Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

IKEA? Nope... Hac-KEA

Creative types see Swedish giant's products as blank slates from which to work design magic

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IKEA, Winnipeg's newest and biggest furniture retailer, is a marvel of standardization, rationalization and mass production. The reason we love the IKEA Malm dresser is because it's so cheap. But the reason it's so cheap is because there are about seven billion of them on the planet.

Enter the IKEA hacker, who uses imagination, ingenuity and duct tape to individualize IKEA products, transforming sober flat-packed Scandinavian design into something strange and new.

For some hackers, it's just an extension of their devotion to IKEA ideals, as they dream up more ways to love that Ekne room divider. (Headboard? Garden trellis? Jewellery holder?) Other hackers are staging a glue-gun-powered rebellion against the clean-lined tyranny of the Billy bookshelf. And for some very ambitious practitioners, hacking is a way to investigate, maybe even subvert the assumptions of modernism, capitalism and consumerism. (Consider the abstract sculptural assemblages made out of Stefan chairs or an entire IKEA catalogue distilled into Colour Field paintings.)

The motivations are mixed, and the results are decidedly uneven. When hackers start pimping IKEA basics -- Lack tables and Expedit shelving systems are particular favourites -- you see everything from idiosyncratic works of genius to tragically misguided messes. (A Marius stool with a vinyl album seat? Really?) Customized IKEA objects range from the practical to the daffy to the downright bizarre.

Since 2006, the movement has been chronicled on the blog IKEA Hackers. IKEA interventions also pop up regularly on sites like Apartment Therapy, Lifehacker, Instructables and Design*Sponge.

Sometimes hacking involves upscale professional products. Swedish company Bemz sells luxe slipcovers specifically designed for IKEA furniture. You can upgrade your ubiquitous Klippan sofa with Marimekko flowers or linen-weave stripes from Designers Guild. (Sometimes the slipcovers cost more than what they're covering.) PrettyPegs supplies specialized furniture legs, using a bolting system that allows you to swap out the bases on many standard IKEA chairs and sofas. MyKea manufactures stick-on decals made to fit IKEA bestsellers.

Most IKEA hacks are DIY projects, however, powered by the cheerful -- often insanely cheerful -- urges of individual creativity. Drawing on Etsy, Martha Stewart and the hipster artisan movement, these hacks add a little personality with paint, dip-dye or downtown decoupage.

Special interest groups are often obsessed with creative repurposing. Animal lovers, for instance, have a positive flair for morphing basic IKEA storage into camouflaged litter boxes and stealth cat beds. Operating in the no-man's-land between inspired and icky, one determined lady turned a Kullen wardrobe into a giant playground for her pet rats.

The tech-obsessed tinkerers, meanwhile, craft hidden TV cabinets, clever cord-control systems, pop-up laptop stations and elaborately customized home theatre centres. Geek hacks can be alarming (a Poang chair wired so that it heats up) or adorable (a Tertial table lamp formed into a replica of R2D2).

In the "fake it till you make it" wing of hacking, an IKEA Fira chest with some glued-on moulding and a lick of high-gloss paint replicates a pricey Anthropologie objet. An IKEA Rast dresser, which started life as a stolid stack of rustic knotty pine, morphs into a glam Dorothy Draper fantasy with brass pulls and baroque detailing. Another hack impersonates a high-end Bouroullec Joyn desk using affordable IKEA Lagan countertops.

Perhaps the sneakiest IKEA design hack of all involves changing the Frosta stool from a four-legger to a three-legger to make it more closely resemble its iconic Alvar Aalto inspiration.

Of course, IKEA itself, which is not exactly behindhand when it comes to the whole marketing thing, is now getting into the hacking game. The 2013 catalogue featured an IKEA dresser whimsically covered with stapled-on IKEA fabric. But isn't this missing the point? The appeal of hacking involves taking an IKEA piece out of the blue-and-yellow reach of a global corporation and into the home-grown realm of artsy-craftsy originality.

As IKEA expands -- and expands and expands -- IKEA hacking will remain a hot trend. Sure, most of us will be lining up at the new store in the coming months to benefit from the awesome power of IKEA's economy of scale. But some intrepid individuals will also be experimenting with hacking, proving that the drive to shop hasn't quite overcome the human impulse to make, invent and express.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 E3

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