Lars Engman learned the hard way that furniture needs to do more than just look good. After his 6-year-old daughter and her rambunctious pals destroyed his expensive Italian-made sofa in three months in the 1970s, the Ikea product developer was inspired to create an equally stylish but kidproof alternative. "I wanted it to be hard-wearing and kid-friendly without compromising on design," says Engman, now Ikea's design manager, based in Almhult, Sweden. It would have to be soft around the edges yet sturdy enough to withstand years of wear and tear, and have machine-washable slipcovers to make it easy to keep clean. More important, it would have to meet the Ikea challenge of good looks at a low price. A tall order. But after endless testing of materials and fabrics, Klippan was born in 1980. More than two decades later, the $249 love seat with its clean lines, bright colors, simple legs, and compact size remains one of Ikea's best-sellers with 1.5 million sold since 1998.
The saga of the Klippan is that of Ikea in miniature: strong design, logistical efficiency, and constant cost-cutting. Although the sofa was initially manufactured in Sweden, soon after Ikea outsourced production to lower-cost suppliers in Poland. As the Klippan's popularity grew, the company decided it made more sense to work with suppliers in each of Ikea's big markets to avoid having to ship the product all over the world. Today, there are five suppliers for the frames in Europe, plus three in the U.S. and two in China, each of which is guaranteed a minimum volume.
After much experimenting with different materials, the frames are now made from a combination of particleboard, fiberboard, and polyurethane foam, a mix that is cheaper and lighter in weight than solid wood. It wasn't until last year, though, that Ikea finally figured out how to break down the Klippan so it could be flat-packed. Now the frame comes in four separate pieces: The armrests and back slip into slots in the seating base. The new system saves 50% on shipping costs and also frees up room at Ikea's warehouses.
The cotton slipcovers for the Klippan have also gotten cheaper. By centralizing everything from the production of the fabric to the stitching of the covers to just four core suppliers in China and Europe, Ikea has been able to lower the retail price of the covers by 20% since 2004.
Even after a product is designed and in the stores, Ikea never stops seeking ways to lower costs. For instance, it discovered that by using a different type of production process, it could cut down the number of materials used to make the Klippan sofa cushions to just two. All of these efficiencies have allowed Ikea to slash the Klippan's price some 40% since 1999. Currently it sells for around $249 in the U.S., but the price next year will fall to $202 -- affordable even for a cash-strapped college student, or a harried family with little kids.