Great mistakes

Inflatable dreams and stinky sofas.

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

Ingvar Kamprad loved mistakes, as long as you learnt something and didn’t make them again. “It must be allowed to make mistakes. It is always the mediocre people who are negative, who spend their time proving that they were not wrong,” he wrote in The Testament of a Furniture Dealer in 1976. The way Ingvar saw it, the fear of making mistakes was “the enemy of development” and “the root of bureaucracy”.

And there have been plenty of mistakes and costly lessons for IKEA over the years. Some projects were stopped along the way, before they ever reached the stores or customers. But others did make it to launch, sometimes with such disastrous results that IKEA had to apologise or even recall products .

In the mid-1990s, Swedish furniture designer Jan Dranger came to Ingvar Kamprad with a revolutionary suggestion. He wanted to solve one of the company’s biggest challenges: how to pack sofas and armchairs into flat packs. Simplifying transport and reducing its cost was a lifelong cause for Ingvar Kamprad, but upholstered furniture with heavy wooden frames was a hard nut to crack.

Man in orange T-shirt lifts blue sofa with one hand to vacuum underneath it.
Inflatable sofas, light as air and packable in flat packs, were like a dream for IKEA and Ingvar Kamprad.

An inflatable story

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 Blow easy chair, a pop icon in transparent PVC, for the company Zanotta. It was described as a dream 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.

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

A breath of fresh air

Jan Dranger kept hold of his idea about creating great furniture out of air. In 1995, when he contacted Ingvar Kamprad, Jan had started a new inflatable furniture concept called SoftAir. He wanted to use new technology and new materials, which would make the furniture stronger and more user-friendly. One innovation was that it no longer needed to be inflated using compressed air. Anyone could blow up the new furniture at home using a standard hair-dryer.

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 and business managers from IKEA, Ingvar invited Jan Dranger back. Jan showed prototypes of inflatable plastic sofas, armchairs, 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. Jan and his company SoftAir didn’t want to reveal too many details about the technical solutions until they had signed a contract.

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.

“They had a few inflatable sofas with them, draped in nicely coloured loose covers. No one was allowed to look underneath them, but we were allowed to sit on them. They felt a bit like an inflatable mattress or water bed,” remembers Tomas Paulsson, business manager for sofas and armchairs at the time.

Jan Dranger described his innovation as the furniture dealers’ equivalent to the successful wristwatch concept, Swatch. Even during the meeting, Ingvar felt that this was too good an idea to miss – maybe IKEA could start making furniture out of air! The potential was huge.

Ingvar discussed the concept in detail with his co-workers, and weighed up the advantages with the drawbacks. Eventually, they decided it was worth the risk. But before we reveal how it turned out, let’s rewind the tape and look at some of the other magnificent catastrophes at IKEA.

Crushed sofa dreams

The inflatable approach was not the first time IKEA had tried and failed to make sofas flat. In the late 1970s, the company took inspiration from car seats. After all, a car has two armchairs in the front and a sofa in the back, all made with a metal skeleton with seat and back padding in Pullmaflex, a kind of metal mesh that can be tightened to varying degrees for comfort and lumbar support.

Gillis Lundgren, shows the TULLANÄS armchair to co-workers at IKEA.
An enthusiastic Gillis Lundgren, designer at IKEA, shows colleagues, including Håkan Thylén, Inga Brita Bayley and Ken Muff Lassen, the TULLANÄS armchair, which was inspired by the car industry.

“IKEA thought that if the car industry could make upholstered metal skeletons for not much money, surely we could do something similar. But we couldn’t,” remembers purchaser Lars-Ivar Holmqvist.

The idea was to manufacture steel skeletons for sofas and armchairs. These could be packed in flat packs, and the customer would then screw the furniture together and slip a cover over it. The steel skeleton with Pullmaflex was made in Sweden, and required major investments and material purchases. The covers, however, would be made by the clothing industry in South Korea, which Ingvar had recently visited. He enthusiastically reported that “… they’re really good at making winter coats and shirts and clothes in Korea.”

“That’s not enough,
let’s order 40,000.”

IKEA normally maintains close contact with its suppliers, especially for new products. But this was not easy in South Korea in the 1970s, when the trip from Sweden to the factories in rural South Korea took several days by air and rail.
“We couldn’t keep going there and keeping an eye on them,” says one of the purchasing managers at the time, Svante Smedmark.

The series was named TULLANÄS, and everyone involved fully believed in it. When 10,000 sofa covers were being ordered, Ingvar though that was too few. “No, let’s take 20,000,” he said. Then someone else felt that, “That’s not enough, let’s order 40,000.”

Complicated and difficult-to-understand assembly instructions from IKEA for the TULLANÄS armchair.
The assembly instructions for the TULLANÄS sofas and armchairs have gone down in history as the most incomprehensible ones ever produced by IKEA.

The steel skeletons, which were made in Sweden, were ready in plenty of time. Pending delivery of the sofa and chair covers from South Korea, TULLANÄS was promoted loudly and proudly in the catalogue in the early 1980s. But when the tens of thousands of quilted cotton covers finally arrived, they were so varied in colour that TULLANÄS sofas and easy chairs couldn’t be sold. It was a true disaster, but far from the only one in the history of IKEA.

The soil sofa for home composting

1994 saw the launch of the RENO soil sofa – an eco-friendly idea to enable families with no garden to do indoor composting. RENO was launched with an instruction video: a family feed organic waste into a wooden sofa, while a child enthusiastically shouts, “Wow, it smells of compost!”

As well as the rotting smell, the soil sofa also required a lot of attention. Newspaper had to be placed in plastic trays, and egg-boxes had to be torn up to absorb the moisture among the leftover food. And the whole thing had to be regularly turned over and sprinkled with soil. When the family finally had a nice pile of compost in the kitchen sofa, it was time for the earthworms to enter the scene. A fiasco, and a flop.

Instruction video for the RENO soil sofa, which would enable families in apartments to compost at home.

The heaviest disaster

If the inflatable furniture is the most lightweight mistake IKEA has made, the RENN piano series is the heaviest. In 1970, IKEA started selling brightly coloured pianos. They were purchased in England under the RENN brand. Music centres and cassette decks were also developed under the same name, and were launched in the 1972 IKEA catalogue. For help with the piano range, Ingvar Kamprad had employed Erik Andersson, a builder and tuner of pianos. Erik had good contacts in the piano industry, and knew that reasonably priced pianos could be found in Japan. Perfect! But on the long voyage to Sweden, the joins on the Japanese pianos came unglued. They all fell apart and had to be scrapped. The colourful pianos from England, however, survived the journey, but once at the stores there was another problem that no one had considered. How would customers get the product home? They couldn’t just stick a piano in the car boot. Lars-Ivar Holmqvist, a purchaser at IKEA at the time, sums it up nicely: “It was a pure farce! It was typical of IKEA to get involved in something we didn’t have a clue about. We never earnt a penny out of it. But it was funny in a way, because it was typical IKEA to get involved in something so completely different.”

Young family, man, woman and child in pram, looking at pianos exhibited in furniture showroom at IKEA 1973.
Close-up of red piano marked with sign
The RENN piano series is the heaviest mistake in IKEA history.

Inflation in progress

Let’s return to the inflatable innovations. Following the secret meetings at Ingvar Kamprad’s summer home in 1995, things progressed quite quickly. “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 now signed a 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 normal, 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 the product developers at IKEA finally got to know the technical details, it turned out that the inflatable furniture would cost far more than the initial calculations indicated.

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 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.

The idea falls flat

But reports from 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. Static electricity in the plastic attracted dust particles and had to be constantly wiped. Also, the feather-weight furniture had a tendency to go bouncing off, and was often moved around the store by customers. Project manager Lena Brandt Persson remembers that co-workers were worried a.i.r would cause an accident. “Customers found it so much fun that even adults would jump up and down on the sofas.”

Once at home, the plastic elements had to be filled with air from a hair-dryer, before tightening the valve to keep the air in. Then you would just slip the fabric cover on, sit back and relax. Unfortunately though, customers often forgot to switch 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. Also, the valve leaked. A plump, cosy sofa on Monday was a shapeless, dusty 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. IKEA finally ended its involvement in the separate company in September 1999, and compensated SoftAir financially. All 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, sales of the children’s products went better. Children loved playing on big, soft ladybirds and hedgehogs.

But while the adult furniture was being discontinued, Children’s IKEA was enjoying success with its inflatable products. Already the 2001 IKEA catalogue saw the launch of play and seating cushion KELIG, soon to be joined by GONATT and SAGOSTEN. Parents liked the furniture’s soft corners, the fact that children could easily move it around and didn’t risk pinching themselves. And children loved playing on large, blow-up ladybirds and hedgehogs. The engineers finally managed to solve the leaky valve problem, but there was still an imbalance between quality and price. The inflatable furniture cost too much compared to other children’s products.

“The idea was too good not to try, and if anybody would do it, it would be IKEA!”
– Tomas Paulsson

In 2013, IKEA abandoned the a.i.r concept for good. But despite the mistakes, a.i.r did bring some benefits. The concept attracted huge media attention and reinforced the image of IKEA as a company that went its own way. IKEA dared to take risks and invest in products that had great potential, especially for the environment. The main benefit in green circles was that the inflatable plastic sofa, INNERLIG, only used one-sixth of the materials of a conventional stuffed sofa.

“The idea was too good not to try, and if anybody would do it, it would be IKEA! Attempt what no one has attempted before,” Tomas Paulsson 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!”

Two friends and some cushion foam

Designer Gillis Lundgren came up with an idea that would save space when transporting cushions. IKEA could sell empty cushion covers, and customers could fill them with soft foam themselves. Genius! Gillis is the enthusiastic one in this video clip, while Ingvar Kamprad regards the innovation with a bit more reservation.

Gillis Lundgren discusses cushion foam with a doubtful Ingvar Kamprad.


Great mistakes
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