Ikea was there because it wanted to cause a stir. The Milan fair is the nexus of the design world, a place to push into the limelight. Rallying under its banner "Democratic Design", Ikea made a loud commitment to putting well-designed furniture within the reach of "the majority, not just the few". To this end, it showed a selection of products, each with a giant price tag and a low price. A plastic chair called Nevil cost pounds 21; Hatten, a cute side-table that looked like a see-through hatbox on spindly legs, was pounds 22; the range of cartoony children's furniture in acid colours began at pounds 28 for a chair.
To accompany the show there was a promotional manifesto also entitled Democratic Design. The copywriters went into overdrive, quoting Plato: "When evaluating the quality and beauty of an object, one should always bear its function in mind." And the rejoinder from Ikea: "Hang on Plato! What about the price?"
Ikea has always had a split personality. On the one hand, the company is identified with the clean, blond, good looks of Scandinavian modernism, with a basic, utilitarian approach and knockdown flatpack prices. But flick through its catalogue and you find truckloads of the same monster three-piece suites spiced with Seventies whicker that are available in any superstore. Now, however, it is beginning to strengthen its design profile.
At Milan, Ikea also launched PS, a collection of furniture and accessories designed by the rising stars of Swedish design, such as Thomas Sandell and Thomas Eriksson. PS stands for "Products of Sweden"; the range came about as a response to critics who said that Ikea ought to do more to help Swedish designers (although one wag suggested suggested that the Scandinavian revival has been underway so long that PS was really a postscript).
Priced slightly above normal Ikea stock, PS is Scandinavian modernism revisited for the Nineties: functional lines, light wood and occasional planes of red oxide, prussian blue or bitter green - the colours in which Swedish houses are painted. The designs have been tailored to the needs of mass-production; nevertheless, they are not far behind much more expensive pieces by the same designers.
The range is in tune with a much broader return to austere modernity (verging at times on the boarding-school spartan) which, with its democratic values, seems to have a broadening appeal in the disillusioned, recessionary Nineties. In hard times, big companies such as Ikea are buttressed by economies of scale: they have the clout to get the best deals from manufacturers, and then save again by selling direct to the customer through their own stores. Price is a guiding principle in design, too. Ehlen Johansson, the designer of the Hatten table, regards working for the company as "a game: the Ikea challenge is to find a way to win". With the Hatten table, she got a result by altering her original design to enable it to be stacked - not so that customers could pile them up, but to cut transport costs.
Sheridan Coakley, whose company SCP sells more expensive designs by some of the people Ikea has commissioned, is adamant that, far from squeezing the designer market, "any improvement at the high street level is good for the furniture market as a whole. One of the big problems in this country is the lack of outlets for modern furniture, and the store buyers are the culprits. It's not that the public don't want it; buyers say they don't want it. What PS will do is introduce people to good design. Offered higher levels of quality and value, people will want modern design."
There is an analogy here with what has happened in clothing in the past decade. The arrival of Next and Jigsaw, Kookai and Hennes, transformed high street fashion. Giants such as Marks & Spencer had to sharpen up their act, employing the likes of Paul Smith and Betty Jackson as consultants. It has also had a healthy impact on fashion designers, forcing them to look at what they can offer in terms of design and quality that the high street can't.
PS breaks the normal high street pattern of using in-house designers to produce tame designs for their mainstream market. Instead, Ikea has ventured on to the cliff face, to work directly with innovative designers. You have to hunt far and wide for similar examples in the mass-market furniture business - and where you find them, the designers have usually been hired as much for their publicity value as for their design skills. The French mail order company Les Trois Suisses has often used designer names to decorate its catalogues. Last year, you could send off for plans to build your own Philippe Starck house, a whimsical wooden pavilion which was hardly a practical alternative to suburban living. This year, it is offering a cute table (at an eminently reasonable 790 francs, or about pounds 100) by Marc Newson, whose very fashionable designs blend Fifties space- age with a kind of surfing aesthetic.
Will Ikea's initiative stir up its rivals? The high street revolution of the Eighties went straight past the furniture stores: you can get five sorts of focaccia at the supermarket, but mass-market furniture is still a gloomy retroland of brown repro with brass knobs on. With luck, the long-term effect of Ikea's lead will be to make well-designed modern furniture less elusive and more affordable in Britain.
Ikea, Drury Way, North Circular Road, London NW19 (0181-451 5566) and branches. Les Trois Suisses mail order 003320155050Reuse content