Ikea is one of the largest furniture company on Earth. It's one of the largest companies on Earth. When a company this big decides to make even a slight change to how it makes or sources its products, it's a massive undertaking. That's exactly what Ikea is doing right now—and I got an inside look at the process.
Last month, we learned that Ikea is bringing a new solid wood line to the US—a big change from the traditional way Ikea makes its products using particleboard made from an aggregation of wood pulp and other materials. The new line is called Nornäs, and according to Ikea, it's all inspired by the forests of Northern Sweden from where the furniture is sourced. Why does Ikea want to change the way it builds its products? In short, customers are demanding it. As we've gotten more interested in the provenance of the stuff we buy, we've begun to pay more attention to what our belongings are made out of and where they come from. So Ikea is ramping up its use of solid wood—which has been a years-long undertaking.
Now, that might not sound like news. But consider that Ikea uses around one percent of the world's total supply of lumber. As Ikea's wood guru Henrik Andersson explained to me, even the smallest change in how it makes its furniture can have a global impact. Andersson spent much of his youth in forests, and today, he manages a division that oversees all of the company's solid wood furniture production at 17 sites in six different countries, including Sweden, Russia, and China. Andresson and his team are intimately involved in everything from watching the trees grow tall to cutting them down to size and assembling them into terrifically light but durable furniture.
The unifying principle behind Ikea's new solid wood initiative is simple in theory, complicated in practice: It's all about efficiency.
"We don't own any forests, but we're very close," Andersson told Gizmodo in a recent email. "The Nornäs family comes from the northern part of Sweden." As such, the wood is almost all Swedish pine, a slim, slow-growing tree that's known for its light beauty and durability. Most of the wood comes from northern Sweden, and the production facilities are purposefully built as close to the forests as possible, in order to cut down on logistics costs from the forest to the mill to the furniture factory itself.
More surprising? The nuanced the art of picking—and cutting—the trees. Andersson says that the key to optimizing Ikea's lumber use is picking different parts of the log for different parts of the furniture. Buying the whole tree is ideal, because that means more can be used for solid pieces of furniture and less for wood pulp. "High raw material utilization is crucial," he said, "not only for sustainability but also as a pre-requisite to be able to reach a price level on the final product so that the many people are able to afford them."
This is where things get a little bit more Ikea-specific. The solid wood to pulp ratio is little less of a problem for traditional Ikea particle-board furniture, since almost all of it gets turned into pulp. But selecting the right logs is essential, since many of the boards will be visible on the finished, unpainted piece of furniture (normally, particleboard pieces are finished with a faux wood veneer).
Knots can be a problem, and the age of the wood is crucial in this regard—not to mention the price of the lumber. Long story short, old wood means dark knots in Swedish pine. And dark knots don't look good on visible parts of the furniture. As such, there's a lot more competition to buy lumber from younger trees (60 years old or younger) since the knots are fresh and typically the same color as the surrounding wood.
There's a trick, though. With the right amount of planning, you can buy old trees, utilize the bottom part for the visible parts of the furniture and use the old, knotty—but strong—wood at the top for load-bearing supporting structure. It's also possible to time the cutting so that the trees are as strong as possible. The wood that grows in the early summer months grows faster, so it's lighter density. Late summer and autumn growth is more dense and strong. This is what Ikea likes to use.
And what about the rest? Well, what isn't actually turned into solid pieces of furniture is recycled. Andersson said that Ikea sells its sawmill waste like sawdust and pulp to the paper industry and uses the bark to fuel the drying kilns. Again, efficiency is paramount.
None of this makes sense without the right furniture designs. The reason Ikea furniture is cheap isn't just because Ikea buys up an absurd amount of wood. It's also smart design.
Perhaps appropriately, a brother and sister team—Marianne Hagberg and Knut Hagberg— led the design of the Nornäs line, and they told me the focus wasn't just on aesthetics, but how each piece would be manufactured from the wood itself. That meant not only planning out how each piece of wood would be cut from the lumber but also how it would fit together in the final piece of furniture.
"We wanted to combine the traditional feeling of pine from the north of Sweden and bring it into the future with a modern contemporary design that really is built to last," the Hagbergs told Gizmodo. "To do this we designed each piece in a craftsman like way with details like beveled edges and sturdy traditional construction techniques. Each piece can also be further customized with paints or stains."
That all sounds nice and normal, until you remember that an Ikea designer is saying that. These pieces will be manufactured and bought by millions of people. In that light, the ability to paint and stain and customize Ikea furniture is a new—and kind of exciting—feature for the Swedish wood-slinging giant. The idea that each board you pull out of the flat pack box will actually splinter is novel, too.
In the end, this is still Ikea—it's all about shaving off every last possible cent from the process. But solid wood is sturdier and longer-lasting than particleboard, which makes this an interesting move for a company whose main byword has always been disposability (moving? just throw out that chair and get a new one!). Could your Ikea coffee table be something you pass down to your grandkids? Only time will tell.
All images via Ikea