The ends of tightly packed rows of planks.

Finding the new in the forgotten

Turning something useless into gold is deeply rooted in the IKEA DNA. In the quest for a new generation of sustainable materials, Creative Leader Michael Nikolic, uses novel techniques to revive organic solutions for a new collection called HJÄRTELIG.

“I don’t know why anyone in his right mind would do what I do?” says Michael Nikolic, Creative Leader at IKEA, shaking his head with a laugh, trying to verbalise the complicated and often lengthy process of developing new materials.

One of his latest challenges has been working on the all-natural materials collection named HJÄRTELIG (Swedish for “hearty”) set to launch in April 2018. The collection uses materials that engage the senses and create an atmosphere in the bedroom. It includes a bed for sound sleeping, yoga equipment for mindful workouts, air purifying house plants for high-quality air and tea light holders for a serene, calming ambience.

Rattan, linen, better cotton, cork, and solid pine are featured among other materials. Together they illustrate how organic materials are making a comeback in shaping a more sustainable life at home. In combination with the latest in sustainable farming techniques, they present a more sustainable option.

The designers and product developers working on the HJÄRTELIG collection wanted to make something for all the senses. So, texture, appearance and smell were important. Michael Nikolic shows us a beige pillow case: “The pillowcase is made of 100% linen. Traditionally the fabric is made using only the top of the linen straw, but we are using a new technique that makes it possible to also use the crude stem below,” he adds.

Rattan laid out on the ground, a pair of scissors lying next to it.
Putting together rattan prototypes on the factory floor.

Linen is made from the flax plant, which when used in IKEA products, is grown in France, Belgium, Lithuania and Ukraine. It is renewable and biodegradable and usually grown in areas where the crop doesn’t need much irrigation or high level of fertilisers or pesticides. This contributes to its more sustainable properties.

The flax plant is either grown to produce linseed oil, harvested early when the fibre is shorter and thicker or for textile use. In the latter case, the plant is grown longer to get thinner fibres. Also, short fibre flax is a waste product from the long fibre production, utilising more of the plant. Flax Shives, also a leftover waste from production, can be used to make particle boards. In general, linen can be recycled the same way as other textiles.

Reintroducing alternative materials challenges the industry to think and develop in new ways. Often Michael and his colleagues have to start from scratch, building a supply chain. “To be able to use the material industrially in enough quantities, we need to start on a small scale, leading the way for others and supporting the build of such a supply chain,” he says.

My job was to solve the situation, and we ended up building a complete wood factory on site, creating many jobs for the community.

The temporary collections at IKEA like HJÄRTELIG present just such an opportunity since they are made in smaller quantities. “In a couple of years,” says Michael “if lucky, we might be able to use the materials in the main range.”

Other types of obstacles Michael and his co-workers have to overcome to get new materials approved at IKEA is volume demands, recourses, flammability (requirements) and sustainability. “Cost is always something we consider when it comes to product development, but in relation to a more sustainable solution, the choice of a better long term sustainable solution is an easy choice.”

As a Creative Leader, a big part of his job is to tread new paths and lead the way for the rest of IKEA. He remembers when starting the work with acacia wood for the SKOGSTA collection two years ago. Acacia wood is durable, FSC-certified and grows quickly; eight years after being planted in the Vietnam plantation, it is ready to be made into furniture.

“After realising the big potential of the material, problems with supply arose quickly since the supplier’s factory lacked capacity. My job was to solve the situation, and we ended up building a complete wood factory on site, creating many jobs for the community. Typically, you would use 10% of the wood, but in SKOGSTA we created designs that made it possible to raise that number to 40–50%. Great both regarding economy and sustainability.”

An acacia-wood mosaic.
Acacia wood, as used in the SKOGSTA collection.

This is most often the case, he finds. Being more sustainable is a complicated subject with many aspects. But in most cases for IKEA regarding materials, following international standards and the latest research, it means choosing material that is recyclable and used to maximum effectiveness, minimising waste. It is also beneficial with a short timespan from using the resource to when it has been recycled into the system again – either by reuse or decomposed so that the earth can benefit from it.

Many times, natural materials meet these requirements, says Michael Nikolic, which is why a renaissance of them can be one step to a more sustainable life. Like an alchemist, he is driven by the thrill of turning something useless into gold.

We can talk about sustainability one or two more years, but this will all come to be regarded as common sense. Customers will take it for granted that products are more sustainable.

“For me, it’s often about finding new materials that are not petroleum based. Or taking waste like the banana fibre and turn it into weaving material. Or if I can find a more efficient method that reduces waste in manufacturing like in the acacia case. The latter aspect of efficiency is deeply rooted in the IKEA DNA since the company was founded.”

Another example from the HJÄRTELIG collection is boxes made out of seagrass. “Each year rivers in Vietnam as new seagrass grows, the old seagrass floats around on the surface and can be picked up and turned into crafting material.”

Even though Michael Nikolic and his colleagues at IKEA are involved in numerous projects and tests regarding new materials right now, he thinks this will be a non-matter in a couple of years. “We can talk about sustainability one or two more years, but this will all come to be regarded as common sense. Customers will take it for granted that products are more sustainable, I think”.

He has a positive view of the potential in humankind to turn things around. “I believe in the common sense of man both in production and consumption.”

New natural materials are a just a small part of this.

A room with a sofa, a room divider and a canopied bed, all made in a light, airy style.
Prototypes from the HJÄRTLIG collection on display at Democratic Design Days 2017.

Natural materials in the HJÄRTELIG collection:
Better Cotton
 has been used in all IKEA products since Sep 1 2015. This means that the cotton is either recycled or grown with less water, chemical fertiliser & pesticide while increasing profit margins for farmers.
Cork is an impermeable buoyant material, the phellem layer of bark tissue that is harvested for commercial use primarily from Quercus suber (the Cork Oak). Trees having its bark harvested get significantly older than in its natural habitat.
Linen fibres are used for clothing is stronger than cotton but less elastic. It is also less water consuming when grown. Flax mills for spinning flaxen yarn were invented by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse of Darlington, England, in 1787.
Rattan is a renewable material made from climbing palms belonging to subfamily Calamoideae cultivated in Africa and Asia. It can be grown on host trees in secondary forests, fruit orchards, tree plantations or rubber estates where it is easy harvested. Both the skin and the core can be used for home furnishing.
Seagrass is collected from the surface after released from the bottom of the riverbed. Vietnam has a long tradition of turning the material into woven items.
Solid wood is durable, renewable and recyclable. IKEA is one of the founding members of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). By 2020 IKEA will only use source wood from more sustainable sources (FSC certified and recycled wood).