Designer portrait: Knut and Marianne Hagberg

Brother-sister design duo Knut and Marianne Hagberg are part of the soul of IKEA and a very clear part of the company’s design profile. They have recently won a Red Dot Design Award for the table series LISABO.

“Over 37 years I’d say we’ve had roughly 1600 products go into production,” says Marianne Hagberg, “and that’s not counting the things that never made it.” That means that they have designed, on average, a product a week for IKEA.

What are designers who have produced almost two thousand objects over almost forty years interested in? “New technology, natural materials and how we can make it even more simple for customers to assemble furniture.”

The answer from the IKEA design duo puts a finger on exactly why their LISABO table series has won a Red Dot Award for high-quality product design. “We found out about it via mail earlier in the spring, but had to promise to keep it quiet until the 13th of April when it all became public,” says Knut.

The Red Dot Design Awards is one of the biggest design competitions in the world. A jury consisting of 41 experts from the field of design selects the winners from around 5,200 entries in 31 categories.

The motivation from the jury reads as follows: “The design of the straightforward-looking LISABO table range exudes lightness and contemporary style. The short assembly time is an added bonus.”

“It feels also extra fun that just LISABO won, because if you look at all the products that are featured from Red Dot there is a lot of “high-tech” products. When we produced LISABO we did it in a high-tech way but for the customer, it’s very low-tech,” says Marianne.

Listen to Knut and Marianne – in Swedish (00:26)

Working relationship that clicks

What makes the LISABO table series unique is a ground-breaking piece of construction that allows the legs of the table to be clicked into place.

Like most of Knut and Marianne’s design projects, this one involved a close collaboration with the IKEA pattern shop. “Anders Eriksson and Göran Sjöstedt in our workshop invented the Wedge Dowel, a simple way to mount furniture with a click-technique,” says Knut.

The first series made with this new technique was TROMVIK, then came REGISSÖR. Both designed by Knut and Marianne Hagberg. Customers were able to put the products together with their hands, no need for tools.

“We have had enormous support from the industrial team. There is an enormous amount of knowledge we can gain from them, that’s our experience,” says Marianne. During the process of developing the Wedge Dowel, the product development team have been successful in pushing the boundaries of the possible. Amongst other things, they have been able to create a 45-degree angle using the machinery.

Traditional and industrial approach

Developing the LISABO series was Knut and Marianne coming back to their handicraft influenced education in Denmark. The LISABO series has a “traditional composition with an industrial approach,” says Marianne.

Each table in the series is a lightweight construction made of ash veneer which has a beautiful hand-made expression. It consists of two sheets of ash veneer in two different colours which makes every table unique.

“We also worked intensively with the supplier in order to develop a matte surface that would feel nice and also be able to handle all the needs of a piece of furniture, such as red-wine stains and so on,” says Marianne.

Designing for life

“At IKEA we almost always start the design process from the “wrong end”. We don’t design a new table for its own sake but take our departure point from the price, function, technology and the context the object should work in spatially. In this case, we wanted to create a dining table that could be used in many different places in the home. We call it a gazelle because it can be moved around and perform different functions,” says Knut.

LISABO is a product of and fo our new world. People are moving more often, so having furniture that is light to carry and easy to assemble – and disassemble – is becoming even more important.

“The click-technique means that you can assemble a piece of furniture in a quarter of the time,” says Knut. The Wedge Dowel is something we will definitely see more often in IKEA products.

Stronger together

It was big news that Danish design company HAY has designed a version of the classic blue IKEA bag. It is an iconic piece of design. Knut and Marianne Hagberg were part of the team who developed the system around this design icon.

When IKEA opened its stores in Japan, Knut and Marianne were asked to come up with ideas that would help customers transport goods home from stores using public transport, not many customers owned cars. They came up with FRAKTA, a version of the blue bag with a zip that can be carried as a backpack. On top of this Knut and Marianne also developed the handy yellow trolley for the yellow bags that you find in IKEA stores.

Knut and Marianne were working at IKEA when the iconic blue bag first saw the light of day. The story goes, as told by Knut and Marianne, that Ingvar Kamprad came home from Asia with a new material with which he wanted to make a bag. The material was usually used to store rice. Ingvar and IKEA sales manager Lars-Göran Petterson made the first prototype which was designed to carry up to 50 kilograms. When it came to testing the bag, they needed something that weighed 50 kilograms. “Where in an office environment can you find something that weighs 50 kilos? Jennifer! She weighed 50 kilos.” Knut continues the story, “so in she jumped. If the bag could hold her, then it could hold 50 kilos.” So there we have it, the tale of how an icon came into being.

“I think the design process of the blue IKEA bag is an accurate depiction of what happens collectively at IKEA, it’s not a one-man show,” says Marianne.

Fine-tuned working process

For 37 years Knut and Marianne Hagberg have designed furniture together for IKEA. They have seen CEOs, Design Managers and trends come and go. So what is the core of this partnership? Honesty? “Definitely, we tell each other what we think.” Marianne also believes that their common values and goals play a big part in their design partnership. “It’s definitely a strength to be two people working together, plus we are like terriers.” Knut continues, “we don’t let go, we follow every product from the first drawings to the supplier and all the way to the store. And we have always done that.”

Good design is always simple and cannot be cheated. “There are no short-cuts,” according to Marianne. “You always need to think about the price, the material, the production, the function, the environment – when everything works together with a beautiful form then it becomes a great product.”

The hand and eye are an important part of their design process. “The best feeling I know is to throw a new transparent paper on our 1m x 2m drawing table and just have full possibility in front of us,” says Knut.

The technique means that you can assemble a piece of furniture in a quarter of the time

“Research shows that you learn more effectively if you write by hand instead of using the computer. I believe that you have a better understanding of the details when you draw them in full scale. There is something that is satisfying for the eye. Marimekko’s patterns or Josef Franks textiles, they have a soul, something for the eye to discover over a long time,” says Marianne.

Knut and Marianne’s design is built on several base forms – the circle, the cone and the square. All sketches are done by hand in scale 1:10 and 1:1. They work completely analogue – no computers at all. If they are working from home, which they do on Thursdays, sketches are then faxed between their respective homes in Lund and Hässleholm in the south of Sweden. All of their drawings, even the drawings of the very first product they designed, the metal chair TORSBY, are stored in a fire-secure basement in Älmhult.

When they are both agreed that a drawing should be presented they take it to the prototyping workshop and make a full-size prototype. If it comes into the range, then the process begins of meeting suppliers and further developing the production.

“When you work with products like Knut and I do, the most important thing is how we make the 3D model in relation to our own bodies.” The simpler it is, the better.

So who are Knut and Marianne Hagberg?

Knut and Marianne have so much character between them, it’s hard to fit into one article. They are both natural storytellers and more than willing to share four decades’ worth of IKEA anecdotes. The sheer volume of knowledge accumulated by Knut and Marianne Hagberg about IKEA customers, IKEA production and design in general, is impressive.

When they started working at IKEA there were 5000 employees and 23 stores. In 2015, they have 155,000 IKEA co-workers and there are 375 stores across the globe.

Knut and Marianne talked about one year in the history of IKEA when they did something called “range care”. Each department was given the task to investigate another. For example, upholstered furniture investigated kitchenware and so on. No new products were produced that year, only improvements. Apparently, customers didn’t even notice. It was a huge learning experience for the whole company. Maybe not in quite the same form, but gathering insights is a central part of the design process at IKEA today.

They say it’s been a fantastic journey working with IKEA and they are visibly honoured to have established themselves as designers within the company whilst it has been expanding. “If you stay in a job as long we have, that’s because we have the world’s most enjoyable job,” says Knut.

Knut and Marianne Hagberg along with their colleagues, Anders Eriksson and Göran Sjöstedt, will receive their award at the Red Dot Gala in Essen, Germany on the 4 July 2016.

Facts & figures:

Education: Academy of Interior Design and Fredrikberg’s Technical College in Copenhagen 1973-1978.
Career: Architect MSA/SIR. Members of SIR, the National Association of Swedish Interior Designers. Employed by IKEA since 1979.
Awards: Swedish Design Prize (Utmärkt Svensk Form) 1987 TALUS, 1988 PUSSEL, 1993 LINE, 1998 PATRULL. International Design Year Book 1999, 2000, 2007. Elle Interior Bedroom Product of the Year, 2013 DUKEN. Red Dot Design Award – Winner, LISABO 2016. 
First products designed for IKEA: TVING and TORSBY.

Favourite product designed for IKEA: Knut Hagberg: TALUS chair in rattan, Marianne Hagberg: PUSSEL children’s furniture.