Why almost nothing you see in the IKEA catalogue is real
Photographing hundreds of rooms full of thousands of different products for an IKEA catalogue is a hugely complicated and expensive business - which is why the company has found a better way: almost none of the houses, rooms or furniture in the photographs actually exist.
When you flick through the IKEA catalogue every turn of the page brings another charmingly colourful, lived-in family room packed with cleverly designed Swedish furniture.
It’s as if the company sends photographers to swoop in and snap ideal family homes just as the owners round-up the children and hop in the family Volvo for a day out.
But not only are those rooms not part of real homes, they’re not even real photographs. Almost all of the images in the IKEA catalogue are now generated from scratch by artists at a computer, rendered from meticulously created wireframe models of real furniture and littered with digital depictions of the detritus of wholesome family life: bowls of fruit, children’s’ drawings, shelves of books.
This brings a range of advantages. Sometimes the products are not yet in production, so photographing them would require prototypes to be made and shipped to the photo shoot. Houses need to be found as locations, lighting carefully tweaked, accessories scattered in just the right way. When you need hundreds of such images, the costs can become huge.
Martin Enthed, the IT Manager for the in-house communication agency of IKEA, said: “The most expensive and complicated things we have to create and shoot are kitchens. From both an environmental and time point of view, we don’t want to have to ship in all those white-goods from everywhere, shoot them and then ship them all back again. And unfortunately, kitchens are one of those rooms that differ very much depending on where you are in the world. A kitchen in the US will look very different to a kitchen in Japan, for example, or in Germany. So you need lots of different layouts in order to localise the kitchen area in brochures."
Alternatively, CGI can be tweaked easily if changes are needed and models of furniture can be dropped in front of any conceivable background.
Initially the company had only intended to use CGI for simple product shots on white backgrounds, such were the limitations of the technology and its own expertise. But since then its use has ballooned.
Enthed told The CGSociety that it all started with a single chair in a catalogue released in 2006, the Bertil. The results were good so staff continued developing product shots for new pieces.
But in 2010 the company used its first full room image in a catalogue, complete with artificial architecture, decorations and objects. Not a single part of the image was "real". The catalogue after that had four or five fully-CGI room scenes. Today, three quarters of all images in the catalogue are generated by computer.
Enthed told the website: “We understand how important the knowledge of home furnishing is. How homes look, how homes feel, and so on. The experienced photographers at IKEA have been working with the interior designers on re-creating this feel for fifteen to twenty years, some of them.
“We needed to translate that knowledge over to the 3D artists who were tech-savvy but in some cases coming directly from school. We needed them to understand the kind of feel we wanted the images to convey. It was very hard at the beginning.”
To solve the problem the company trained all its photographers as 3D artists, and vice versa. Many stayed in their new roles, but it also gave everyone in the business an understanding of how images were created – either photographically or by computer. Now the company doesn’t differentiate between the two, it just splits them into “good” and “bad” images when judging what to use in catalogues or other publications.
The company now has such expertise in CGI that it has developed its own tools, such as a feature that allows an object such as a bowl of fruit to be dropped into a digital scene and settle realistically on a surface such as a table automatically. The code has now been adopted by the makers of the modelling software IKEA uses, 3DSMax, and will be part of the 2015 version of the software used by artists around the world.
IKEA has built up a library of around 25,000 models, including its own products and generic objects used to fill rooms, which makes the creation of new images much faster than in the early days.
Rendering the images is massively demanding on computer resources, so IKEA have a system where computers are automatically recruited to work on images when their user is away from their desk or out of the office.