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Inside Mars Simulator, IKEA Designers Learn How To Live In Close Quarters


Five Ikea designers last week were envisioning tiny houses meet Mars.


The Swedish furniture company sent these designers to the middle of Utah to the Mars Desert Research Station along with a space trainer. Michael Nikolic is the lead Ikea designer.

MICHAEL NIKOLIC: These it not the journey - going to Mars only. It is also about understanding, how do people live in all the parts of different areas in the world?

SHAPIRO: And specifically, how do people live comfortably in close quarters?

CORNISH: Inside the Mars simulator, there is no room for Billy bookcases or even Ikea's Swedish meatballs. The simulator is a squat, one-story cylinder just 26 feet across.

SHAPIRO: Six people have to live in that 26-foot-wide space.

CORNISH: The Ikea designers ate, exorcized, came up with creative thoughts for three whole days.

NIKOLIC: We were smelling not too good after three days.

SHAPIRO: Nikolic says they tried to deal with that smell the way space travelers might. They used wet cloths.

CORNISH: On Mars, no one can take a shower or a bath. They have to conserve resources and make the most out of the small space.

NIKOLIC: You have a kitchen or a galley where you make your food. You have a sleeping area - side by side, six people with some thin walls. And you have a toilet that are actually side by your sleeping also with a thin wall. So you can imagine what's happen when people were going to the toilet.

SHAPIRO: Actually, we'd rather not imagine that.

CORNISH: Well, for three days, the designers and their trainer ate a strictly vegan diet - salad, berries and carrots. But the point of their experience wasn't to design better habitats on Mars. It was to design better living spaces on Earth.

NIKOLIC: Because there are a lot of people that are moving to big cities, and urbanization is bigger every year. And that mean also people - they live in a smaller space. And that is kind of the things and the learnings we are trying to solve in a better way in our development and in our designs when it comes to products.

SHAPIRO: A typical Mars simulation lasts from 90 days to a year. Michael Nikolic says his Ikea team only got a taste, and that was enough. He says it was like camping. They bonded, and after three days, they were happy it was over and that it wasn't 90 days of living elbow to elbow, toe to toe, bed to toilet.

NIKOLIC: There is a lot of things that you're longing for or you appreciate, and that's probably the learning of this whole journey - that of everything good, what you have in Earth and what you're longing for and that you can actually feel already after three days.

CORNISH: As for the ideas that Ikea's team had in the Mars simulator, we'll have to wait. The design team is planning an outer-space-inspired collection in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVEMENT SONG, "DATE WITH IKEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anjuli Sastry (she/her) is a producer on It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders and a 2021 Nieman Journalism Foundation Visiting Fellow. During her Nieman fellowship in spring 2021, Sastry created, hosted and produced the audio and video series Where We Come From. The series tells the stories of immigrant communities of color through a personal and historical lens.