Crusaders for colour

What colours will we see in IKEA stores in two years? Ask Mette Nissen and Mats Nilsson of IKEA. They are the ones pulling the secret strings of IKEA style and the masterminds behind the IKEA range och style direction.

Mette Nissen and Mats Nilsson set the style direction at IKEA. They decide what colours and materials will be used in the range over the coming years. Their mission is to push our boundaries and lure us into trying something vibrant. 

When we meet, they are finalising the secret direction that decides what colours and patterns will be used in millions of homes worldwide. “We are just a link in the design chain and only give recommendations to the ninety product developers here at IKEA. That doesn’t mean they always follow them,” says Mette Nissen modestly.

The truth is, there is almost no colour I dislike, it is all about context.

For Mats and Mette, inspiration comes from art, design students and often from the hospitality sector. “Hotels are often a good indicator of a trend since professionals who strive to pick up new vibes make their interior design,” says Mats.

In their workspace four movable walls are covered from top to bottom with images, quotes, motifs, fabrics and colour samples. “As you can see, art is a great inspiration for us,” says Mats.

Not surprisingly, the camera is off limits in their workspace. Within these walls are their plans for up till 2020. One can’t help but notice all the patterns. “You quickly set a style with patterns, and it’s also an easy way for us to develop new looks, “ says Mats. “They have been a central part of many Scandinavian brands: what would Marimekko be without their patterns? or Svenskt Tenn without Josef Frank?”

Blue from the new STOCKHOLM collection.
Blue from the new STOCKHOLM collection.

In broad strokes, the duo’s work consists of three phases. In the first, they develop an overarching style direction. “This is probably the most fun part for me because everything is possible!” says Mats.

Step two is implementing this style direction with product developers. “We are a vital link between segments as we are the ones with the best overview,” says Mats. “If someone, for example, wants to launch a grey chair, then it might be best if it has a different shade than the napkins and plates but uses the same tonality,” The challenge here is cohesiveness.

In step three Mats and Mette present the finished collections to the rest of the company. Mette and Mats work simultaneously with collections to be launched in 2018, 2019 and 2020. They are all at different stages of development, they’ve either just started, in the middle, or rounding the work off. “If you ask me what colour I’m fed up with, I might say something not yet released since I’ve already been working with it for two years. But the truth is, there is almost no colour I dislike, it is all about context,” explains Mette.

Our mission is, to a high degree, to encourage and push for change. It takes guts to change something that you know already sells, but if sales numbers would control everything we would have a white and black IKEA.

The normal lifespan of product colour at IKEA is two years, so the style direction for each year must interconnect. Mette and Mats also have to think about how colour schemes can enliven the store experience. “Our mission is, to a high degree, to encourage and push for change. It takes guts to change something that you know already sells, but if sales numbers would control everything we would have a white and black IKEA,” says Mats.

There are limitations of course. Health and sustainability requirements limit the use of colour pigments and the use of wood is limited by the availability of resources.

“We are always casual, constantly making room for living as opposed to an external display, our typically Scandinavian directness is always present. Traditional luxurious materials like marble and brass could be harnessed within our styles but always with a simpleness,” says Mats. The style borders are ultimately set by what we know as the IKEA brand.

All products developed are fit into the launches with the exception of some of the collaborations and collections that pursue a specific idea, like the recent collaboration with Piet Hein Eek. “Since we want them to stand out, the designers are much freer in their colour choices,” he says.

Orange from the new STOCKHOLM collection.
Orange from the new STOCKHOLM collection.

Mats and Mette first got to know each other in 1988, and both have had several positions within IKEA before working together with style direction. “If Mette is great on details and truly enjoys nailing the perfect pink, I like more the play with words and conceptualising our shared vision. In that regard we complement each other perfectly,” says Mats.

Anyone who has attended a trend seminar knows what an important role words play in styling. There is a big difference in dark yellow or jewel yellow. Cultural differences have made IKEA adopt the policy of always using straight descriptions with their customers. “You will never find “lime green” or “mauve” in a tag, but “yellow-green” and “purple”, explains Mats.

The team aspires to include cultural differences around the world: Pastels are hot in England, Belgium and the Netherlands, dark wood is popular in the US – just to mention a few examples.

They say we are drawn to vitamins that we lack. I think you could make the same comparison with colours.

When it comes to recurring trends and colours, like purple or blue, Mats has a theory: “They say we are drawn to vitamins that we lack. I think you could make the same comparison with colours.”

What makes us attracted to objects, patterns and colour? “For me, creativity is about taking something known and putting it in a new context. We want to surprise, but not shock. As customers, we desire the new, but want it to feel familiar.”

He finds people have a hard time liking something they can’t in any way recognise or relate to. “When we see a pattern I think we subconsciously search in our minds: is it the roses on my aunt’s dressing-gown, or my grandma’s sofa?”

Mats can’t help feeling proud when something different is appreciated by both customers and design blogs. It’s a recipe for a stimulating job, where “every single day is different,” says Mette.

Facts:
Mette Nissen and Mats Nilsson direct the design of IKEA when it comes to colour and materials. With the help of a style direction created each year they work together with the product developers to push towards new expressions and at the same time create cohesiveness.