For more than a decade, industrial designer Jan Dranger carried out an enormous amount of research and development work aimed at creating a totally new concept in furniture which is comfortable, inexpensive, durable, and environmentally sound. The breakthrough came in 1993 when a solution was patented that had all the desired qualities. Seeing the commercial potential, Jan Dranger formed, together with IKEA, the development company news design DFE AB. (DFE stands for Design For Environment).
Under the brand name SoftAir, news design DFE AB has produced, exclusively, furniture products incorporating Dranger’s revolutionary new 'air-bag' technology, since September 1997. The furniture is sold around the world by IKEA (www.ikeaair.com), and by Muji (www.muji.co.jp) in Japan. It is available from approximately 250 stores worldwide and some 150.000 units have been sold to date at a total turnover of SEK 130 million (Euro 15 million).
Pressure to Find Eco-Efficient Solutions
As the twentieth century draws to a close, the welfare state is coming under increasing scrutiny and all around the world people are discussing environmental issues with great concern. International declarations, such as Agenda 21, are aimed at a new world careful about recycling the earth’s scarce resources.
Environmental legislation will be used to force industry to come up with more efficient solutions. Laws have already been introduced in Japan (against the disposal of mattresses and beds - 1995) and in Germany (on producers’ responsibility - 1997). Many more are bound to follow. Basically, future laws will require companies to produce more responsibly and make products which meet legislated environmental standards. A used sofa, for example, at the end of its life, will ultimately simply be sent back to the factory. There will be no choice, but to find new solutions.
Finding a balance between comfort, price, and ecologically sound design has been described as 'mastering the elements'. What is, perhaps, most remarkable about the new 'air' furniture is that it manages to be both functional and durable, while at the same time being comfortable and achieving low environmental impact.
The Eco-Efficient Solution
The idea of filling sofas and armchairs with air has been around for more than 100 years, but putting the concept into practice has proved a difficult challenge. Some models were on sale back in the ‘70s. In those days, however, they used PVC bags welded together and then inflated to the shape of the furniture. But the quality was unsatisfactory, the PVC uncomfortable and - perhaps worst of all - the air leaked out. PVC was also highly questionable from an ecological point of view.
The basic principle of using air was nothing short of a stroke of genius. A construction which would make it possible to sell sofas and armchairs in flat packages bore the promise of enormous savings for manufacturers, retailers, customers and the environment.
Jan Dranger was finally able to perfect his ideas in 1993 with the development of a soft, high-tech material known as olefin plastic, along with a suitable manufacturing technique in Sweden. Together these constitute the trademark SoftAir Technology (several international patents pending).
The central frame of each item of furniture consists of a number of plastic containers, or 'air cells' (see picture), manufactured in an industrial process. These are inflated using the air from a hair dryer. The appropriate slipcover is turned upside down, the elements are placed inside it and the zip is closed. The furniture can then be filled with air, assembled and be ready for use within less than half an hour.
The manufacturing technique ensures that the air cells have no seams which can leak air - and the filling cap has an absolutely air-tight seal. There is no need to refill the cells for at least 3 years. And by varying the amount of air, users can decide for themselves exactly how soft or firm they want their armchairs or sofas to be.
The plastic material, the quality and the functionality of the new design have all been thoroughly tested. The furniture meets the requirements of Möbelfakta, the recognized durability test for furniture in Sweden. Its durability satisfies even the exacting standards required for furniture to be used in public areas in Sweden. All of which goes to prove that SoftAir furniture is at least as hard-wearing, and long-lasting, as conventionally upholstered furniture.
What defines an ecologically sound piece of furniture is complex, but it could simply be described as 'a long-lasting piece of furniture that, from start to finish, uses a minimum of resources and is made of a maximum of recyclable materials'. And that includes everything from materials, production, packaging, distribution, storage and consumption to collection, transport and disassembly. This is why SoftAir has taken some 20 years to be developed.
Summary of the Benefits
Materials & energy use
The material used (PE-LD) is the only polymer product approved by leading environmental agencies since it is one of the purest in existence and 100% recyclable. It has been specially developed for SoftAir and does not include any of the substances on the list of the Swedish Chemical Inspection authorities, i.e. no heavy metals and no softeners.
So, in this case, plastic can actually be seen to have advantages over the many other materials which have, up to now, been used as fillings in traditional upholstered furniture. Since PE-LD is the largest plastic group, the material from which the furniture is made is easy to recycle to new products.
One other important advantage of PE-LD is that, in the event of fire, it gives off very little energy, no toxic fumes and only a small amount of smoke - which, in a fire involving traditionally-made furniture, can sometimes be deadly.
With the SoftAir concept, the material and energy used during the lifetime of the product is reduced by 85% compared to traditionally-made furniture. And it lasts at least as long as traditional upholstered furniture. The difference in material used is dramatically illustrated by comparing the weight of a traditional sofa with that of a SoftAir one. On average, a regular sofa’s weight is 70 kg. A SoftAir sofa weighs just 10 kg.
There are also significant energy savings in the transportation and storage of SoftAir furniture because it is delivered in flat packages.
Collection and disassembly
SoftAir furniture consists of only two components (plastic and textile) which makes disassembly very simple.
The average cost of disposal for a regular sofa is about $115. The cost of collecting and disassembling a SoftAir product is $0.
Distribution and stock-holding
Its 85-90% less volume in packaged form makes a SoftAir product very attractive for selling via the Internet, or by mail-order. Its low volume also makes it particularly suitable for less-developed countries, whose infrastructure - roads, trucks, harbors etc. - is less sophisticated.
There are two key advantages in the manufacturing process of this furniture:
- it uses significantly less components,
- fast and specialized component manufacturing techniques can be employed (e.g. no traditional upholstery is required).
Both advantageous lower the costs, higher the speed in production. The industrial advantages together with international patents gives an advantage over the competition. These advantages alone result in the cost of SoftAir furniture being about 50% lower than the cheapest upholstered furniture at IKEA.
The Bottom Line
By being successfully designed and produced as the world’s first comfortable furniture with low environmental impact - within the reach of a large number of consumers SoftAir products also find themselves in the unique position of being:
- the world’s first truly mass-produced sofas, armchairs, beds, etc.,
- the world’s first long-lasting flat-pack upholstery, and
- the world’s first inexpensive upholstery with improved fire safety.