Designer portrait: Mikael Axelsson

Designer Mikael Axelsson’s prejudices about IKEA as a production machine without freedom have come to nothing. Five years in, he enjoys both the artistry and the boundaries of making Democratic Design at IKEA. We spoke to him about his childhood creations and most meaningful projects he has worked on at IKEA, such as the VÄLGÖRANDE collection, a collaboration with artisans in Romania.

If you follow the sound of an old, manual coffee grinder rattling away in the open plan design department in Älmhult, you’ll find Mikael Axelsson. Probably making one of his Ethiopian brews. Mikael appreciates the commitment to artistry and acceptance of individuality in the design department at IKEA of Sweden. His coffee “nerdism” took on new proportions while working on a new range of coffee accessories for IKEA.

Educated first as a technical engineer Mikael then moved onto product design at Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm. His graduation project, a set of lamps driven mechanically without an external electric source, called “Independent Lamp,” won three design prizes and caught the attention of Marcus Engman, the Head of Design at IKEA of Sweden. Engman offered him a five-week internship in Älmhult which Mikael accepted after giving it some thought. “I was sceptical at first, and couldn’t see myself working there, but it didn’t take long before I loved it. My internship was prolonged, and here I am.”

Mikael spends his weekends in a beautiful old furniture factory he has transformed into his own workshop.
Mikael spends his weekends in a beautiful old furniture factory he has transformed into his own workshop.

He is in the midst of developing a range of lamps that has been a long time in the making. The delay is partly due to differing opinions in the development team, which is exactly what made Mikael Axelsson hesitant about working at IKEA in the first place. “Today, I appreciate different points of view in the group, because the bouncing of ideas is a great way to get a good result. Work here is much more artistically free and exploring than I expected.”

I more or less grew up in my father’s metal workshop and had access to a place where I could experiment freely.

Looking back, Mikael’s dream of becoming a designer was about having the freedom to create. “Sometimes at IKEA, the brief is very open, like with the VÄLGÖRANDE collection made with social entrepreneurs in Romania. Other times they are more closed and you know for instance what kind of product that needs to be made in what material. These days I really enjoy the restrictions as well because of the challenge they present.”

The IKEA Prototype Shop often. A place Mikael frequents often to develop his ideas.
The IKEA Prototype Shop often. A place Mikael frequents often to develop his ideas.

Enjoying the workshop

Maybe that Mikael Axelsson ended up at a place like IKEA is logical. If you went back in time and peeked into his teenage bedroom in the small Swedish town of Karlskoga, you’d find traces of his constructions. Half of his bedroom was occupied by a terrarium he built for his two 1,5-meter-long green iguanas Fritz and Frida. “I more or less grew up in my father’s metal workshop and had access to a place where I could experiment freely. I made electrical stuff and as I grew older a lot of motorbikes and stuff like that.”

Today, he has the IKEA Prototype Shop to help him develop ideas. His education in engineering comes in handy; he knows how to construct technical features. “One of the things I love about this place is all the bright people and resources. As a freelancer, there are more obstacles. Here, you pop down, ask an expert on the material you are currently working in and can move on within minutes.”

As an IKEA designer, he gets the opportunity to learn a lot. On a regular basis, Mikael Axelsson develops his designs directly with suppliers on the factory floor, giving him access to a wealth of knowledge and experience to production techniques and materials.

Metal is one of Mikael Axelsson's favourite materials to work with due to the speed with which you can whip up metal prototypes.
Metal is one of Mikael Axelsson's favourite materials to work with due to the speed with which you can whip up metal prototypes.

For Mikael, designing is about making proper use of information. “Throughout history, physical strength gave you benefits in life. Then came the Universities and knowledge became the big advantage. Today, knowledge is even more widespread, and the ones who can combine it into something useful for society are the winners. What kind of needs will people have in the new urban era?”

He is talking about research. A phase in the design process that might be his favourite. “At this stage, your job is just to come up with the craziest ideas to try out. I recently spent a lot of time working on a coffee collection with grinders, bag clips, glasses and pour over coffee appliances together with designer Nike Karlsson. We worked with a coffee specialist, testing our designs to get the ultimate pour through time for instance.”

He was already interested in coffee before making the range, but this time he ended up buying an espresso machine. “I grind my beans at work now. Cheap coffee in Sweden is made out of second-grade beans that are roasted hard to cover the less pleasant tastes. Fine Ethiopian beans allow for a lighter roast which gives the brew a more rich and fruity flavour.”

One of Mikael's favourite projects at IKEA is the TORHAMN kitchen made from solid ash.
One of Mikael's favourite projects at IKEA is the TORHAMN kitchen made from solid ash.

As a designer at IKEA of Sweden one is closely connected to the concept of Democratic Design, i.e that the products combine form, function, quality, sustainability at a low price. Personally, he finds sustainability to be among the more important aspects. “I’m really proud of the TORHAMN kitchen range from 2016 made in solid ash. Traditionally, you only use the lighter parts of the ash tree, but in this case, we wanted to display the robust features and also use the darker parts. By using more of each tree, we got a product that not only looked beautiful but was more sustainable and made at a lower cost. To me, that is Democratic Design in a nutshell.”

The collection ÖVERALLT

In the recent collection ÖVERALLT he had the chance to collaborate with designers from different parts of the African continent. Twelve African designers from the fields of fashion, sculpture, architecture and furniture design, were paired with five in-house IKEA designers to create the collection. “I developed a curved bench together with Studio Propolis from Nairobi. They had a very similar design process as me with a lot of research and questions before picking up the pen.”

Besides the bench, their team also looked into creating a miniature fire stove, pots and the possibility of making an eating utensil somewhere in-between using cutlery and your hands. “I felt immediately from our first meeting in Älmhult that the merge of Scandinavia and Nairobi could be a super interesting one!”

Sustainability, one of the most important aspects in design for Mikael Axelsson.
Sustainability, one of the most important aspects in design for Mikael Axelsson.

Working with social entrepreneurs

As a father of three daughters, with another on the way, he feels a responsibility to contribute to making the world a better place. Sustainability is close to his heart, as are the social entrepreneur collections IKEA has initiated, among them VÄLGÖRANDE. “I was in Romania twice this year to work on a collection that will create work opportunities for Roma people living in the country. They have talented craftsmen in wood carving and wicker weaving. Together we have developed a number of beautiful handmade wooden items such as spoons, bowls, baskets, stools, and lamps. The work is still in progress, so we’ll see what makes it to the store.”

One of the things I love about this place is all the bright people and resources.

Whenever he sees images from the collection, he thinks of the families and children he met during his visits. “Alex, the grandson of one of our wicker weaver Zoltan Bojody from Viisoara in Cluj County hung around a lot. He borrowed my colouring pencils and sat drawing beside us as we worked. The Roma children suffer a lot from their family’s poverty and are separated from other Romanian pupils even though the schools are not supposed to. Collections like VÄLGÖRANDE can really make a difference which feels good.”

More about the work of Mikael Axelsson in VÄLGÖRANDE and ÖVERALLT will be published shortly.

Fast facts about Mikael Axelsson:
Reading right now: Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison.
Design I wish were mine: Sofa with Arms by Shiro Kuramata (1982), Taccia lamp by Achille & Pier Giacomo Castiglioni (1962) or May day by Konstantin Grcic (2000).
Favourite material: Strong metals that are versatile & fast to work with. After cutting, bending, welding, etc. you instantly have a mockup to test properly. No glue that needs to dry, no fragile plastic.
In my spare time: I play with my kids & dog. Tidy up an old furniture factory from the 40’s that I just bought. Working on a personal project producing furniture in the same way you used to produce candles, by dipping them. Build flat track & café racer motorcycles.
Guilty pleasure: Cheese doodles (like Cheetos) that have been open for five days so that they are rubbery. It’s like a good wine you need to open it before you drink it to get the best texture!