What’s Next Depends on What’s Now, But it’s not a Straight Line


“A home isn’t just a home. When people are safe, healthy and happy in their houses, it enables them to be more in control of their own futures,” says Fernando Assad, social entrepreneur and founder of Programa Vivenda, Brazil. The statement is from 2019's IKEA highlights page. It rings even truer today.

IKEA's new catalog is out. It tells us a lot about where we are, what we're feeling and doing right now as individuals and a society in many parts of the world. Every year, the Swedish company dips into our collective cultural roots and presents us a reflection of what it sees.

Every year, Be Unsocial does a brief review of what the details say about us. Here's 2021's through 21 small details (Italian). Details do matter to your ability to see what's next from what was. IKEA pays attention. That's likely the strongest reason why its growth is everything but flat.

The company is the world's largest furniture retailer with 3.8 billion visits—in store and online.# People feel strongly about the brand experience. Tapping into the zeitgeist with a fresh take is likely a reason why people lined up in front of stores as soon as they reopened in Northern Italy. IKEA brand is valued at 18 billion USD.#


Emotional connection is universal

To tap into it, IKEA brings together designers from different countries and cultures. They co-create the scenarios that will play out in the catalogue. For 2019, Be Unsocial outlined 5 themes:

  1. Belonging: feeling part of a group of people who accept us for who we really are and in places that reflect our identity.
  2. Property: having a home is not just about deeds and mortgages, it's about gaining a sense of control over the space and the place where we live.
  3. Security: feeling safe.
  4. Comfort: feeling good (and comfortable) in the surrounding environment.
  5. Privacy: being able to choose to disconnect and have a place for yourself.

But it's not just about fancy slogans and pretty scenes. IKEA is active in observing life in the communities it serves. Since 2014, they've been releasing life at home reports. They make sense of how are people dealing with change and the transformation they're seeking in their physical space.

In 2019, they found that 29 percent of people surveyed worldwide felt more comfortable outside the home than in the space they live in every day. They also found that a quarter of people leave their homes to find ways to spend time alone and 60 percent of people take their work home. This data impacts product and scenarios.

These themes became critical this year when most people around the world could not leave their homes for extended periods. Hence why the new catalog shows open and lived in spaces easy to reconfigure. Lightness, movement, playfulness, greater functionality and bringing nature inside are all in scenes of the 2021 catalog.


Space is truly a new frontier

But space is many things. In our own research for phase 1.2 of Not Everyday Life, we found that the perception of space went from container that provides a sense of security to negotiate to destination that provides a sense of the sacred to beautify.

Along with renegotiating access to inside and outside, people have been shifting between two poles—cocooning and self-isolating in a personal bubble, yet missing closeness and physical proximity to others. These findings have broader implications on what's missing and what's there and is undesirable.

Through its own research, IKEA found similar themes. Hence why it's proposing creativity corners to cultivate activities that inspire, and also spaces for working—whether it be a corner under a stairway or a small desk that disappears inside a cabinet. It also makes more room for live-in children and teenagers.

Having its roots grounded in European culture, the company plays within smaller spaces. For 2021, they're in touch with the Marie Kondo in each of us. I've talked to many people who expressed a desire to get rid of stuff on both sides of the Atlantic. To make more space, people are re-evaluating their relationship with objects.

At IKEA, they do know space is a matter of perception. But there's also a consideration of privilege. In our global research, we found that big and open space gives people a sense of freedom of movement. We're also renegotiating control of common spaces: who can be where and when, indoors and outdoors.


Reflecting to see better

Because they do such good work of translating observation and research into action, I'm using IKEA as a lens. My aim is to demonstrate how you should think about what's next for your industry and company.

Mirrors are the great protagonists of the 2021 catalog. The mirror on the catalog allows us to see what's on the other side of the lens. Into our homes, it expands and illuminates spaces.

Lenses and mirrors go way back. For the invention of glass, think all the way back to 3500BC in Mesopotamia. The word glass comes from Latin glesum. It's a transparent solid material, typically brittle non-crystalline. It has the ability to reflect, refract, and transmit light without scattering it. 

Lenses and mirrors are also related. We use mirrors for grooming, decoration and architecture but also in scientific apparatus such as telescopes and lasers, cameras and industrial machinery.

The first mirrors were likely water-based. Earliest traces of manufactured mirrors dated to c6000BC in Anatolia (modern Turkey). They were pieces of polished stone such as obsidian, a naturally occurring volcanic glass. Polished copper was used in Mesopotamia from 4000BC and in ancient Egypt from around 3000BC.

Different cultures used what was at hand, but they all had the same idea: invent something to reflect my image onto. In the first century AD, it seems they invented metal-coated glass mirrors in Sidon. Roman author Pliny mentions glass mirrors backed with gold leaf at around 77AD.

By the 16th century, Venetian glass makers invented the method of making mirrors out of plate glass in Murano. They covered the back of the glass with mercury, obtaining near perfect reflection. Venetian mirrors graced the walls of European nobility for 100 years.

In the 17th century, industrial espionage exported the mercury process to England and France. This led to large-scale production and the resulting cheapening of the process eventually led to making mirrors affordable to the masses. The mirrors and glasses used on the set of Victoria are likely Venetian (in style).

200 years ago when Queen Victoria ruled, there was a very different social climate. Still, people wanted to see their reflection. Put those two concepts together, and you may see how there was a greater diversity of styles in Victorian Britain than in the 18th century.


Fashion influences on customs

Victoria was the first Queen to operate in the new century. A wife and mother, and also a ruler, she took her work home. Her biggest contribution to the Royal family as we have it today is that she also took her family public.

Mirrors are lenses of individuals but also society. Monarchs and nobility had the privilege of seeing their own reflection without too much distortion. The newly emerging industrial and business community wanted that as well. Mass production created a difference in styles based on cost, but also taste.

Each societal group tended to use a style that demonstrated their identity and worth. The new commercial classes favored classical designs to echo their established place in society. Hence why the shapes and forms give us clues on the ambitions and desires. Fashion is an artifact of culture at a point in time.

Selfies as ways to see yourself in a scene existed longer before smartphones. They just made them much more affordable. But we used lenses to see ourselves and put us in the scene much earlier. Think about the portraits commissioned and then hung on walls—displays and mementos.

I remember the dark paintings hanging way up on the high walls looking down on me in my father's uncles home. Authority figures. I'm not from nobility that I know, so portraits did go mainstream as well. Today, we hang portraits at eye level, mostly. A more egalitarian view of ancestry. We switched from paintings to photographs.

In 1855, Italian Countess Virginia Oldoini was a guest at the court of Napoleon III of France. They say she was also his lover. She did exert considerable influence on the King and his decisions regarding Italy.

Oldoini was the cousin of Italian statesman Camillo Benso di Cavour. Both were related to nobility. Yet, like Queen Victoria (around 1848) did see the emergence of a new class in the social order.

In 1857, back home, she started playing on her iconic status and became a significant figure in the early history of photography. A fashionista, she staked her fortune on elaborate photo shoots.#

She put herself in the scene she wanted by creating it around her. People do the same the world over in their environments. Think also experiences. If you cannot have a trip to the beach, you bring the beach to your backyard—hence suburbs awash in above ground pools# (faster/most cost effective). I've also seen sand areas in some backyards.


What's next depends on what's human

Fashions come and go. I have some old IKEA furniture of solid pine wood, and some newer that is wood-covered particle. The enduring part is that I need a surface to do my creative work. But how that surface looks depends on many influences.

The new catalog includes a support for your lap—hard on the issues (keeping your analog or electronic notebook stable) and soft on you (comfort tool). People have legs, too (mostly, but this is another conversation).

Desk was ornate and in the middle of the room in British Cornwall at the turn of the 18th century. Even then, when the new merchant class started making money and buying the big homes of nobility ruined by failed mining, desks started to become more functional.

Culture runs deep, it contains the ideas and decisions people have made for a long time. Hence fashion to reinterpret the needs, desires and aspirations of the times with more appropriate tools.

I find that:

  • using culture as a lens helps see as small as microscopic and as far as the universe,
  • looking at tools as mirrors is a powerful way of observing and noticing the details of what's happening.

What's next depends on what's happening now, but it's not a straight line.

Open an IKEA catalog, look at a fashion magazine and what do you see? A bit of everything. Color gradients and blocks—but what colors, patterns, shapes and (now) sounds? Geometry is part of the meaning. Flowers, jungle, and space have also been fashion staples for years. Many contrasting styles all living together (or trying to, like we are).

Minimalism as a response to this chaos goes way back to human nature. Fewer things to own and care for, greater freedom of movement. But if you look at it as a reaction to excess, then it's a more recent fashion.

Although minimalism as a movement started to emerge with the broader availability of new materials such as glass, steel, and concrete at the beginning of the 20th century. As a movement in visual arts, music, and other mediums it began after World War II in Western art, most strongly with American visual arts in the 1960s and early 1970s.

It's an approach that aims to have a Zen-like effect through the intersection of simplicity, utility, and elegance. The idea is to strip away ostentation and non-necessary layers. Simple lines are the strong appeal of luxury items. Great design aims to strip away what's superfluous. In other words, getting back to the core experience. Space as luxury, even the empty space of a park.

That's the process. Strip away what's local and now and you can see what's universal and human.

[image via Be Unsocial]


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