Reward of running the extra mile

Try making something beautiful. Then try making it at half the price. Preferably with sustainable methods, materials and adding a smart function. Welcome to the world of Creative Leader, James Futcher at IKEA.

James Futcher gives no indication that he is in between meetings, has a handful of deadlines to pursue and probably as we speak is planning dinner for his wife and two daughters. Tick tock. “My job can be stressful at times. Of course. But experience has taught me to work at a steady pace to balance out those peaks when deadlines are coming up,” says James.

He speaks in a calm British accent that both gives away his London roots, and suggests he’s used to speaking more slowly than what comes naturally so he doesn’t lose his Swedish co-workers in the process. He’s had practice. It’s been ten years since he and his wife, who these days also works at IKEA, moved to the small town of Älmhult in the south of Sweden to partake in James’ most exciting job to date. As a product developer he has worked with lighting and bathroom products. “I have a Master’s degree in Design and Product development, but when we arrived here it was the first time in my career that I really felt I was using my education.” says James. “I’m also in a place right now where I enjoy my work immensely, I have the best job!” His most recent project is the upcoming IKEA PS 2017 collection where he had the role of Creative Leader. Right now, James is working with fellow Brit Tom Dixon. Together, they are developing the DELAKTIG collection.

Product developer James Futcher – the Londoner who now lives in Älmhult, Sweden.
Product developer James Futcher – the Londoner who now lives in Älmhult, Sweden.

For someone creative who finds working in groups stimulating, and has a natural gift of knowing when to push and pull, designing furniture at IKEA is probably close to heaven. As a developer, one works closely with material experts, designers and suppliers travelling the world to find solutions that have never been tried before. “This means many times finding yourself caught in the middle of opposing interests regarding design, price and function for example,” says James. “For me, problem solving is part of the fun.”

His solution in that situation, even those regarding aesthetics, is typical of IKEA – Democratic Design. “For me, Democratic Design means that the object has a high standard when it comes to form, function, design, price and sustainability. This is a great tool that surprisingly often gives you the answer you need.”

When it doesn’t, you will find James in his running gear pacing the forest trails around Älmhult. “It’s a great way for me to sort things out in my head and after a good afternoon run, most of the time, things are much clearer.”

I have the creative responsibility but after I’ve briefed the designers, trust is needed to not let your own taste get in the way.

Trust is a key ingredient in great design projects, according to James. “I have the creative responsibility but after I’ve briefed the designers, trust is needed to not let your own taste get in the way.” At the same time he has to be demanding, and of course be able to give constructive criticism.

Collaborating with a number of colleagues and sometimes having tough decisions to make, but also sharing in the mutual success, you gain one another’s trust. “You grow strong bonds of professional respect,” he says. That’s one of the reasons he thought twice before leaving the bathroom department and embarking on the IKEA PS 2017 journey.

It’s evident that the prestigious IKEA PS-project, first initiated in 1995, is something you don’t turn down easily. The designer collaborations that bear the PS-name have so far resulted in some design classics that nowadays are only available at auctions. The IKEA PS 2017 collection is made for young, nomadic and urban customers and was received warmly at the press launch in November. “It was super exciting to get the opportunity to work with the collection,” he says. “It involved a variety of materials and I got to travel with the designers to see suppliers all over the world.”

“I think one can get a lot of inspiration by looking back at the wonderful work of, for example, Robin Day or Charles and Ray Eames,” he says. James Futcher seldom sees something in design that hasn’t been done before, but gets a refreshing kick every time it happens.

Beauty is an essential part of good design, he finds. “It is what makes us fall in love with an object and desire it. With that said, without function, it will never grow into a relationship. Beauty can also be something very simple, like an elegant solution,” says James.

James has been around the world, and back again, whilst working with IKEA.
James has been around the world, and back again, whilst working with IKEA.

James’ journey at IKEA started with an ad in his local London paper. “They needed an interior designer to develop showrooms for IKEA stores opening in the UK.” Even if he hadn’t studied interior decoration, he still got the job for some reason.

After a couple of years, he was asked to do the same thing in the US. His girlfriend, today wife, whom he had met during his design studies, was born in America, so the idea suited them. “We had some fantastic years travelling all over and discovering different parts of the country as I was involved with new store openings,” he says.

We were living the American Dream and friends were asking me if going to this remote village deep in the forests of Southern Sweden was really a good idea.

With the birth of their second child, living closer to their families in Britain felt important. The design department at IKEA in Älmhult each year puts 2000 designs into production. The number of ideas ending in the waste basket is infinitely more. Still, before James applied for the job as a product developer there, he had just a vague idea it even existed. “We were living the American Dream and friends were asking me if going to this remote village deep in the forests of Southern Sweden was really a good idea,” he says. “To be honest I didn’t know myself, but it seemed like a step towards a dream that I had always harboured.”

Being accustomed to London, Washington and Philadelphia, it took a while before the Futcher’s settled into the new routines in Älmhult, which has just short of 9000 inhabitants. “We were used to the American way of going to the park with the children, meeting up with friends. But here in the daytime everyone is at daycare. Parents are working.” he says. “Also, I don’t think you are prepared for the darkness during winter time. It was mostly hard on my wife I think.”

Today, ten years later, he is grateful for being able to provide his children with something he never had access to whilst growing up. “Clean air, a chance to live in a safe environment, climb trees,” he says. “We see our families in London regularly so our daughters get the chance to see both worlds and can choose when they get older. I really appreciate the closeness of everything here, which is convenient.”

What will design look like when his daughters grow up? “I think designers and the industry will contribute their part of solving the environmental issues by using more sustainable materials. Furniture will probably be more separable for recycling and repair.” Perhaps we’ll see more durability in materials to prolong the lifespan of the objects. Who knows, in the future, we might not own, but rent our furniture, which will affect the designer even more.

Fast facts about James Futcher

First product developed for IKEA: BÖJA table lamp
Favourite IKEA product and why: LAMPAN. A great simple beautiful design at an incredible price. With smart packaging.
Started working at IKEA: 1998
One thing you can’t live without? My bathtub
What was the last picture you took with your phone? My home brew
What makes you happy? My family
What makes you sad? The War in Syria
What defines you as a person? Family and friends enjoying life