Mats Nilsson has spent his career designing the Pinterest-perfect rooms you would love to call home. The former window dresser worked his way up through the ranks at IKEA stores and offices in Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and the United States, now working as the brand's Lead Interior Designer, deciding which direction the brand's furniture will take each season.
Nilsson, who now lives in Sweden, recently spoke with ELLEDecor.com about his celebrated career and how to break into an industry where your job is to design beautiful things.
When I was growing up in Sweden...
All students were offered the opportunity to complete an two-week internship of our choice when we were 12. It's up to each and everyone to find the internship – people go through connections, or sometimes school helps you and so on, but in this case, I started actually calling who I thought at the time was the best stylist in the country, because I wanted to work with her. Looking back now, I understand why she said she didn't take interns, but she suggested that I call a now-defunct furniture store in the south of Sweden. So I called them and they said, "Yeah, why not?" I was lucky because one day while I was there, one of the photographers who was shooting the interior spreads in the magazines of those days was there taking shots for the store's catalogue. And so I got to choose vases and style the coffee table for those shoots, and I felt like I was really working, even though I was maybe not at all a help. They let me set the table in the American wing – it was quite unique at that time in Sweden to have a whole floor with old Queen Anne's and other American furniture. My two weeks there were a great experience, and I think the equivalent would be for someone who was really interested in design would be to work in the furniture department of Bloomingdale's.
After high school, I went to two years of business school, which is sort of like going to junior college in the United States. I took extra art classes, like ceramics and sculpture, in addition to coursework in economics and business.
I went to visit a friend of mine who was working as a window dresser in Oslo in a chain store similar to H&M, but way smaller. They let me style the childrens' window, and I asked them if I could get a job there after school. They hired me as a window dresser apprentice. We would travel between the chain's 10 stores and fix up all the windows in two or three days. We worked on a continuous schedule – so every month or so, we had to plan what we were going to do next for the next season's windows and redo them.
I did that for about a year and a half. They paid me a very low salary, and I had a very cheap apartment, but I just remember thinking, "I can't go on like this. I need a real job." I moved back to Sweden with the intention of going to university to become an architect, but it was in the middle of the semester, so I started looking for a job as well. IKEA in Stockholm was looking for what they called Decorators, but the position was more in line with what a visual merchandiser would do. On my interview, they asked me to show them some pictures of my apartment at the time, and to create some sort of proposal for a restaurant. I remember that I got a really good feeling about working there. They ended up interviewing 200 people for that job – but they offered it to me.
I started off styling podiums, and arranging pillows and curtains and textiles together in a nice way. And then with time, I got to do more and more important jobs like designing the store entrance. After some years, I got to do my first room setting, which was a hallway. You start really small, and I went from doing visual merchandising to also doing interior design.
About four years in to my time there...
IKEA was opening a store in Saudi Arabia, and they were looking for available people who could move there for a couple of weeks, just to get the store finished. A colleague and I thought it was an exotic part of the world, and it would be fun to work there for a while, so we went. While we were there, we applied to stay on at IKEA in Saudi Arabia, and we stayed there for two years.
It was interesting to see the IKEA concept in a completely different world, with different needs. All of their references are different than ours, because the culture is so different. For instance, they don't really use sofas as much – they actually sit on the floor. Working with people from that country and surrounding countries with different references was interesting. I had to teach people how to do things, or how not to do things. It was a good learning experience, because when you're going to teach something, you have to understand it better than just doing it yourself. But at the end of my two years there, I was ready to go back to Sweden.
I went to IKEA's studios, in Älmhult, to plan and style catalogues. It was a really nice change of pace from working in a store, because people come in and wear it down. But when you work behind a camera, you shoot a picture of it at the perfect moment, and it's there forever, in a sense. It's very Hollywood-y – you can decide exactly how much tea you want in a glass, decide exactly how you want the flowers to be. Styling for magazines or for catalogs is a lot of fun.
Two years later...
IKEA decided to expand in Italy. They had a small store in Milan and a small store in Turin, so they asked me to teach the Italian interior designers IKEA hired how we do things at the company, how we think, and what we think are good Scandinavian home furnishings in Milan. Being able to do that in the design capital of the world was quite nice.
Italians have a quite high knowledge of design, because it's just the culture there. The most popular designer brands are just more present in society – the customer is slightly above average when it comes to sophistication and knowledge and interest.
I came back to IKEA of Sweden for a while, and then, a few years later, IKEA was reorganizing the company in North America, so I moved to Philadelphia, where IKEA is headquartered. I started commuting back and forth from Philadelphia to IKEA in Sweden to work on range strategy – figuring out which colors and materials and functions we should be focusing on, and what limited edition collections we should work on next.
We have a lot of those lately, called vitality collections, and I would travel with a team of designers, and a product leader to different factories and come up with cool products and make prototypes. And then we come back to Sweden and look at those prototypes and say, "OK, this is going to be the collection," and then produce those pieces. It's fabulous work. It's so much fun to do that.
Passion is the most important part of work – not just in this industry, but in anything you do. You have to get up every morning and do whatever you do, and there's no one job that you're going to love every day. But you need to love it most of the time. So follow your instinct and your guts and your passion, because if you do that you can't fail in a way. You will always be better than the other people who don't have passion. I didn't see my career ahead of me when I was 12 – I just looked for opportunities, and took them when they came.