Now the Swedish retail giant is throwing its considerable muscle behind an all-star line-up of African design talent.
A collaboration with the Design Indaba group will see leading fashion designers, architects, and illustrators from across the continent combine to produce a flagship collection for 2019.
"The creative explosion which is taking place in several cities around Africa right now is something IKEA is curious about," said Marcus Engman, Head of Design at IKEA. "We want to learn from this and spread it to the rest of the world."
The project got off the ground through a chance meeting between Engman and Ravi Naidoo, founder of the creative hub Design Indaba, which holds an annual conference showcasing the best of African design.
The two men discussed an Africa range, and Naidoo supplied a list of talents from the Indaba alumni network, covering a range of disciplines from Rwandan architect Christian Benimana to Senegalese fashion designer Selly Raby Kane.
The designers were invited to a brainstorming session in the woods of Almhult, Ikea's headquarters in Sweden.
"We set the scope together -- the ideas we wanted, what to dig deeper into," says Engman. "We pulled the ideas together, wrote them down and that became our not-so-formal brief."
Over the following months, the designers worked separately to develop pieces for the collection, coming together for Skype meetings with each other and Ikea's in-house design team.
The first prototypes will be on display at the 22nd Design Indaba conference
in Cape Town. The pieces will be in stores worldwide in 2019.
'Padlocks to houses'
The final collection will include around 40 pieces. Many more will be rejected.
"Right now we have far too many ideas," says Engman. "We are on everything from colorful padlocks to a flat pack house and almost everything in between, from textiles to pieces of furniture."
The project is also looking at modes of production and delivery, which could mean offering open-source designs and products that require various degrees of self-assembly.
"It might be interesting to sell a concept as opposed to selling an object," says Ivorian architect Issa Diabate. "We could sell new ways to assemble something (and) have it manufactured at its final destination."
Ikea and many of the designers share a focus on sustainability and affordability, which are guiding principles for the collection. There is also an emphasis on distinctive African styles that are under-exposed in the global market.
"The whole world needs a bit of Africa," says Naidoo. "The African aesthetic is not terribly visible in homes around the world."
African design "has so much to do with an alternative way of looking at the world," he says, giving the example of homes designed to be open and enable interaction with the street.
"The expansion of the porch is an interesting concept for how we can invoke a greater sense of community," says Naidoo.
The designers involved with the project see it as a rare opportunity.
"We work very locally, and here is an opportunity to work globally," says Naeem Biviji, who runs the Kenya-based Studio Propolis with his wife Bethan Rayner. "IKEA makes things in a highly mechanised way, and we don't. Between these contradictions, we have the chance to experiment with new ways of working and thinking with new materials that we wouldn't otherwise use and scale that we have never thought of before."
Renowned Ivorian architect Issa Diabate believes the project will give African ideas a global audience.
"A local process can generate something for the international community," he says. "Japanese minimalism once inspired a lot of design projects and the philosophy permeated the design community. Certain approaches in many urban African environments could benefit or contaminate the international world of design."
Naidoo expects the collection to change attitudes within the industry.
"Ikea is a kind of a bellwether company in the world of design. It won't be too long before other design companies are emboldened enough to commission African designers," he says.
Engman is also looking beyond this collection. He intends to sign the best African designers to long-term contracts with Ikea, and is considering plans to base production in African countries.
"I see this as a start," he says. "We are constantly searching for new talent, and there is a lot of talent in Africa."