IKEA’s New Collection is Inspired by the Challenges of Living on Mars

The Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) is a simulated Martian habitat in Utah. It’s owned by the Mars Society, and it’s the society’s second such station. The MDRS is a research facility, and while there, scientists must live as if they were on Mars, including wearing simulated space suits.

One group of visitors wasn’t there for science, but for interior design. Two years ago, a trio of Ikea designers spent three days at the MDRS to develop Ikea products for small spaces. As it turns out, they ended up using their experience at the MDRS to help outfit the MDRS itself.

The Ikea team wanted to know how thinking like a spaceship or space station designer could help them design products for tiny living quarters in the World’s mega-cities. Places like Hong Kong feature tiny apartments, spaces so small it would make the average North American claustrophobic.

Tiny living quarters are a reality for many people in the world. The question for the designers was: Could they learn valuable lessons from or space habitats like the MDRS that could translate into private living quarters? Those tiny apartments are people’s homes, and they not only need to provide for day to day living, they need to be psychologically comfortable. The same is true for astronauts on long-duration space missions.

One of the bedrooms in the pod. Not a very inviting space. Researchers only spend a couple weeks at the MDRS. What would it be like to spend a month or two in this bedroom? Image Credit: Ikea
One of the bedrooms in the pod. Not a very inviting space. Researchers only spend a couple weeks at the MDRS, but what would it be like to spend a month or two in this bedroom? Image Credit: Ikea

Two years ago, after they left the station, Ikea designer Christina Levenborn said “It was very apparent that all the human values that we take for granted weren’t taken into consideration, like eating together, enjoying entertaining activities and, especially your personal privacy.”

That’s not surprising, especially from someone who specializes in design. Spaceships, space stations, and research stations like MDRS are designed with technical considerations at the forefront. It’s the same with the pods at the research station, and that’s the way it has to be. As another of the designers said, “Of course there’s a lot technically that needs to play a big part of these pods, but more interesting is the fact that the technical aspect can fail at any given moment because of the emotional climate in the pod.”

The MDRS campus includes the habitat, a greenhouse, a solar observatory, a robotic observatory, an engineering pod and a science building. Image Credit: By Bandgirl807 - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6772972
The MDRS campus includes the habitat, a greenhouse, a solar observatory, a robotic observatory, an engineering pod and a science building. Image Credit: By Bandgirl807 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6772972

Like a home, a research station contains both group spaces and private spaces. The Ikea designers focused on making both spaces more inviting, more comfortable, and more practical. Flexibility and modularity was key.

They developed what they’re calling the Rumtid line. Rumtid translates as space time, and those two words are part of the theme behind Rumtid. Ikea’s Rumtid actually encompasses four words: space, time, water, and air.

A floor plan for the MDRS Habitat. Image Credit: Mars Society
<Click to enlarge.> A floor plan for the MDRS Habitat. Image Credit: Mars Society

But the designers’ work didn’t end with a new product line. They also returned the favor to the MDRS. They came up with interior layouts and design strategies to make the place more livable, more effective, and more psychologically comfortable.

“When we first got there, the condition of that pod was a bit surprising. We expected it to be more modern,” Robert explains. So the Ikea team set out to modernize it. Not with fancy, extraneous items, but with practical ideas.

They worked to create harmonious group spaces alongside a sense of privacy in personal spaces. That’s not easy in such cramped quarters. They used modular furniture on wheels, and shelving and warm lighting to make the space more home-like.

“We tried to work with products for small space living situation that could be arranged in a flexible and multi-functional way. For the habitat, we brought products on wheels for mobile living, stools for seating and table surfaces and stackable chairs for saving space,” designer Christina Levenborn said in the Ikea blog.

It’ll be a while before people are spending time at a real Mars outpost. But these things have a way of creeping up on us. Successful missions depend on getting the technical requirements right. But astronauts are still people, and though they’re remarkably focused, providing them with some sense of psychological comfort in their surroundings is just setting them up for success. It’s common sense.

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