Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Sean Cole: IKEA Hacking is what we have been doing.
Roman: And this is friend of the show, Sean Cole. And yes, he said IKEA hacking.
Sean: I feel good about it. It feels a little bit subversive and a little bit bourgeois. It’s like being a punk member of the mainstream.
Roman: Given that our audience is – you know, our audience, you’ve probably heard of IKEA hacking. It’s the practice of buying stuff from IKEA and then re-engineering it, hacking it into customized, more functional, and often just way better designed stuff. In Sean’s case, that stuff is three 5-foot high shelves. Sean has decided upon the Kallax variety. Plus two very heavy wooden doors from Home Depot. All of which he is drilling and screwing and bolting together into one big, beautiful, queen-sized Frankenstein storage bed to curate his basement-less New York city existence.
Sean: We are finishing the construction of the third Kallax shelf. We’ve become expert Kallax assemblers.
Roman: The locus of the IKEA hacking movement is a website called ikeahackers.net. It’s a showcase for those who would trick out their Kallaxes, their Arkelstorps, their Fardals. They can both gather tips from other hackers and, more importantly, post pictures of their own hacks and even a step-by-step guide to how they made them.
Sean: ikeahackers.net has been in the news a lot lately, and not for happy reasons. You might have read the stories online. We’re going to get into all that later. But first, I wanted to introduce you to my hacker partner-in-crime, Jonathan Bean.
Jonathan Bean: We need four bolts and one wrench.
Sean: He’s an assistant professor at Bucknell University. Back in 2009, he co-wrote a serious academic paper about IKEA hacking with Daniela Rosner who now teaches design at the University of Washington. And they got interested, in part, because of how bendable the term “IKEA Hacking” is. Here’s Jonathan.
Jonathan: There is so much when you scratch the surface about what IKEA hacking could be. It could be anything from “I bought the shelf at IKEA and it was an inch too long for my closet, so I cut an inch off of it.”
Daniela Rosner: Or it could be where you just take a, say, a salad bowl and make it into a light.
Sean: And this is Daniela.
Daniela: Right. That’s not even actually changing the object itself. It’s just changing its use.
Jonathan: And at the other end of the spectrum, an artist named Sander von Bussel, did a very provocative work of art which is an IKEA chair reconfigured to look like a stirrup from a gynecologist’s office.
Jonathan: And both of these things fall under the rubric of IKEA hacking.
Roman: That’s a really wide rubric.
Sean: And now, please put your hands over your children’s ears for 20 seconds.
Daniela: I really like the IKEA love toy as another example where you take –
Sean: IKEA love toy?
Daniela: A love toy made of other Omsorg shoe trees and an IKEA product – that’s the milk frothing device. So, taking those together and making a little vibrator.
Sean: This is a much racier interview than I was expecting today.
Jonathan and Daniela: [laughs]
Sean: And the Hackerati aren’t just diverse in terms of their sensibility. They’re diverse in the most basic way possible. You see hacks posted from all over this country and from Australia, Russia, Israel, Dubai. Someone posted a hack that’s a French country house library in an actual French country house. He used 60 Billy and Benno bookcases, and he has these before and after pictures, and explained all how he did it.
Jonathan: Because everything’s exactly the same at IKEA no matter where you are, it makes it – it sort of lowers the barriers to recreating something.
Sean: Because this is the thing. Say, I wanted to teach you, Roman, how to build a workbench. But you live in Germany and I live in the US.
Jonathan: If you go and buy a stud, a wood stud, at a Home Depot in the US, it’s going to be an inch and a half by three and a half inches. If you go and buy a wood stud at BAUHAUS, which is a German home improvement store, it’s going to be a different size.
Roman: Wait, tell me I’m not dreaming and he just said there’s a German home improvement store called BAUHAUS?
Sean: Yes, but it’s actually Swiss.
Roman: That’s so fantastic. [laughs]
Sean: I know. IKEA, in spite of itself, is the great leveler. And it’s that very homogeneity, that McDonald’s-like sameness from place to place to place. That’s what’s allowing this global community of hackers to thrive.
Daniela: So if I posted an IKEA hack in Boston and someone in the Netherlands saw it, they could probably reproduce it using the – you know, the pieces at their local store much like a LEGO kit.
Sean: Make no mistake. The actual posts themselves of showing your work, that’s a huge part of this whole thing.
Jonathan: I think that there is something to this feeling of recognition. Like it’s – you’re not creative unless you’re recognized as being creative.
Sean: If – if IKEA is hacked in a forest, does it make a sound?
Theodore: Hey dolls, it’s Theodore here and I have officially done my first IKEA hack.
Woman 1: I’m going to show how I’m going to do an IKEA hack. My first IKEA hack!
Man 1: So, we’ve got an IKEA piece that we’re going to be modifying.
Sean: And as you might expect, there’s a lot of this kind of hacking and showing and telling on YouTube, too. By now, the search term shouldn’t be too mysterious.
Multiple people: IKEA hack.
Woman 2: And we are checking out her beautiful IKEA transformation pieces, which I like to call them. You call them hack jobs.
Woman 3: Hack jobs.
Woman 4: I’ll show you how to customize your IKEA Tullsta armchair.
Man 2: I’m going to go measure how far my elbows are up in relation to this desk.
Man 3: Now, let’s put on the marble contact paper onto the top of the table.
Man 4: Okay, and there we have our installed 6-inch cabinet.
Woman 5: So now, we have a really cool shoe locker. You don’t know if it’s from IKEA. It could be, it might not be.
Man 5: For $44 worth of parts from IKEA –
Sean: But why aren’t they – I mean if they’re good enough to do some, frankly, pretty remarkable things with these materials, like, why aren’t they just going and buying raw lumber and screws and nails and hammering together something maybe more lasting and less press-boardy?
Daniela: Well, they’re not just hacking the materials, right? They’re hacking IKEA. They’re hacking the brand, they’re hacking what that – what that brand actually symbolizes beyond just the stores.
Sean: Or put another way, to quote Daniela and Jonathan, “They’re mocking the modularity of IKEA.” Saying, “This stuff is so tinker toy, I can mix and mash up the hell out of it.”
Roman: And it also goes back to that homogeneity, right? That if this the McDonald’s of furniture, I’m going to go against the grain and make a double, triple, extra pickle Big Mac with no middle bun in it.
Sean: Right. It’s part of your identity at that point. You’re saying, “I’m a person who transforms things.” But this is where it gets even more complicated, according to Jonathan.
Jonathan: Within that group of people who wanted to completely transform something, some of them really wanted to maintain the IKEA aesthetic, so they would say, “Well, this is something we want to see – that could have come from IKEA but didn’t.” So, there’s a sort of sense of – sure, you want to express yourself but, you’re also trying to sort of outdo the doer.
Jonathan: Like, you are trying to outwit IKEA, right?
Jonathan: Out-IKEA IKEA.
Sean: Alright. Now, we’re going to lay the shelves down on their sides in the way that IKEA did not intend.
Roman: We now rejoin this IKEA hack already in progress.
Sean: To catch everyone up, we have built three Kallax shelves from IKEA. We’ve laid them down on their sides in a kind of U. It’s like my bed is a whale skeleton lying on its side and you’re going to be putting stuff in the ribcage of the skeleton. That is what my bed is going to be like. And we’re going to put doors, really heavy doors, on top of the shelves. That’s where I’m going to lay down and go to sleepy-bye.
Roman: You sound like an insane person right now.
Sean: I know. I know.
Roman: You’re like Aquaman standing on top of a wild marine creature.
Sean: This is– but this is what it’s like! It’s like taming you know–
Roman: Like taming the most placid beast in the known universe, an IKEA shelf on its side.
Sean: No. That’s– But this is what I ‘m saying. This is– It isn’t placid! It’s us that is usually the placid.
Sean: Okay. This is the best part. We’re about to drill unsanctioned holes into a piece of IKEA furniture.
Jonathan: You’re not going to be able to take it back.
Sean: That’s fine.
Jonathan: You want to have at it?
Sean: Oh. Actually. Yeah. May I do the honors?
Roman: So, why is this your favorite part?
Sean: I mean, I think that – it’s just that for the longest time you know, you’re told that drilling holes where they’re not supposed to go is destructive and wrong. And we were doing that. And it’s still transgressive and you’re crossing a boundary, but it’s not destruction anymore. It’s creation. You know. It felt like, for once, I wasn’t just saying, “what’s out there, which one on the menu do I want?” We were making what we wanted.
Roman: Yeah. But you were still shopping at IKEA.
Daniela: Well, it’s interesting, IKEA’s response to this. It’s not to shut down IKEA hackers.
Sean: Again, this is Daniela Rosner who co-wrote that IKEA hacking paper.
Daniela: There’s a lot more support for hacking within the corporate world than there was five or six years ago. And I think part of that is corporations seeing that this adds to the process of buying and recognizing the products.
Roman: And yes, this is the moment in the story where we do the ironic tape-to-tape juxtaposition.
Reporter: Earlier this week, Swedish Flat-Pack furniture manufacturer, IKEA, dealt a massive blow to the long-running fan blog, ikeahackers.net. According to a blog post published by founder Jules Yap, the site was issued a cease and desist order in March alleging that–
Roman: This is the news that we alluded to at the beginning. Around the same time that Sean and Jonathan were hacking together his bed, unbeknownst to them, a brand protection company wrote to the queen bee of IKEA hackdom. The woman who runs ikeahackers.net, Jules Yap. Jules isn’t her real first name. The letter basically said that IKEA was not amused. And that if Jules didn’t stop operating her website the way she was, she could be in big trouble.
Sean: Hey, Jules?
Sean: Hi. How are you?
Jules: I’m good. How are you?
Sean: It wasn’t until the news broke about the cease and desist letter that Jules agreed to talk to me.
Sean: She lives in Malaysia. And we talked by Skype. Before we got down to business, I was just curious how she thought up the site.
Jules: So, I was checking out a few home decor websites, and I found a few IKEA hacks scattered around on the internet. And then that was when I thought how great it would be if I could see all these hacks in one place. And that was when “Tada!” The light bulbs just went on and I knew I had to start it.
Sean: So, that was in 2006. And for some reason, only this year, 2014, March 12, to be precise, did Jules get an email–
Jules: With the subject line “IKEA Hackers: Notification of Violation of Trademark Rights.”
Jules: Wow. So, I felt my blood drain literally, you know. I was– it was scary.
Roman: So, what did they want her to do?
Sean: Hand over the domain name. Stop using the IKEA trademark or anything trademarked by IKEA, which I think means even pictures of the furniture. And she’d have to close down her Twitter and Facebook accounts, too, and all the social media stuff. The thing that’s ironic about this, the thing that I didn’t understand right away was that Jules loves IKEA. I mean she’s just a huge fan.
Jules: I am, I guess. Superfan.
Sean: It strikes me that it’s like meeting a celebrity that you’ve always really loved and, like, that celebrity is really mean to you in some way.
Jules: Yes. Yeah. It– yeah. That’s close. I just felt like, after that, you know, I have been given a restraining order by the celebrity.
Sean: After Jules announced on her website that big changes might be coming to IKEA Hackers, the story went viral. People were pretty pissed off. Cory Doctorow, who blogs on Boing Boing, famously called the cease and desist letter, “steaming bull****” But at this point, Jules was pretty much resigned. She thought the best thing she could do was just to comply and then transfer the hacks over to another site which didn’t have IKEA’s name on it. If nothing else, she was just grateful that so many people reacted so strongly to the news.
Jules: So, it was on a Friday night that I made the announcement. And the following week, I received a call from IKEA,
Roman: From whom at IKEA?
Sean: A guy named Anders Westney. I hope I’m saying that right. He’s with the business side of things as opposed to the legal side.
Jules: He was saying that, well the lawyers are there to their job, you know. And he also took a look at the letter of – the cease and desist letter and he said that he didn’t recognize IKEA in it.
Sean: Really, he said that?
Jules: Yes, he said that.
Jules: As in like, it didn’t have the spirit of the brand, which is to make life better for everyone.
Sean: And to that end, he told Jules that they wanted to find another way forward and try to figure out how they can resolve things, to come to some agreement.
Jules: I seriously– when he called me, I was totally speechless. I was like, “Ah. Oh. Yeah? Oh. Yeah?” And inside me, I was like screaming, “Yes!”
Jules: I was like jumping if I could. [Laughs]
Sean: Doing the IKEA dance.
Jules: It was like crazy, you know.
Sean: And get this, as we’re releasing this podcast, Jules is visiting Sweden and Holland, meeting face to face with representatives of IKEA. She’s touring the concept center, where their products are developed. And then visiting the very homeland where it all began.
Roman: Oh my God. It’s like she’s Charlie Bucket visiting Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
Jules: Yes. I am. E.T. go home. [Laughs]
Roman: I mean, do you get a sense that IKEA would ever truly partner with Jules and make her some sort of minister of hacking or whatever?
Sean: I mean, what I’ve been saying is like, I can’t imagine IKEA could possibly endorse any individual hacker, hacking on the whole. It’s just too risky, you know? If something goes wrong. I mean, it would basically be sanctioning what amounts to a misuse of their products. Even though, I will say, that misuse feels wonderful.
Sean: I have to tell you, Jules, the feeling of hacking together my IKEA bed, well I and Jonathan Bean, because it was really mostly him, but we, you know, created something. And that thing that we created is now something that I sleep on every night.
Jules: [Laughs] Okay.
Sean: It’s just such a powerful feeling.
Jules: Mhhm. There’s actually a theory that one of the reasons why IKEA is so successful is because you have to make it yourself. Like you have to assemble it yourself. So, it gives you a certain sense of accomplishment or– I put together this Billy bookcase, or something.
Jules: So, I think hacking is just taking it a level higher.
Jonathan: Okay. Let’s see.
Sean: Alright, this is the final touch. We’re going to put the mattress onto my new IKEA bed. Does it fit? Does it fit? IT FITS! Oh boy, It’s a bed!
Sean: It’s a bed. It’s a real bed. I’m not just a loser bachelor sleeping on the floor anymore. I’m in an actual bed. Oh boy! Oh boy! I’m lying on my new bed. It’s so comfortable!
Roman: He still sounds like a crazy person. One more thing to add here. We also wrote to Anders Westney, the IKEA rep who reached out to Jules Yap saying “Let’s figure out a new way forward.” He was very polite. But said that talking to us before talking to Jules would be putting the cart before the horse. So, in short, no comment. We’ll have to wait for an update on ikeahackers.net.
Sean: Right. That’s right. The steel’s going to take its place.
Jonathan: We only have to buy two things instead of six.
Sean: You are so smart. You’re hacking the hack. Do you realize that you’re hacking the hack?
Jonathan: That’s what hacking is.
Sean: Oh. Right.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Sean Cole, with Sam Greenspan, Katy Mingle, Avery Trufelman, and me Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco. And produced at the offices of Arcsine, home of some very handsomely hacked Expedit shelves in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.