Good old Billy

Branding may dominate the creative headlines, but it’s design and manufacturing basics that have made Ikea’s founder richer than Bill Gates

There is design and design. High design, with big names attached, and everyday design, which, by its nature, is a lot more anonymous. And then there is the Billy bookcase, which is something else again – real mass production.

Everybody knows the Billy bookcase. Sold in its millions by Ikea, it is the fast, cheap way to get basic shelving. It comes in a variety of configurations and is made of veneered or laminated MDF. This is the ultimate bit of flat-pack furniture. It is heavy, crude, basic, the antithesis of hi-tech. Or is it?

Two things got me thinking about Billy. Let me confess that I have some of it in my home. And that, recently, I went out and bought some more. Billy is a short-term fix, a natural for children’s bedrooms, functional and cheap enough to chuck once life moves on. It’s a forest crop, like newspapers. They grow the raw materials.

But here’s the thing – Billy has changed. Not a lot, but enough to notice if, like me, you already had some of the old stock. There are subtle design modifications. The dimensions are the same, but the fixings – the metal bits you lock the pieces together with – have become concealed rather than expressed.

The backboard, which had been a single piece, has become a three-piece fold-out. This means that the flat-pack container can be much more compact, thus taking up less warehouse space, and fitting into your car more easily. And the packaging, which used to contain polystyrene chunks, is now all card.

Billy has been through a value engineering exercise. It has become a leaner product in all respects. It shares more common components with other Ikea kit. No doubt it has become more profitable as a result. Yet it is, as far as most people are concerned, the same thing that it was before.

You have to admire that kind of dogged manufacturing ingenuity – to take a highly successful product and look at it all over again. It’s not glamorous, but it sure shows up on the bottom line. I’m not the only one who’s impressed. So, too, is Professor David Edgerton of Imperial College in London. Anyone with the smallest interest in design and manufacturing should read his latest book, The Shock of the Old. This is the second thing that made me think about Billy.

Edgerton’s shtick is that we are fascinated by so-called high technology, when the stuff we all use is a different kind of technology altogether. Bicycles are more important than Concorde. Nuclear weapons remain a deterrent, while conventional rifles – and machetes – are true weapons of mass destruction. And when it comes to manufacturing, forget bioscience and nanotechnology, and think of old-fashioned mass production. ‘Think of cheap PCs, mobile phones and Ikea furniture. Mass production is now so common it is invisible,’ writes Edgerton.

He says we are brainwashed into thinking ‘that what matters is branding and design’, yet Ikea indirectly employs a million people and is a triumph of ‘old’ technology. Wooden furniture. How old is that?

For Edgerton, the old can be shockingly successful, can make the founder of Ikea wealthier than Bill Gates. And what does he single out, the one that has sold more than 28 million units since it was launched in 1978?

We know that, don’t we? It’s the Billy bookcase.

Hugh Pearman

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