IKEA Turns to NASA for Small-Space Living Inspiration

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NASA astronaut, tease for living in small spaces story.
IKEA designers at Mars Desert Research Station, Utah
What can IKEA designers learn from NASA space architects? When it comes to designing furniture for a future in which a majority of the world's population will be squeezed into tight urban spaces, plenty. (Photo: IKEA)

Studiously analyzing micro-apartments, tiny homes and urban housing trends can only get you so far when you're attempting to bring innovative living solutions to the square footage-starved masses. If you really want to learn how to make the most out of a limited amount of habitable space, there’s no better place to turn for inspiration than NASA. After all, astronauts are old pros at making do with cramped living quarters.

And so, a team of five IKEA designers has decided to boldly go where no team of IKEA designers has gone before: the Mars Desert Research Station in remote southern Utah.

Joined by space architect and NASA consultant Constance Adams, the intrepid team recently took up residence for three days in this remote Mars simulator used by real-life astronauts-in-training as part of an effort to “dig deeper” into small-space design concepts. (While used by NASA and other space exploration programs, the Mars Desert Research Station is owned and operated by the Mars Society, a Colorado-based nonprofit.)

According to a blog dispatch, the team hoped to emerge from the claustrophobic confines of the simulated Mars surface exploration habitat with a greater understanding of the relationship between comfort and compact living as well as additional insights into how consumers feel about and interact with small domestic spaces. With an eye toward mobility and dense urban environments where living space often comes at a premium, IKEA has been at the forefront of small space living for some time now.

IKEA notes that for the first time in history, urban centers are now more populated than rural areas. By 2050, the United Nations predicts that roughly 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities. "Hence, more people are and will be in need of new solutions for their homes," reads a press release. "In spaceflights, small space living has always been a reality. IKEA will therefore tap in to what scientists and engineers learn from spaceflight to Mars, and apply these discoveries to products and methods for everyday life at home, here on Earth."

With the recent sojourn — essentially, a super-abbreviated version of the months-long Mars Training Program — into the Utah desert, IKEA is elevating research into downsizing and zero-waste to the next plateau.

Calling the experience “crazy, fun,” Michael Nikolic, creative leader for IKEA Range and Supply, notes that the extreme isolation was “almost like that misery you feel when you’re out camping. But of course, it’s great to be able to sit down and really spend time with amazingly creative people. That in itself is a luxury.” (Most of us would beg to differ on that misery part; perhaps something has been lost translation.)

Mars Desert Research Station, Utah
We're not in Småland anymore: A small team of in-house designers from IKEA recently decamped to a Mars simulation habitat in the remote Utah desert. (Photo: IKEA)

A furniture collection about 'appreciating what we have on Earth'

IKEA's space-inspired initiative/collection was announced in a typically splashy manner last week at Democratic Design Days, an annual media hootenanny held at the company mothership in Älmhult, Sweden. As reported by Quartz, Adams and the IKEA team were beamed in via live satellite from the research station to speak to reporters assembled in Älmhult about their experiences.

“I’ve got them on a schedule very much like a schedule a Mars crew would have,” said Adams.

This all said, the home furnishing behemoth’s latest venture might at first appear to be a gimmicky PR stunt from a company that has perfected the art of the gimmicky PR stunt. But that’s not the case here as IKEA seems to be going all in with this one.

Beyond the three-day excursion to the Mars Desert Research Station, Quartz notes that IKEA plans to continue working alongside Adams, the architect responsible for the transit habitat for the first human mission to Mars, as well as Sweden’s Lund University School of Industrial Design, which has been sending graduate students to NASA-run programs since the late 1990s.

As part of this project IKEA will also look into the habitat which NASA are planning to put on Mars. We will look at how we together can solve the interior of the Mars habitat, where IKEA will contribute with our experience and knowledge about what makes a home feel like home to people, even if it is on Mars.

Other than being described as "curious," there’s no word what the actual collection resulting from IKEA’s first foray into space exploration might look like when launched on this planet in 2019. It's also unclear if there will be an all-important food component. (Freeze-dried Swedish meatballs in lingonberry sauce, anyone?)

But as Nikolic explains: "I think that the essence of this collection will be about appreciating what we have on Earth: human beings, plants, clean water and air. But also diversity and a sense of belonging — things that we take for granted on a daily basis. After this journey, it’ll probably feel pretty awesome to come home to my own bed."

"This collaboration is not about IKEA going to Mars, but we are curious about life in space, the challenges and needs, and what we can make out of that experience for the many people," Nikolic elaborates in a separate statement. "When you design for life in a spacecraft or planetary surface habitat on Mars, you need to be creative yet precise, find ways to repurpose things and think carefully about sustainability aspects. With urbanisation and environmental challenges on earth, we need to do the same."