Ikea hackers: The do-it-yourself design mavericks transforming boring flat-pack furniture into unique works of art

Andy has made a dish drainer out of two CD holders; Jim has turned a colander into a lampshade; Eugene has created a banquette out of kitchen cabinets and Chris has lined his bathroom floor with outdoor decking. Resourceful, imaginative, thrifty and sometimes a little bit weird, Andy, Jim, Eugene and Chris are all “Ikea hackers”, part of an internet-linked group of interior-design mavericks scattered across the globe whose common interest is the redesign or customisation of Ikea furniture.

In 1955, an Ikea employee removed the legs of a table to fit it into his car and the concept of the flat-pack was born, the idea upon which Ingvar Kamprad’s blue-and-yellow empire of cheap mass-produced interiors was built. As millions of customers drove home their furniture in pieces, some of them began to think outside the box. “I think Ikea hacking has been around as long as Ikea has been flat-packing furniture,” says Susan Martin from Ikeafans.com, a website where lovers of the Swedish chain can wax lyrical about pull-out broom closets, discuss the calorie count of the store’s famous meatballs and even post their own Ikea haiku poetry (perhaps they could call themselves the Ikea haiku-ers).

Martin tells me that hackers are the “celebrities” of the Ikea community due to their “fabulous creativity and style”. Surely, then, one of the brightest stars is the hacker and artist Jeff Carter, whose 2007 exhibition, Catalog, includes four of Ikea’s trademark “Lack” tables sliced up, reassembled and motorised so that they wave up and down in slow motion. There is a video of the exhibit on his website which I find myself staring at for several minutes, before realising that I am being hypnotised by MDF. But while Carter’s hack transforms an Ikea staple into a work of art, most others are more practically driven, adapting to awkward or cramped spaces and finding alternative uses for anything from chests of drawers to thermos flasks.

Until 2006, there was no common forum for Ikea hackers to share ideas, which is why “Jules” set up Ikeahacker.blogspot.com. Jules is a copywriter from Kuala Lumpur whose real name is Mei Mei Yap. The internet matriarch of Ikea hacking, Yap’s online alter-ego is named after the Ikea “Jules” swivel chair (available in the 2009 catalogue for £28.38). Her site, she tells me, gave the trend “a voice and consolidated hacks from all over”. Yap tells me she is “not a prolific hacker” herself – perhaps in the same way that a restaurant critic need not be a brilliant chef – but each year she selects a list of her top-20 hacks; highlights of 2008 include some salad-bowl speakers, an elevated dog-food stand, a fabric wall collage and a table made out of a door. Many other hacks are simple to do and look very tasteful, like the “Sommar” paper table cloth used to wallpaper the back of an old Ikea cabinet (see below). Others aren’t so nice. For example, I can’t help thinking the Ikea sofa cushions customised by “Yoshi from Japan” might have looked better before he ironed pictures of his dogs on to them. But perhaps that’s all part of the fun.

I decide to try my own hack. In the Wembley Ikea, I elbow my way past couples on the brink of futon-induced divorce and select the pine “Rast” chest of drawers and three “Ram” wooden frames. All for £22. Three days after I’ve lugged it back and can finally hold my arms out straight again, I spread the pieces out on my living-room floor and survey them like an artist before a blank canvas. A couple of ideas pop into my head: hot tub, rowing boat… before I check myself with Yap’s advice that as a first-timer I should probably keep it simple. After all, Ikea hacks needn’t always be outlandish stunts of DIY mastery: “Many consist of simply changing the colour or texture of a piece,” she says. And since my tool collection doesn’t extend much beyond the tiny screwdriver I use to jimmy open jars of pesto, perhaps this is a good thing.

I live in Clapham, a hub of overpriced, distressed-looking cream furniture, so I think a makeover along these lines might be my best bet. I find a local shop that sells handles (no doors – apparently you have to find those elsewhere) and buy six antique gold knobs. “These are some of the best quality knobs in Clapham,” the shopkeeper assures me. Then I locate a bit of cream paint, sandpaper and some Rust-Oleum spray paint. I start with the transformation of the little frames by spraying them with neutral-coloured paint. When they are dry I stick some fake flowers on to each corner with Super Glue.

Next – the chest of drawers. After assembling it – and resolutely ignoring the three mystery screws left over – I sand it down and slap on the cream paint, which I then sand again after it’s dry in an effort to make it look distressed, although the final effect is possibly more akin to “slightly flustered”. I remove the wooden knobs, replace them with the brass ones and then carefully tape a border around the edges of each drawer, which I spray gold. Voilà: distressed French boudoir chic in just over an hour. Granted, at close range the chest of drawers looks a little like part of a stage set, but I cover it with some silk, jewellery boxes and my frame – which I think could make a nice present – and it doesn’t look at all bad.

On the interiors scale, it’s fair to say that Ikea hacking isn’t riding high in the quality stakes. It is, however, a lot of fun. “As people cut back on spending they usually get creative which means hacking or re-purposing items to meet their needs,” Yap says wisely.

Few people can afford hand-made furniture and even fewer have the time, inclination or skills to make it themselves, so Ikea hacking (when done well) can be a cheap, creative compromise between the two. I should warn you that it’s also rather addictive: I’m already making plans for my next hack … I’m sure my housemate won’t even miss her bed.

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