An inflatable story

The idea that fell flat

A hair dryer sits on top of the inflatable sofa INNERLIG. An orange textile cover is draped over one armrest.

In the mid-1990s, Swedish furniture designer Jan Dranger came to IKEA with a revolutionary suggestion. He thought he had the solution to one of Ingvar Kamprad’s biggest challenges: how to pack sofas and easy chairs 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. Inflatable sofas, light as air and packable in flatpacks, sounded like a dream to him, and to IKEA.

There had been attempts to mass produce inflatable design furniture since the late 1960s, when four young designers in the Italian Anti-Design movement created the chubby Blow easy chair, a pop icon in transparent PVC, for the company Zanotta. It was described as being ideal for modern young urbanites with a mobile lifestyle: easy to carry around in a backpack, inflate as required and pack away once the party was over.

Man in orange T-shirt lifts blue sofa with one hand to vacuum underneath it.
Inflatable sofas sounded like the perfect solution for IKEA and Ingvar Kamprad.

Floating on air

In Sweden, inflatable furniture was first presented in the 1970s by the young company Innovator, founded by University College of Arts, Crafts and Design graduates Jan Dranger and Johan Huldt. Their inflatable easy chairs and mattresses were sold by the Swedish Cooperative Union (KF), but like other similar products at the time, they didn’t stay inflated and were soon discontinued.

Jan Dranger could never let go of his idea about creating great inflatable furniture. In 1995, when he contacted Ingvar Kamprad, Jan had developed a brand new concept which he called SoftAir. Using new technology and innovative materials would make the furniture stronger and more user-friendly. One improvement was that the SoftAir products no longer needed to be inflated using compressed air. The new air furniture was made from durable polyolefin plastic, which could be inflated at home using an ordinary hair dryer.

Young man in dungarees sitting on the floor in a photo studio, inflating a plastic pillow with a hair dryer.
The inflatable polyolefin plastic furniture could easily be inflated using a hair dryer.

Secret meeting

Ingvar Kamprad and Jan Dranger had their first face-to-face meeting at Ingvar’s summer home outside Älmhult. Jan was soon asked back to meet a small group of range managers and business area managers from IKEA. He showed prototypes of inflatable plastic sofas, easy chairs and stools – light as air, and easy to pack into flatpacks.

“They had a few inflatable sofas with them, draped in nicely coloured loose covers,” remembers Tomas Paulsson, who was business area manager for sofas and easy chairs at the time. Jan Dranger explained that the covers would help the furniture keep its shape and better blend into ordinary homes. But he didn’t want to reveal too many details about the technical solutions until there was a signed contract in place. “No one was allowed to look underneath the furniture, but we were allowed to sit on it. It felt a bit like an inflatable mattress or water bed,” says Tomas.

“It’s part of the IKEA culture to be innovative and take risks.”

Inflation in progress

Even during the meeting, Ingvar felt that this was too good to miss – maybe IKEA could start making furniture out of air! The potential was huge. Over the next few weeks, Ingvar discussed the concept in detail with his co-workers, and weighed up the advantages and drawbacks. Eventually, they decided it was worth the risk. “It’s part of the IKEA culture to be innovative and take risks, to invest in a good idea, and have the desire and the power to create something good for the many people. Ingvar decided to go for it,” says Tomas Paulsson.

In a departure from its normal practices, IKEA signed a special contract with Jan Dranger. Jan was keen to protect his ideas, so IKEA and SoftAir formed a separate company to develop the finished product.

IKEA went in with far more investment money and development funds than usual, encouraged especially by the opportunity to save on distribution costs if the project succeeded. Material consumption for a sofa would decrease by 85%, and transport volumes by as much as 90%. The plastic material, a polyolefin, was 100% recyclable. But when, much later, the product developers at IKEA got to know the technical details, it turned out that the inflatable furniture would cost far more to produce than Jan’s calculations had indicated.

IKEA catalogue page, man lifting sofa over his head next to text on inflatable furniture in the IKEA a.i.r collection.
IKEA a.i.r was launched with great enthusiasm in the 2000 IKEA catalogue – the headline above says “Content: Nothing!”. However, reports from the stores were less encouraging.

Happy new age

In summer 1997, the ROLIG easy chair and the INNERLIG sofa were launched to the world press and at the stores in Stockholm, Hamburg and Paris. The series was called a.i.r – Air Is a Resource – and was received with interest and enthusiasm. In Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, design columnist Rebecca Tarschys wrote that IKEA had spared no expense “… in conveying the message of a happy new age of furniture, with lightweight, eco-friendly furniture that can be carried on a finger and hidden in a clothes drawer.”

IKEA a.i.r was launched loudly and proudly in the 2000 IKEA catalogue, but reports from staff in the stores were less encouraging. The products had become too expensive, and someone said that the easy chairs and sofas 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 go bouncing off, or was moved around the store by customers.

IKEA project manager Lena Brandt Persson remembers that staff were worried the inflatable furniture would cause an accident. “Customers found it so much fun that even adults would jump up and down on the sofas.”

Smiling young man in dungarees holds a bunch of fabric under one arm, in one hand he holds a small brown flat pack.
The inflatable easy chair could pack into an (almost) flat pack.
Smiling young man in dungarees sits in chubby dark blue armchair from the a.i.r series.
A quick inflation with a hair dryer and your seat is ready! But how long until things fell flat?

Rude noises

Once at home, the flat plastic furniture had to be unpacked and filled 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. Unfortunately, many customers forgot to set their hair dryers to cold before inflating. And because hot air takes up more space than cold air, the furniture soon started deflating as the air cooled. Also, the valve leaked. A plump, cosy sofa on Monday was a shapeless pile of fabric by the weekend. And when you sat down, the sofa would let out quite an unglamorous ‘pffft’ sound.

So IKEA a.i.r fell flat. The price was too high, as was the number of customer returns. In September 1999, IKEA ended its involvement in the separate company and compensated SoftAir financially. It was decided that any continued production of inflatable furniture using Jan Dranger’s technology would take place within IKEA, provided his name as designer was always given.

Pillow cover designed as a ladybird lies next to deflated plastic pillow.
Close-up of hands fitting a cover designed as a ladybird on inflated plastic pillow.
Pillow designed as a red and black ladybird with big round eyes.
While IKEA was forced to discontinue the inflatable furniture for adults, inflatable children’s products like KELIG, GONATT and SAGOSTEN were much more successful. Children loved playing on big, soft ladybirds and hedgehogs, and the engineers had finally managed to solve the leaky valve problem. But there was still an imbalance between quality and a low price. At Children’s IKEA too, the inflatable furniture cost too much compared to other children’s products.

Mistakes with positive outcomes

In 2013, IKEA abandoned the a.i.r concept for good. But despite the great mistakes made, a.i.r did have some positive effects. The concept attracted huge media attention and reinforced the image of IKEA as a brand that always went its own way. IKEA dared to take risks and invest in products that had great potential, especially for the environment. The benefits noted in green circles included the fact that the inflatable plastic sofa, INNERLIG, only used one-sixth as much material as a conventional upholstered sofa.

Tomas Paulsson, business area manager at the time, was there for the rise and fall of the inflatable furniture, but he still thinks the idea was too good not to try. “If anybody was going to do it, it had to be IKEA – try something out that no one else had done,” he explains. “We gave it a try, it didn’t work, we didn’t give up, but we never quite made it. So we brought things to a halt and took the cost. Not cheap!”

“The fear of making mistakes is the root of bureaucracy and the enemy of development.”
– Ingvar Kamprad

a.i.r was one of many big mistakes and costly experiences that IKEA has collected over the years. Ingvar Kamprad placed a high value on these mistakes, provided one learnt something and didn’t repeat them. In The Testament of a Furniture Dealer from 1976, he wrote: “Only while sleeping one makes no mistakes. Making mistakes is the privilege of the active – of those who can correct their mistakes and put them right. … The fear of making mistakes is the root of bureaucracy and the enemy of development. … It is always the mediocre people who are negative, who spend their time proving that they were not wrong.”