Portrait of a woman beside a plant.

Maria on weaving stories with design

Her parents’ old chairs she once thought were ugly are now proudly on display in the living room. The IKEA sofa made in a supermarket trolley factory is another thing she will never let go of. We talked to Maria about the story behind a product—and design with a clear social purpose.

In Maria’s kitchen are the chairs she once thought were the ugliest thing. She remembers them from growing up in Belgium, and when the family moved to Sweden her parents tucked them away. Twenty years later Maria found them in the basement and asked if she could have the chairs. Today she loves the Bauhaus chairs and would never let go of them because she knows the story behind them.

“Now when I know the story about the German art school Bauhaus and how ground-breaking this design was the chairs mean a lot to me. I revaluated them and I really love them,” says Maria.

Maria O’Brian works as a creative leader at IKEA which means a responsibility for the colour and material direction as well as the visual direction for the coming years and leading short term vitality collections. She knows the importance of the story behind a product and how you create an emotional attachment when you know why it is made and by whom.

“It’s like with people, the more you know each other the more attached you are. It is the same with design. The story behind a product can be fundamental in the decision in keeping something or letting go.”

A man and two women working with pots, baskets and plants at a black workbench.

Right now she is working with BOTANISK, a collection for urban potting and planting. The pots, tool kit, and hanging storage nets are being designed and produced together with social entrepreneurs in five countries, each specialised in different materials and techniques but all with a mission to help people in vulnerable communities.

“There is such a clear purpose for these products. They are produced to create jobs for people in areas where they really need them, and it makes it much easier for me to justify making things. Obviously, with the sustainability aspect in the back of our heads, we have to constantly question ourselves and why we produce and consume,” says Maria.

On a visit with one of the social entrepreneurs, a women’s collective in India, she was once again reminded about what it takes to be skilled at handicraft. Maria and her team brought sketches and started discussing the design. The women then showed Maria a macramé technique they used for banana fibres.

“We immediately decided to use the twist and twine technique for a hanging storage nest. The master weaver tried to teach us how to do it, but I failed miserably. They are really masters.”

Two women braiding strands of a natural material beside a workbench in a workshop.

While she may not have had any success with the banana fibre macramé, Maria is certainly no slouch when it comes to handicraft. She started with silversmithing and after a while veered towards art. When she discovered welding and started to construct pavilions and furniture.

“My parents still have a welded table I made. It will never fall apart, but it will never flatpack either!”

When she applied for a degree in industrial design she did it with a portfolio she describes as a bit “artsy and confusing” and working with design was definitely not the plan from the beginning.

“I improvised! Now I think it is perfect the way it happened, because everything feeds into what I do at IKEA today. I ended up falling in love with design and the fact that design can change behaviours, attitudes and systems—design really is bigger than the object itself.”

She still has a soft spot for metal design. Once she found an old IKEA sofa from the 1980s in a second-hand store. The steel-framed MOMENT sofa was designed by Niels Gammelgaard and manufactured in a supermarket-trolley factory. When you look at the sturdy frame you can really see the trolley design. The story behind the sofa is something Maria likes to tell when she has friends over, and MOMENT will always follow her wherever she goes.

“It is completely flat pack, which is nice because I live on the fourth floor with no elevator,” says Maria.

A pair of hands comparing colour samples in different nuances of green.

Are we more interested in the story behind a product today?

“People are more driven by a care for sustainability and have an understanding for the complexity behind consumption and production. When you are more conscious about consumption you want more information about a product, and are more interested in knowing the story,” says Maria.

The collection BOTANISK will be in stores next year, and Maria has just started the next collaboration with a social mission. She will be working with ceramics, textiles and banana fibres with the same social entrepreneurs and designers based in India, Jordan and Thailand.

“The collection LOKALT will be modern and quirky. Definitely less traditional than before, but we are going to build in the stories of the local traditions,” says Maria.

Different handwoven baskets lying on a floor beside a handwoven beige rug.

Five facts about Maria:

Where and when: Born 1991. Grew up in Belgium and Sweden. Lives in Malmö, Sweden.

How would you describe your home: “Colourful, surrounded by art and lots of plants. But I am a bad plant mother.”

Handicraft project: “Me and two friends bought a tufting machine and now we are trying to learn how to make rugs up in my attic. It is a surreal machine, and my dream machine for a long time.”

Favourite podcast: “Invisibilia” by NPR and “Revisionist History” with Malcolm Gladwell. They both force me to reevaluate and rethink my view on both things and concepts I have around me. 

Wish I did better: I wish I didn’t consume as much as I do, there are so many smart ways of minimizing waste and repurposing objects nowadays, but it’s something I need to actively work on incorporating in my routines.