A particularly ingenious product from IKEA has won a prestigious Beazley Design of the Year Award from the Design Museum in London. Like many items offered by the Swedish home goods retailer (and newly minted purveyor of snazzy utilitarian bikes), the product in question is flat-pack and can be assembled in a relatively short amount of time — under four hours, to be exact. That’s roughly the same amount of time it takes (sobbing fits and self-care breaks, included) to put together an eight-drawer from IKEA.

The big difference here, however, is that the award-winning product in question was specifically designed to house a displaced people, not socks and sweaters.

I first wrote about Better Shelter, a quick-to-assemble, weatherproof refugee housing solution made from recyclable plastic and equipped with a small but mighty rooftop solar panel, in 2015 following the announcement that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had placed a major order (10,000 units) with plans to ship them to refugee camps in Iraq. The privacy-emphasizing shelters — large enough to accommodate a family of five and designed to stand stronger and last longer than typical refugee housing solutions such as flimsy tents — were eventually distributed to Syrian refugees as well as internally displaced Iraqi citizens living in the camps.

Quietly launched as a pilot initiative in 2013, Better Shelter, in cooperation with the UNHCR, has, to date, delivered 16,000 emergency housing units to displaced people in Iraq and additional countries including Greece and Niger.

Better Shelter, refugee camp, Iraq A Syrian refugee family settles into their new home at Kawergosk Camp in northern Iraq. Since the launch of Better Shelter in 2013, more than 16,000 housing units have been distributed to refugee camps. (Photo: Better Shelter)

And as I previously noted, the steel-frame modular shelters aren’t actually manufactured by IKEA, although they boast many of the meatball-slinging retailer’s hallmark design traits: affordable, sustainable, easy-to-ship. Stockholm-based social enterprise Better Shelter is the force behind the refugee housing units, which, as previously mentioned, are also called Better Shelters. All profits amassed by Better Shelter are reinvested internally or distributed to the Housing for All Foundation. This foundation was established by IKEA’s powerhouse philanthropic arm, the IKEA Foundation, which alongside the UNHCR, serves as a Better Shelter project partner.

Confounding philanthropic hierarchy aside (to be expected, of course, from an IKEA-related venture), the Design of the Year Award is a massive honor. And the timing couldn’t be more apropos with additional attention being paid to the plight of Syrian refugees in the wake of the Trump administration’s hugely controversial — and globally disruptive — executive order restricting travel to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries.

A “happy and humbled” Better Shelter team writes in response to the recognition by the Design Museum:

It is touching to witness peoples’ hard work towards their mission of improving the lives of others. We find it inspiring to see how design and technology is used in the most remarkable ways to make life safer and more comfortable for others, and to witness peoples’ fundamental will to support and help in solidarity with strangers.

Winning this prize encourages us to work even harder and to continue developing our product, until the day when it is no longer needed. With and for refugees.

Now in its ninth year, the Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year Award program aims to recognize and celebrate design that “promotes or delivers change, enables access, extends design practice or captures the spirit of the year.”

Better Shelter, a refugee housing scheme from the IKEA Foundation and the United Nations' refugee program. Composed of recyclable polymer plastic panel walls and roofing wrapped in a lightweight steel frame, the Better Shelter is well-insulated, easy-to-ship and can be erected in less than four hours. (Photo: Better Shelter)

Better Shelter, winner of the architecture category, beat out the winning nominees in five other categories (Digital, Fashion, Graphics, Products and Transport) for the top prize including a robotic surgeon; the cover art for David Bowie’s final studio album, “Blackstar;” and the Space Cup, a coffee cup designed for caffeine-craving astronauts. Seventy designs in total were nominated for the annual awards program.

"Better Shelter tackles one of the defining issues of the moment: providing shelter in an exceptional situation whether caused by violence or disaster,” notes jury member Dr. Jana Scholze of Kingston University in a press statement. "It shows the power of design to respond to the conditions we are in and transform them. Innovative, humanitarian and implemented, Better Shelter has everything that a Beazley Design of the Year should have."

Better Shelter, along with the other category winners, will be on display at the newly relocated and reopened Design Museum in Kensington, London, through Feb. 19. Here’s a time-lapse video of a Better Shelter unit going up. (And, yes, in true IKEA fashion, each unit comes with its own assembly toolkit.)

A home goods retailer with a long benevolent streak

The IKEA Foundation has long been at the do-gooding forefront of the global refugee crisis. In addition to working with the UNHCR (a partner since 2010) on Better Shelter, the two organizations joined together in 2014 for Brighter Lives for Refugees, a campaign in which a portion of proceeds from the sale of LED light bulbs at IKEA stores directly benefited sustainable lighting projects at refugee camps in countries such as Jordan, Chad, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.

Outside of the IKEA Foundation’s work with the UNHCR, IKEA recently announced plans to launch a line of textiles and rugs crafted by Syrian refugees. According to CNN Money, the upcoming product line will create roughly 200 jobs for displaced Syrians, mostly women, living in Jordanian refugee camps. The collection, due to launch in 2019, was reportedly in development before the Trump administration announced its travel ban.

Lars Petersson, country manager for IKEA USA, directly addressed the ban in a Jan. 30 letter addressed to the company’s “co-workers” (IKEA speak for employees).

Over the past 35 years, I have lived in many countries where I have been an immigrant. As the Country Manager of IKEA in Italy, Japan, and now the US, I have witnessed firsthand the power of people working together: people from different backgrounds, nationalities, and religions uniting to achieve our vision of creating a better everyday life. This is why any proposal that would discriminate against a certain group of our customers or co-workers, or limit our ability to attract and retain diverse talent is so troubling.

Our IKEA values clearly tell us that leadership is taking action and standing up for what we believe in. That is why we are committed to continuing to stand for the dignity and rights of everyone.

In the letter, Petersson also vowed to provide any IKEA employees — or their families — impacted by the ban with free legal advice and counseling to help with “emotional and mental toll this situation may take on them and their families.”

Other charities to benefit directly from the IKEA Foundation's impressive largesse include Save the Children, Water.org and longtime charity partner UNICEF.

Perhaps you curse at that IKEA coffee table with an irreparably wobbly leg on a daily basis; perhaps you never recovered from the Great EXPEDIT Upheavel of 2014; or perhaps the assembly of an IKEA daybed prompted your divorce. Whatever IKEA-related angst you may harbor, you can always, without fail, count on the world’s largest home furnishings retailer to do the right thing.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

IKEA's flat-pack refugee shelter wins coveted design award
The Design Museum's recognition of IKEA's Better Shelter for refugees couldn't come at a more appropriate time.