Ikea: Flat pack and fabulous

Cheap, practical and loved across the globe, Ikea designs have become modern classics. As the ubiquitous Billy bookcase enters its fourth decade, Kate Watson-Smyth asks the experts to select their favourite pieces
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The Independent Online

Love it or hate it, there can’t be many of us who haven’t embarked on a trip round that winding yellow brick road in search of some cheap furniture from Sweden. This month Ikea is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its Billy bookcase, a plain – some say bland – set of shelves that has been designed to hold books. That’s what it’s for and that’s what it does.

In fact, most of Ikea’s furniture does what it’s supposed to in a practical and affordable manner. And yet it’s become fashionable to sneer. But if you look a bit more closely, you will see some fine examples of modern furniture, influenced by some of the greatest Scandinavian designers of the 20th-century, and possibly some design classics of the future.

Michael Czerwinski, public programme director at the Design Museum in London, is a fan of the Billy and says: “If you look carefully at the catalogue, it’s clear that the company has been influenced by some of the great names of modern design.

“The Poang Bentwood chair [designed 30 years ago] is clearly reminiscent of Alvar Aalto’s Chair No 406. The Gilbert dining chair is a familiar utilitarian chair but its reference points are the Arne Jacobsen Model 3107 and the Robin Day Polyprop. Other pieces evoke styles from the 1950s and 1960s too.”

The Billy bookcase was designed in 1979 by only the fourth employee the company had taken on and is now produced at the rate of 15 a minute in its factory – that’s 3.1m a year – and has sold 41 million of them in total.

So even if you don’t have one, you probably know someone who does. In fact, Ikea is now such an indelible part of modern consciousness that one museum in Germany has opened the first exhibition devoted to Ikea and its furniture. Here you can wander among Billy shelves and Olga chairs alongside the permanent exhibits of design classics.

Ikea was founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad at the age of 17 and began selling stockings, stationery and watches until 1956 when it started making furniture. Last year the company had sales of $28.2bn (£17.8bn) with more than 583 million people visiting the stores worldwide. And those customers aren’t just those who can’t afford to buy more expensive furniture – Miley Cyrus and Catherine Zeta Jones have both been pictured schlepping Ikea bags and boxes and they could certainly afford to shop elsewhere if they so wished.

But Alice Rawsthorn, design critic of the International Herald Tribune and former director of the Design Museum in London, says the store still needs to try a bit harder.

“Ikea comes close to realising the modernist dream of producing well-made, well-designed products at affordable prices but everything about it could, and should, be a little bit better – product, design, sustainability. It shouldn’t just be the best of a bad bunch,” she says. Here, she and other design experts, choose their favourite Ikea pieces and explain why.

What’s the big Ikea? The designer’s selection

ALICERAWSTHORN, design critic for the Herald Tribune and former director of Design Museum

“The PS Jonsberg vases designed by Hella Jongerius are the type of products that IKEA ought to produce, because only a company of its size is capable of doing so. Hella Jongerius is an extraordinarily intelligent designer who imbues mass-manufactured products with the depth and meaning traditionally associated with hand-crafted ones. She does this by creating industrial objects that have the intricacy and refinement typical of handcraftsmanship, and then adds visual clues to suggest that they were handmade.The holes in the white IKEA vase are drilled by hand, for instance, and the pattern on the terracottaone is hand-painted. It is only possible to produce vases of this quality for £25 each because IKEA places such enormous orders. It is an all too rare example of a very, very big company using its size – and buying power – wisely.”

SUZANNE IMRE, the Editor of Living Etc

“The Ikea PS cabinet for £65 gets my vote as a great piece of modern design. It is a simple metal storage unit that I’ve seen used to great effect in most rooms of the house – studies, children’s rooms, hallways, kitchens, dining rooms and sitting rooms. I have seen it customised with lime green spray paint, stencilled with letters and painted in bold stripes and each time the PS takes on a slightly different personality.I also like its slight retro vibe, which reminds me of those astronomically expensive vintage metal lockers, and its simplicity appeals.There are no flourishes, twiddles or twirls. This sums up what Ikea is best at – plain and simple design at affordable prices.”

MICHAEL CZERWINSKI, public programme manager at The Design Museum and author of 50 Chairs that changed the World

“The Billy bookcase gets my vote. I run a studio where Ikeep about 5,000 books and they are all arranged on a bank of Billys. It gives you what you want from a shelving system It’s not trying to be tricksy or modern or to detract from the books themselves. It’s a shelf and it does its job politely without being intrusive. It’s practical and economic storage that looks right for the job.”

ANTONY JOSEPH, creative directorof Joseph Joseph

“I believe the Knappa Light [now discontinued] was only £14.99 –great value for this striking pendant shade. It came beautifully flat packaged in a triangular box about the size of a large slice of cake. Each plastic leaf then satisfyingly locked together piece by piece producing a self sufficient structure. When hung and illuminated, the completed shade gave a lovely ambient glow which complimented my daughter’s bedroom.”

CATH KIDSTON, designer

“I absolutely love the Lack wallshelf. It’s just perfect in every way for every room in the house. I am a huge fan of this shop and I do still buy things from there. Its best products offer great design at a fabulous price.These shelves are a great example – such simple paired-down chic and great for any room in the house – just as good as any expensive design a studio can produce.”