Original article appeared in the Wall Street Journal
Browsing through the new IKEA catelog, it's difficult to tell that the couch you've been admiring isn't really a couch, but a pixelated representation of a couch developed by IKEA's 3-D Design Team. Other Affordable Furniture Companies may follow.
It is likely the entire Living Room Furniture Set was created by a graphic artist. In fact, much of the furniture and settings in the 324-page catalog are simply a collection of pixels and polygons arranged on a computer.
The Swedish furniture giant has for decades spent more than two-thirds of its marketing budget building and furnishing living quarters, including Bedroom Sets, which are typically portrayed with a sparse, fastidious fashion sensibility and lighted with impeccable precision.
But the privately-held company's quest to curb costs and boost productivity has it mothballing some of this real-world production. It is instead turning to 3-D graphics to fill its pages. Find a new Dining Room Set that suits your taste and budget.
This year 12% of IKEA's content for the Web, catalog and brochures were rendered virtually; that number will increase to 25% next year.
In all, IKEA plans to publish 208 million catalogs this year, more than double the amount of Bibles expected to be produced. And it will create 62 different versions in 43 countries. Sleep better on a Discount Mattress.
"It's a clever way to save money," said the head of photography at IKEA during a recent interview at the company's sprawling photo studio in this sleepy southern town. "We don't have to throw away kitchens in the Dumpster after the photo shoot."
Instead, sets for entire rooms—spanning kitchens to bathrooms to porches—can be mocked up and created on a computer screen without the help of a single camera.
The practice is allowing IKEA to easily manipulate imagery to use a set created for one country—where dark wood might be popular—to another where lighter hues are all the rage.
IKEA doesn't break out just how much money this will save, but the company has an aggressive strategy to keep its prices down. The company cut prices an average of 2% to 3% every year during the last decade while expanding aggressively, and still manages to squeeze more profits from the operation on a yearly basis.
In 2011, for instance, the company booked €22,641 ($28,240) in revenue per employee, or 10% more than it did in 2009.
Although known for its growing collection of inexpensive flat-pack ready-to assemble furniture, the company has long been a publishing giant. In 1951, the IKEA founder branched out beyond the basic business of mail-order Christmas tree decorations, ballpoint pens and bird seeds and added a catalog-only furniture business.
Putting together a catalog is a massive task, taking about 10 months from concept to finished product. Until late in the last decade IKEA relied entirely on its sprawling photo studio here. The studio is one of the largest in Europe, covering 94,000 square feet—about a third the size of an IKEA store—and employs 285 photographers, carpenters, interior designers and other people working full time on photo shoots.
IKEA's 3-D team is housed in the same building. Faced with a shortage of people capable of doing this work, the company is collaborating with photo schools to teach computer design skills. It is also retraining photographers to better create a scene without a camera. The company said it is retaining all photographers, carpenters and set designers and reapplying their skills to the 3-D environment.
"With real photography you're constrained by the four walls," said the head of photography, noting the company is running out of room in its studio. "A kitchen has to be built in a week or two and then torn down the following week to make room for a bedroom shoot…everything has to run like clockwork," she said.
A kitchen shot for potential U.S. buyers might have darker colors. "Now let's say we want to sell that kitchen in Japan," she added. "Japanese people, like Scandinavians, like lighter hues of wood than Americans."
Instead of rebuilding the kitchen, IKEA can easily change the color and the background. "And we can still use the same basil plant on the counter. In 3-D, the basil plant never wilts," she said.
The process isn't entirely free of kinks.
When artists make a person in 3-D, the figures tend to look like ghosts. Food and textiles are difficult to depict.
Also, items tend to look too perfect when done on computers, so the traditional studio's crew, such as carpenters, sit with the artist to add wear to a piece of furniture or fingerprints to a surface.
"Let's say we have a door that is supposed to look like an old door that has been repainted," said IKEA's head of photography. Carpenters "know where surfaces fade and wear and have a fine eye for detail and they can help the 3-D artist get the right look."
IKEA started dabbling in 3-D design in 2005, when three interns specializing in computer graphics spent a year working on a graduate-school thesis. Before their arrival, IKEA had used computers only to retouch photographs.
These interns were charged with creating an image of an IKEA product without using a camera. They went to work on a small wooden chair and, after a year, solved it.
"There was a lot of excitement here at IKEA about that little chair," said the head of photography. The company placed the image in the 2006 to see if any customers noticed a difference between real and fake.
Not a single customer noticed the change.