Sarah Fager, 40, is one of 12 IKEA in-house designers in Sweden. Having started as an intern at IKEA in Sweden in 2007, she has designed more than 200 products.
My parents came to Canada in the early seventies for work; my dad was a mining engineer. They didn’t want to move up north in Sweden because we’re from the south, so they moved to British Columbia. They started a family and moved to New Brunswick, then to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, where I was born. They’re the reason I love IKEA so much because there was a store in Dartmouth, their place to feel Swedishness, being so far away from their home. They could eat meatballs, look at Swedish-style furniture and get things for their home.
I didn’t know “designer” was a profession. I thought maybe [I’d be] an artist like my mother, maybe a photographer, so I chose arts and crafts. My brothers chose more academic directions – doctor, biochemist, an engineer – my sister is a musician.
I was interested in how people lived and how my home should be – not only about looks, more about function. I went to learn furniture carpentry at a Swedish “folk high school,” a school that gives possibilities to people in rural areas to gain basic knowledge and portfolios for applying to universities. I did two years, then applied for a Bachelor of Industrial Design focused on furniture at Malmstens Linkoping University in Sweden, including a half-year in 2005 at Emily Carr [University of Art & Design] in Vancouver. I didn’t want to be a superstar designer because that’s not me. I’m more interested in teamwork.
Getting accepted to the internship was a dream come true. It’s very difficult to become an IKEA in-house designer in the design department of 12 designers. I got a short-term contract, then a bit-longer contract, then, when pregnant with my first child, they employed me. Every half year we take in two or three interns for five months. One of my first assignments – still in stores – was the Prickig microwave lid. I first bought everything I designed and took it home, but I don’t any longer.
Democratic design is a tool we use to develop products in five dimensions; it should have a beautiful form because that’s what attracts. It should have a function, be good quality, sustainable and a reasonable price. Because our volumes are so high, we’re interested in techniques that are machine-operated because we can control quality and optimize production. We think people, especially ones who don’t have a lot money or resources or live small, they also deserve a good, decent, well-functioning home. There’s a real purpose why we do things; the values correspond well with my own.
I’m involved in a social initiative in India. Women have skills, own their companies and produce on a small scale. I come with the knowledge of what customers would like; we can sell their products in one store or one country. You meet these women and understand you’re creating a better life for them because they can put their kids into school. For women to have decent jobs is the only way out of poverty – to be part of that is amazing. There are different ways of using design as a social tool, this is one for the heart.
One important thing as a designer, woman and mother – I support the women around me in many ways. It could be a junior designer, an intern. Women should absolutely help each other much more; I feel because they’re women that’s their superpower. You need to be tough, soft, smart, blonde – all those things. It’s very important to inspire other women – you can combine good work, home life and have kids. It’s easy in Sweden to be this person because [our] government has supported women for a long time.
A part of me is very Canadian, a big part of me is Swedish. It’s unique in Sweden to have dual citizenship – I used it when I studied in Vancouver because I could pay the same fees as a Canadian. To be a part of such a beautiful country with the values Canada has, has made me very proud.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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