The IKEA a.i.r ROLIG inflatable armchair was one of various pieces of inflatable furniture in the IKEA a.i.r series initiative, which stood for ‘air is a resource’. The products were launched in the 2000 IKEA catalogue.
Designer Jan Dranger had made inflatable furniture back in the 1970s which was sold by KF, the Swedish Cooperative Union. But just like other inflatable pieces of furniture at the time, they leaked and fell flat and were soon discontinued.
In the mid-1990s, Jan Dranger approached Ingvar Kamprad with a revolutionary suggestion. He wanted to show how IKEA could also pack sofas and armchairs into flat packs. Simplifying transport and reducing its cost was a lifelong cause for Ingvar Kamprad, but upholstered seating furniture with heavy wooden frames was a hard nut to crack.
Ingvar Kamprad had a first, secret meeting with Jan Dranger at his summer home outside Älmhult. After thinking it over with a small group of range managers from IKEA, Ingvar invited Jan back. Jan showed prototypes of inflatable plastic sofas, easy chairs, day-beds and stools – light as air, and easy to pack into flat packs. Unlike previous inflatable furniture, these products would also be covered with fabric to keep their shape and better blend into ordinary homes. Once at home, customers had to fill the plastic elements with air from a hair-dryer, before tightening the valve to keep the air in. Then all you had to do was slip the fabric cover on, sit back and relax.
Jan and his company SoftAir didn’t want to reveal too many details about the technical solutions until they had signed a contract. When, much later, the product developers at IKEA got to know the technical details, it was clear that the ROLIG inflatable armchair and its sofa equivalent INNERLIG would cost far more than the initial calculations indicated. By the time the products went on sale in stores, they cost too much. Also, someone at IKEA voiced the opinion that they looked like “a group of swollen hippos” in the furniture displays. The static plastic attracted dust particles and had to be constantly wiped. Also, the feather-weight furniture had a tendency to bounce around.
And the problems continued at customers’ homes. They often forgot to set their hair-dryers to cold air. And because hot air takes up more space than cold air, the furniture started going down after a while as the air cooled. It turned out that the valves leaked too. A plump, cosy ROLIG on Monday was a shapeless, dusty pile of fabric by the weekend. And when you sat down, the easy chair would let out quite an unglamorous ‘pffft’ sound.
ROLIG was not a success. Prices – and the number of returns – were too high, and IKEA a.i.r eventually fell flat.