Designer portrait: Sarah Fager

We all know the story of the brand IKEA but what about the designers? Who is it that gives the products their form? First in our series of portraits is in-house designer Sarah Fager.

We meet Sarah in the foyer of IKEA of Sweden in Älmhult. A semi-glass room with a constant stream of people moving through turnstiles, blipping in and out like in a busy subway station. Sarah Fager is on-time, smiling and very pregnant. “Just the other day I got a really exciting project but I am going on maternity leave so I can’t do it,” she says as we walk through a long corridor adorned with quotes about Democratic Design.

We do our interview on the second floor looking out over the cafeteria. It’s a huge light-filled space with IKEA fabric hanging from the skylights. It’s a typical mid-morning IKEA scene with people coming and going from the Prototype Shop, product developers deep in telephone conversations and lots of informal meetings over coffee. 

From sketch to prototype, STRÅLA Christmas collection designed by Sarah Fager.
From sketch to prototype, STRÅLA Christmas collection designed by Sarah Fager.

After ten years at IKEA, Sarah still expresses a sense of wonder at all the knowledge contained in the building. Amongst her design idols such as Ilse Crawford and Lindsey Adelman are also her co-workers here at IKEA. It was Sarah Fager’s dream to work here. Designers in Swedish design schools didn’t think it was very cool to want to work for IKEA. But Sarah did, so she applied for the IKEA internship program, which turned out to be “the best school I could go to,” she says.

Designers in Swedish design schools didn’t think it was very cool to want to work for IKEA. But Sarah did, so she applied for the IKEA internship program.

Sarah had planned to be some kind of craftsman after graduating from high-school but after toiling away in workshops for three years she came to the conclusion that she was just not skilled enough to make one-off, high-quality pieces of furniture. Something clicked when she realised that there was someone actually doing the drawings that craftsmen work with; this was exactly what she wanted to do.

Sarah laughs when she remembers her first project as an intern. It was to design a plastic microwave lid. Ten years later, PRICKIG, is still selling like crazy. And why was someone coming straight from an education programme working mainly with wood, given such a project? “That’s how we work here, we work with all different materials.” Plus she got the chance to learn about injection moulding. IKEA designers love working with new materials and techniques.

DRAGAN bathroom accessories, a collection made with bamboo.
DRAGAN bathroom accessories, a collection made with bamboo.
Another popular IKEA product designed by Sarah Fager, FRASERA glass tumblers.
Another popular IKEA product designed by Sarah Fager, FRASERA glass tumblers.

It’s hard to have a style or signature expression when its put through the whole IKEA machinery, but there is a red thread in what Sarah Fager has produced. She loves working with natural materials, especially with wood. When we ask if she has an emotional connection to everything she designs she answers: “yes, absolutely.” She wants her products to become part of someone else’s story as well. Visible wear and tear on a material like wood is something she appreciates.

The pieces designed by Sarah in the STRÅLA Christmas collection are a good example of her design for IKEA. The collection is personal and brings something to an IKEA collection that she felt was lacking. STRÅLA is a collection of what Sarah calls “long-keepers” made of natural materials such as linen, rope, paper and wood. Every Christmas, her mother used to bring out a nativity scene, the tradition continued even after one of the figures disappeared and was replaced by a Barbie doll. She wants to create this experience for IKEA customers.

A slightly obvious but kind of fun question for a designer of children’s collections is, what toys did she play with as a child? Sarah doesn’t name any particular object but describes lying flat on her belly in the sand at the beach, creating small worlds with tiny figures in tall sea-grass. An exercise in scale perhaps?

With four siblings, she knew how to have fun on her own as a child, something she now considers a gift. She was independent and creative and liked to build things. Her mother is an artist, painting with water colours and oils, “very two dimensional”, Sarah says, comparing to her choice of working with objects. There were always art supplies around the house when she was growing up and “a lot of sand, branches and pinecones.”

FLISAT children's collection, new design by Sarah Fager for the 2016 IKEA range.
FLISAT children's collection, new design by Sarah Fager for the 2016 IKEA range.

Sarah is a contemporary incarnation of a furniture designer, a PR dream for IKEA. Incorporated into her role of a designer is also that of social media expert. Over fifteen thousand fans and co-workers have direct access to @sarah.fager.ikea.designer‘s thoughts and reflections via Instagram. “It’s fun to capture those moments of whatever you’re producing,” she says. “To save it and show it later when it’s more relevant.

They assume that IKEA is “a mass-producing company doing bad things,” but in reality “we’re a mass-producing company but we’re doing really good things.”

Through Instagram, we get a glimpse into Sarah Fager’s design world. Her creative side-projects – an exquisite series of watercolours depicting flowers picked from her garden, a collaboration with her husband who is also a designer; summer holidays visiting icons of design history – Eileen Grey’s E102 in France; she also shares IKEA projects that never made it through the product development gauntlet. “Only products we love” is one of her favourite phrases, with roughly 70% of her projects never making it into production, you can understand why.

Sarah working on a prototype of her
Sarah working on a prototype of her "see-through sofa", part of the new IKEA PS collection, at the suppliers in Poland.

Over the last ten years, Sarah has observed an effort at IKEA to be transparent, both internally and externally. She plays a part in this,. If you meet in the hallway, she could be on her way to pick up a 3D printed prototype or on her way to meet a South Korean YouTuber. Sarah also had a central role in this year’s Democratic Design Day, sharing the stage with design heavyweights such as HAY Design and Tom Dixon. She presented her so-called “see-through sofa“, part of the new IKEA PS collection, made using the technique of 3D knitting. The same technology used to produce sneakers. 

“If you have a blank sheet for me, personally, I wouldn’t do a thing,” says Sarah. Industrial designers seem to have an innate passion for solving problems. Whether that is addressing a new need that arises or learning to work with a new material or working out how to comply with strict safety regulations, this challenge is what drives them. 

Sketch and prototype of the trailer designed by Sarah Fager for SLADDA, the new IKEA bicycle,
Sketch and prototype of the trailer designed by Sarah Fager for SLADDA, the new IKEA bicycle,

Sarah gets disappointed when IKEA is attacked by people who have preconceived ideas about how they work. They assume that IKEA is “a mass-producing company doing bad things,” but in reality “we’re a mass-producing company but we’re doing really good things,” she says.

For Sarah, the notion of Democratic Design; the principles of form, function, quality, sustainability and a low price; that guide all IKEA product development, is common sense. “It is an anchor to hold on to when we’re doing products so that we don’t get totally lost.” Because there is no reason for IKEA to do more things, according to Sarah, all new products need to be “more relevant, better produced or made of better material.”

Sarah Fager is one of those lucky people who has found her purpose, her home. She openly talks about the flaws and high points when working at IKEA, combining them into a will to do better. She’s both modest and proud. No wonder, as one IKEA co-worker told me, everyone wants her on their team.

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A "shelfie" taken by Sarah Fager of prototypes in her workspace at IKEA of Sweden in Älmhult.

Fast facts about Sarah Fager:

Born: New Glasgow, Canada moved to Sweden when I was 5 years old.
Education: 
BA Furniture Design, Carl Malmsten CTD, Stockholm 2003–2006. Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design, Vancouver, Canada 2005. Furniture carpentry, Grebbestads School, Sweden 2002-2003. Furniture carpentry, Grimslöv School, Sweden. 2001-2002
First design for IKEA: PRICKIG microwave lid.
Favourite IKEA product: OFELIA VASS Bedlinen because it reminds me of wrinkled paper when its new washed and crisp.
Worked at IKEA since: 2007
Total number of products designed for IKEA: 200 pieces in total, 98 pieces in the current range.
One thing you can’t live without? Good food!
Last picture you took with your phone? A selfie of my big pregnant belly.
What makes you happy? When there is a balance in work-family time and everyone around me are satisfied and pleased.
What makes you sad? When kids are affected by grown-up’s mistakes and stupidity.
What defines you as a person? Optimism, stamina, stubbornness, kindness, generosity and selfishness.