The composite material used in IKEA’s Ellan rocker is lighter than plastic, but just as durable. Photo: IKEA

The composite material used in IKEA’s Ellan rocker is lighter than plastic, but just as durable. Photo: IKEA

It’s been claimed that the IKEA catalogue is second only to the Bible among the world’s most widely distributed publications. Whether that particular factoid is true or not, the guide to affordable design put out by Sweden’s leading home furnishings retailer—with an annual circulation of about 100 million in some 40 different editions—has a huge readership.

From modest beginnings selling to price-conscious consumers in its home market, IKEA has grown into an international powerhouse by offering functional, simple and aesthetically inspiring goods. Shoppers all over the world have learned the joys of spending a pleasant afternoon wandering a gigantic maze of bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens, grabbing a few flat-packs off the shelves, taking the swag home and following the assembly instructions.

Here’s a great example: Ellan, a rocker that IKEA calls a “crazy chair”. It comes in the signature thin, compact box, and you assemble it at home without any tools or hardware. Everything extraneous has been designed away, and the chair is completely recyclable. It’s constructed of a material called “wood plastic composite”. Here’s how the craziness comes together:

Resource efficient production

The Ellan rocking chair is produced by Nolato Alpha in a composite material consisting of 51 per cent wood residue and 49 per cent plastic. Manufacturing is resource efficient because more than half of the material is recycled. Surprisingly, the composite weighs less than pure plastic with the same mechanical properties, cutting transport expenses and energy consumption.

“Creating a composite of plastic and wood is nothing exceptional,” says Henrik Enoksson technical director at Nolato Alpha. “Extruding items where the surface isn’t so important is a standard process these days. But designing an entire chair with all parts exposed was a technical challenge. We use injection moulding to cast the chair, put it in a flat-pack and deliver to IKEA worldwide.”

IKEA places stringent requirements on the surfaces, and users certainly want the chair to be comfortable for the arms, back and bottom.  Multiple test runs were required before the injection moulding process met the requirements.

The surface of the rocking chair has a special structure that can be lacquered to reach the qualities envisioned by the designer. Wouldn’t it be possible to use recycled plastic to make Ellan out of 100 per cent recycled materials? According to Henrik, there’s no technical hindrance, but the supply of recycled plastics with the right composition and quality is lacking for the time being.

A slightly less crazy chair is IKEA’s Ögla, which has been part of the product range for years. Also manufactured by Nolato Alpha, Ögla is made of the same wood plastic composite as the Ellan chair.

Published in January 2009