue between designer, supplier and product developer inspiring, “there is always something you can change or improve or solve,” says Ricky.

Speeding up product development

The Product Development Centre (PDC) in Shanghai was established to speed up product development. Having a PDC in Shanghai means being able to start working on the factory floor with the supplier even earlier. “The best way to work,” according to Ricky. Instead of sending products back forth between Sweden and China, the development team can visit a factory after a couple of days.

Their first project at the PDC was a bedroom set consisting of a double bed, wardrobe and bedside table. But they worked backwards, they started with a maximum price of 2500 Renminbi (roughly 350 USD) found suppliers and then developed the products. Today TRYSIL, designed by brother-sister design duo Knut and Marianne Hagberg, is a top seller in the IKEA range.

IKEA, at its core, is not so different to when Ricky and Krister started. For example, teamwork was as important an ingredient in the design and product development process when they started as it is today. What is incredibly different is the number of people involved in the process. “The way that products are developed today is much more detailed and refined,” says Ricky. Mostly because of increased standards of testing and stricter environmental regulations. “And logistics,” Ricky says, “that is completely different to how it was once upon a time.”

Two men standing on a lawn, each holding a slimline work lamp.
Designed and developed in Älmhult. Ricky and Krister holding lamps from their last collection with IKEA – YPPERLIG, a collaboration with HAY Design.

Life after IKEA

Ricky’s journey at IKEA has been unique because he has covered both the manufacturing, economy and product development areas. Krister is more hands-on than many other product developers at IKEA. He’s “quite comfortable carrying around planks of wood,” he says.

Their partnership is not a life-long collaboration, such as the brother-sister design duo Knut & Marianne Hagberg, who started at the same time as Ricky and Krister. They both have what Krister describes as “a little IKEA common sense that has been imprinted over the years.” When they’re sitting next to each other in Älmhult they don’t need to speak so much; they understand each other. Their knowledge and experiences complement each other, they have a similar view on things both in general and at IKEA.

Ricky says it feels good to be retiring, “but you don’t know until you’ve tried it.” Krister has already been asked if he’d be able to come in and help out, he’s relatively positive to the idea “as long as it isn’t too often.”

What is it that they have learnt while working their whole careers at IKEA? Ricky sums it up as follows: “I don’t think I was so open minded when I started working at IKEA. I had never met so many different cultures, that has been the biggest lesson. There are so many that point out our differences today instead. It’s fun to test other people’s ways of thinking and contemplating, it’s an enriching process. And then you don’t always have to agree of course.” But after spending time talking about the past with these two, it is abundantly clear that over the years they have had a really great time as well.

Fast facts about Krister Nilsson 
Education: Technical Education Haganäs school Älmhult, 1972
Born in: Älmhult, Sweden
Worked at IKEA since: 1974
First product developed for IKEA: Kitchen named System 210, due to the height of the kitchen, the first IKEA kitchen made in particleboard.
Favourite IKEA product: It changes over time but right now FABRIKÖR glass/metal cabinet
Products developed for IKEA: No clue, but probably 400 -500 hundred
One thing you can’t live without? Snus
What was the last picture you took with your phone? I’m renovating a house in my free time, I took a picture of the roof construction.
What makes you happy? When my family feels good.
What makes you sad? All crazy violent things happening around us.

Fast facts about Ricky Ericsson
Education: Zimmermanska Technical High School, Västerås, 1972.
Born/grew-up in: Enköping and Västerås, Sweden.
Worked at IKEA since: 10th of February 1975
First product developed for IKEA: Construction drawings of an easy chair named MICRO, in IKEA range L. (It didn’t get a very long life!)
Favourite IKEA product: POEM armchair, today named POÄNG. I still think it’s an extremely comfortable armchair at a very affordable cost.
Products developed for IKEA: No idea, but somewhere around 300 at least.
One thing you can’t live without? Other people that I can talk to and work with.
What was the last picture you took with your phone? I’m one of those strange people that would have no problem living with a mobile that doesn’t have a camera function, but the latest photo I took was of one of the products I’m working with now.
What makes you happy? When I can make my 4 grandchildren laugh and when my friends and family have a good and healthy life.
What makes you sad? When you look around in the world and see what people are capable of doing to other people in the name of politics and religion but in the end just to gain more own power.