When designer Alsun Keogh began renovating a New York City loft for a young bachelor last fall, she took him through Manhattan’s temples of kitchen design.
They admired the silky glide of drawers; they caressed counters and studied every minute design detail. “He’d say ‘I love this,’ ” recalled Keogh, who owns the firm Nusla Design. “And I’d be like, ‘This is a $100,000 kitchen.’ For a guy who doesn’t cook, it was maybe a little much.”
When her client hesitated, Keogh began searching for other options. Online, she found Reform, a young Danish company with an ingenious money-saving solution — cabinet doors, panels and counters designed by some of the world’s foremost architects that could be used to disguise economical innards from Ikea. It promised designer kitchens with premium finishes at a fraction of the usual cost.
Keogh designed the basic shape of the 130-square-foot kitchen online with Ikea’s Home Planner tool, and visited a nearby Ikea store to ensure that she had all the necessary components. The order for the cabinet boxes and hardware, including motorized push openers and internal lights, cost about $1,600.
She sent her kitchen drawing to Reform, and selected the company’s most expensive option — the bronze doors by Norm Architects, paired with concrete counters with waterfall edges and an integrated sink. The cabinet fronts, toe kicks and panels for integrated refrigerator drawers and a dishwasher cost about $5,000. Counters for a bank of cabinetry and an island cost about $8,500.
The resulting look stands up to other high-end designer kitchens, Keogh said, but in terms of price, “it was a massive difference.” Estimates from the other companies ranged from $40,000 to $80,000.
Reform is focused not only on Ikea hacking, the do-it-yourself repurposing of Ikea products to serve other functions, but on decidedly upscale upgrades — call it Ikea bling. It is one of numerous companies now building businesses around the notion of giving Ikea products more aesthetic diversity and appeal.
Others offering doors for Ikea kitchens, without Reform’s big-name collaborators, include Semihandmade, Dunsmuir Cabinets and Kokeena. For furniture, companies like Sweden’s Bemz are making beautiful slipcovers with designer-grade fabric for Ikea sofas and chairs.
Jeppe Christensen and Michael Andersen founded Reform in Copenhagen in 2014. Both had previously sold custom kitchens, and saw a hole in the middle of the market between basic and bank-account-burning options.
“When you do kitchens, you know the dilemma — Ikea does good quality, and all the rest do design, but they’re expensive,” said Andersen.
Ikea uses the same hinges, drawer slides and other hardware as many high-end kitchen manufacturers, he added.
Inevitably, Christensen said: “We would tell the client, ‘You can save half if you use Ikea carcasses, and we just skin it.’ That’s where the initial idea started.”
Sensing that there was a bigger business opportunity than producing a few one-off kitchens, they discussed the concept for Reform over a beer and soon compiled a list of three collaborators that represented their Danish design dream team: BIG, Henning Larsen and Norm.
“We never imagined they would all say yes,” Andersen said.
But they did, and Reform introduced its first architect-designed collection in August 2015. The company sold about 200 kitchens in 2015, 500 last year, and is on track to sell 1,000 this year, to homeowners in more than 20 countries, Christensen said. About 10 percent of Reform’s sales have been in the United States.
The company recently expanded into furniture, including a credenza designed by the Swedish firm Afteroom with fluted doors over Ikea guts. It has also introduced more kitchen designs, including one with full-height ash handles and rails by Danish designer Chris L. Halstrom, and another with aluminum fronts and integrated pulls by Berlin-based architect Sigurd Larsen.
So far, the founders have had little contact with Ikea, except for a letter from the company’s lawyers.
“It was the nicest letter ever from their lawyers saying, ‘It’s fine, you can do whatever, just remember that we have a registered trademark,’ ” Christensen said. (There is now a disclaimer buried deep in Reform’s website indicating that the company is not affiliated with Ikea.)
Indeed, Ikea appears to be actively encouraging the development of products from other companies that expand on its core collections.
In April, the company introduced Delaktig, its concept for a transformable bed-sofa by British designer Tom Dixon that invites outside companies to make add-ons. For the prototype, Ikea partnered with Bemz to create an intensely shaggy slipcover made of brownish-black Icelandic longhaired sheepskin.
Lesley Pennington, the founder of Bemz, likened the Delaktig cover to “haute couture.” Her company carries more than 300 fabrics, including some used by professional interior designers, such as textiles from Designers Guild and Romo. They can be ordered as covers for more than 100 models of Ikea furniture, with sofa covers starting at $99 and running well past $1,000.
“Our customers can take a piece of mass-market furniture and create something that is personal and unique,” said Pennington, noting that Bemz sells 3,000 to 5,000 covers a month to customers in 42 countries. “We have beautiful cottons, linens and velvets. Some people actually purchase an Ikea sofa for the first time because of the opportunity to purchase a cover from Bemz.”
Like an app
Products from Ikea are becoming so ubiquitous that Pennington sees some parallels between the emergence of companies like Reform and Bemz and the developers of iPhone apps.
“This whole ecosystem around Ikea products is something quite unique in the furniture industry, but we’ve seen it in the technology industry for a long time now,” said Pennington, who worked at Apple before founding Bemz.
Just as app developers have given the iPhone new functions, these furniture companies are giving Ikea’s utilitarian offerings an unforeseen sense of style in an affordable package.
That combination of high style and low cost, said Pennington, “says something about the future of design.”