IKEA Design Manager Eva Lilja Löwenhielm looking at material and colour samples on a wall.

Eva on strong design and a growing team

Eva just went through the challenging and liberating process of downsizing into a smaller home, but soon her IKEA design team will double in size. We talked to the Design Manager about IKEA design identity, Democratic Design, future collaborations and what makes a home.

When Eva Lilja Löwenhielm stepped in to lead the team of in-house designers at IKEA last autumn, she did it with the ambition to create an even stronger design team. After four months in her new role, she is ready to see the department grow to about twice its size.

Today there are 18 in-house designers in Eva’s team. Most of them you will find in Älmhult, Sweden, one designer is based in Delhi, India, and four in Shanghai, China. But the team is going to grow a lot bigger.

“Isn’t it exciting! From the very beginning, IKEA has been promising to create a better everyday life for the many people. Today we want to make our affordable design accessible to even more people around the globe. At the same time, the world today is not what it was 60 years ago, new times put new demands and expectations. This means that we at IKEA need a strong base for the growth, that is why we have taken a strategic decision to invest in our design competence and grow our in-house design team. The ambition is to grow the in-house design department with about twice its size in a stepwise approach over a period of two years,” says Eva.

Eva’s journey with IKEA started back in 1996 when she, after working with advertising and interior design for theaters and fairs, joined the design department as part of a scholarship project, and one of the very first products she designed was the BLEKEN bathroom set. Soon afterwards, as an independent designer in Stockholm, she began a long freelance partnership with IKEA.

She still has the white bathroom cabinet, the matching mirror and the shelf from her first year at IKEA. Would she have designed it differently today?

“Probably not! I wanted to make a simple but versatile product that even students like myself could afford. I remember that I used laminated plywood for the cabinet. I still like the set,” says Eva.

A bathroom with grey and white tiles with a BLEKEN mirror cabinet, shelf and towel hanger in plywood and white melamine.

A detail of a large, round, red, tufted wool rug with relief circles from the IKEA PS Collection.

Above: The BLEKEN bathroom set from the 2000 IKEA catalogue and the tufted wool rug from the PS collection.

Another product that remains close to her heart is the big red round hand-tufted wool rug from the PS collection she designed in the late 90s. It is her very favourite for many reasons.

“The PS rug represents the beginning of my journey as a freelance designer for IKEA, and I love the collaborative part of the design work. It was the first time I worked in a big team and we developed the design on the factory floor. It was a huge carpet, much bigger than the pallet used for shipping it!” says Eva.

The PS rug was part of the range for more than ten years and became an IKEA icon representing what Democratic Design stands for: beautiful and functional product of long-lasting quality at a very affordable price. The rug was also a centerpiece in her own home for many years. Recently she rolled it up and passed it forward when she and her husband decided to downsize. They left a big house outside of town for a much smaller apartment in Stockholm.

“We are right now exploring a new era in our lives, and downsizing has been tough. It has been hard work adjusting to a home one fourth the size.”

IKEA Design Manager Eva Lilja Löwenhielm sitting on a grey sofa.

What have you learned from downsizing a home?

“We have learned what is truly essential, and that it is the people that make a home a home … and our cat, of course. Although, the cat is not very happy about it.”

How do you decide what to keep and what to pass forward?

“It is a lot about what is practical and usable. One example is my STOCKHOLM side table. It is also about the small pieces that are emotionally important in our everyday life. It could be the ceramics we use when we set the table or the handmade products we have bought or received as a gift. And of course art! Some we have collected over the years and some made by people we know,” says Eva.

Moving to a smaller place and really thinking about what is important and what makes a home a home, is very useful knowledge when designing products. One of many principles Eva and her team work with is designing to help people consume responsibly.

How do you do help people consume responsibly through design?

“By designing products you can use for a very long time and for different purposes. I think a stool or a step stool is a good example. You can use it in the kitchen to reach the top shelf, the kids can sit on it, you can use the step stool as a bedside table, or if you are older and need something to sit on when you put on your shoes in the hallway,” says Eva.

Another example is creating products that are easier to repair and recycle. For example, by avoiding combining materials that can’t easily be separated and sorted for recycling. To Eva, this is just as important for design as beautiful form and smart functions.

Sustainability is one of the five principles of Democratic Design. Democratic Design comes from the IKEA perspective that everyone has the right to a better everyday life, and good design is the right combination of form, function, quality, sustainability and a low price. The product development team has to find the right balance of all these elements when the design process begins.

Many people around the world cannot afford IKEA products. How can design make IKEA products even more affordable?

“By truly understanding the need, listening to the customer and applying this knowledge in our design process. For example, in most cases, we reduce instead of adding material, and we do that to clarify the product and not to compromise on our Democratic Design principles. By staying close to our suppliers and understanding the production capabilities, we can manufacture in an efficient way. This way we also make our products more affordable. We also strive to work even more with components that can be used for many different products. I like to compare it with cooking where you have fewer ingredients for many different dishes,” says Eva.

Innovation is also an important part in making IKEA products more affordable, accessible and sustainable, and Eva describes a long history of innovative design from flat-packed furniture and more recently making assembly both easier and much faster with the wedge dowel.

“We are looking into new materials that are both affordable and good for the planet. For example, how can we work with wood and natural fibres for future beds and sofas? We are exploring many areas and see many interesting opportunities, new applications and challenges to do things differently when it comes to the design process,” says Eva.

If you look ten years down the road. In what way has IKEA design changed?

“I hope that the design will be as strong as it is today, and included in every step when we develop a product. That we continue to develop our identity by designing products that bring ideas, needs, wishes and dreams of the many people, to life. We will be pushing the boundaries and challenging conventions and be at the forefront to create affordable and sustainable products.”

IKEA is collaborating with LEGO, SONOS and Zandra Rhodes, for example. What kind of collaborations would you like to see in the future?

Through collaborations, we can push our curiosity, dig deeper in topics that surround us in the world and make collections that strengthen our design identity. For example, today we have a collaboration with World Surf League to inspire action to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans and collaborate on a jointly designed surf-centric range of products, connecting sustainability with an active life and mobile living. I would love to see more collaborations around saving water and doing the best we can to help the planet and the people who cannot take clean water for granted,” says Eva.

Finally, you are now looking for in-house designers to join the team. What is important for IKEA when you look for a designer?

“It is important that you as a designer have a passion for great design, details and proportions and are curious about creating products that make everyday life better and are good for us and the environment. And you should also be good at exploring and collaborating in teams,” says Eva.

Eva Lilja Löwenhielm

Born: 1969 in Stockholm

Lives in: Stockholm and Älmhult

Favourite IKEA product: I have many — and right now the 365+ pitcher, UNDERLÄTTA thermos, SKURUP and STORUMAN lamps and SNARUP bed. The FÖREMÅL tray and candle holder and LÅNGFJÄLL office chair are some of the products that I use every day.

A product I would have designed differently today: HOPPIG children’s sofa.

Most important in a team: Trust!

Describe your home: Warm, functional and compact. Solid and earthy colours.

A future material I would like to work with: Wood wool.