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Mia Lundström: The homemaker

Ikea India's creative director on setting up house in India, and the nuances of democratic design

Lundström would like people to stop thinking that sleeping on a hard surface is good for their backs. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint<br />
Lundström would like people to stop thinking that sleeping on a hard surface is good for their backs. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Mia Lundström’s life has been in a bit of a tizzy since August, when she shifted bed, cupboard and table from Älmhult, Sweden, to the company’s corporate office in Gurgaon, near Delhi. On Valentine’s Day weekend, for instance, the 57-year-old arrived from Sweden and dashed off to Mumbai, where she spoke at an industry panel and at the India Design Forum, both of which were part of the Make in India exposition held from 13-18 February. She even managed to squeeze in a day-long trip to Delhi during her Mumbai sojourn. When I told her that I too did a spot of travelling over that weekend, to Ajmer and Jaipur, she listened intently and sighed. “I get so many suggestions of places to visit, but then how will I get any work done?"

Lundström is the creative director of Ikea India. The Swedish company, which was started by Ingvar Kamprad (the first two letters of Ikea come from his initials) in 1943, is recognized globally for its Do-It-Yourself furniture, sold at low price points. It will open its first retail outlet in Hyderabad late next year on a 13-acre plot near Hitec City. By 2025, Ikea plans to invest 10,500 crore and open 25 stores across India. Each store will have 500-700 employees.

At The Economist’s India Summit 2015, held in New Delhi in September, Ikea India’s chief executive officer Juvencio Maeztu had said the company had no plans to sell online, but that view has clearly changed since. In November, the government allowed single-brand retailers with foreign investment to sell online, and Ikea will open its e-commerce site for India along with its first retail store. According to figures for September 2014-August 2015, shared by the company, its online business of €1 billion ( 7,525 crore now) accounted for 3% of its total sales globally. Its decision to move into e-commerce in India is clearly a response to the numerous furniture retail websites that have opened in the past few years to cater to the young urban middle class with purchasing power. Ikea, traditionally a brick-and-mortar store, seems loath to let this opportunity slip past.

Lundström and I are meeting at a restaurant called The Good Wife—an apt name, I realize, as the conversation turns to Ikea’s findings on Indian homes and gender roles—and Lundström has come straight from the airport on a day when Mumbai’s auto drivers are on strike, and private cab services are overbooked. Inside the restaurant, English tracks play on as employees from the surrounding offices at the tony Bandra Kurla Complex, which houses several multinational corporations, chatter over a hurried lunch. We decide to order the Express Lunch, which comes with a salad, a main course and a dessert (we skip the last).

In parenthesis: During a home visit in Delhi to understand how Indian homes are designed, Lundström met a woman in her mid-30s. When she asked her if she would ever buy a dishwasher, the woman said no, because her domestic help did the dishes. “What if I give you Rs30,000 to buy an appliance for the house? You can’t buy gold,” Lundström said. Pat came the response, “Oh, in that case, I’d buy a dishwasher.”

Lundström, who has had two stints with Ikea—an earlier 12-year stint and the current 14-year one—has faced many challenges in her work life, but what is truly impressive is that at 57, the Swede—a single woman, and mother of a 21-year-old who divides her time between Sweden and San Francisco, where she’s completing her studies—didn’t think twice about setting up base in a country so unlike her own. What was it like setting up home in chaotic Gurgaon?

“Well, tough, especially because Ikea was not available," Lundström laughs. Her first teenage room, she says, was designed with Ikea furniture. “But when I came to India, I realized how easy and fantastic it is to get things made from a carpenter." One of Lundström’s favourite pieces of furniture in her India home is a glass-door cabinet in the dining room that she designed and asked a carpenter to make. “It’s super nice," she says. The measurement was a bit off, however, so the cupboard couldn’t fit into her building’s lift. The piece had to be cut and put back together inside her home—a bit like the Ikea furniture that is meant to be assembled by the user.

According to Keith Murphy, author of Swedish Design: An Ethnography, Ikea pioneered the flat-pack concept of self-assembly furniture. The book quotes the founder: “To create a better everyday life for many, we shall offer a wider range of well-designed products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them."

The largest furniture retailer in the world now sells in 47 countries.

On the weekends that she doesn’t work or travel, Lundström visits the textile shops at Nehru Place in south Delhi to sift through pieces of fabric. “I love to look at them. They are almost collectibles to me." She has used these textiles for furniture, and for cushion covers.

The Indian market that Ikea hopes to crack presents both an opportunity and a challenge, even though the firm has been working with Indian suppliers since the late 1980s—it has 48 at present—and has worked with Indian freelance designers as well. Two years ago, Ikea collaborated with an Indian design institute for the first time. It tied up with the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi to create a range of bedsheets, cushion covers and fabric, among other things, that will be available in stores from this summer.

The government mandates that single-brand retail in foreign direct investment needs to source 30% of its products locally over a span of five years after its first store opens. Ikea hopes to source heavy products like sofa frames and mattresses, which are not easy to import, and bamboo, among other sustainable items. It has been sourcing carpets and rugs from Bhadohi, near Varanasi, for nearly three decades. As with some of its other markets, 5-10% of its range will have products specifically for the Indian market, such as pressure cookers and tawas (griddles).

She is also a keen cook. “My maid has a problem because she also likes to cook, but we have a lot of fun together. I have taught her some Swedish dishes, and she has taught me so much about Indian food. I can make quite a good dal now." The kitchen, where she spends the maximum amount of time, is a space that she feels Indian homes need to think about more. “Having a nice-looking kitchen, a well-functioning one and also some space for storage (a mechanism) for easy cleaning, creates a nice environment. I would love to show Indian people how this would improve their lives, since they spend so much time around the kitchen. Women spend so many hours cooking. They should feel happy standing there.

“We are speaking about family life, and lately our focus has been on food. There is a food story that we can tell. Products that help segregate waste, or help you eat food, how you can save energy... We have all these," says Lundström. The common thread behind all Ikea products is their “democratic design", she says. This is a five-pronged idea: sustainability, form, functionality, quality and price. All these must be checked before a product rolls out, but for her, sustainability and price points are the most significant. “If you don’t score well on these, then you have to argue very hard for your products to make it to the (Ikea) range."

Over the past few years, Ikea has been conducting home visits in four cities where it wants to set up stores first—Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru. While its teams have met over 500 families, Lundström has visited at least 50 of them in the past few months to understand the way people live so that their stores can reflect this.

Lundström says we don’t design homes for the different individuals who live in it. One of her peeves is the commonly held belief that people should sleep on a hard surface if they have any back problems. “That is simply not true. And women, especially, need to sleep on a mattress that provides support to every curve of their body." The same holds true for chairs—Lundström finds it odd that all chairs around a dining table are usually similar, whereas it would be perfectly understandable to have chairs based on each family member’s needs. “The home is the glue for Indian people. The more time I spend here, the more I realize how important this is."

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