Everyone Loves a Good Ikea Hack: These 3 Classic Pieces Show Why

Everyone Loves a Good Ikea Hack: These 3 Classic Pieces Show Why

There’s a reason people have been customizing the Swedish meatball purveyor’s furniture for decades. Jean Yap, the most famous hacker of the bunch, explains how you can join in on the fun.

Ikea’s iconic Billy bookcase is following me around Instagram, taunting me. It’s not the standard build you’ll find in apartments all over the world, nor the thoroughly staged Billy systems from your nearest Ikea showroom. No, I’m talking about the magnificently reworked Billy bookcases, transformed into the stuff of the most baroque readerly fantasies: arched built-ins painted a beautiful green; a trio painted yellow. extended skyward, and tucked into a slanted ceiling with a bit of molding; a wall with a secret bar hidden among pink shelves and cabinets. Thanks to this relentless pro-DIY propaganda, I routinely find myself thinking I ought to at least put some peel-and-stick wallpaper on the back of my 10-year-old Billys.

But these aspirational Billy projects are just the tip of the iceberg that is Ikea hacking. Pretty much wherever you find Ikea, you’ll find people doing all kinds of stuff to their furniture. Sometimes it’s as complicated as entire walls of painted Billy bookcases rendered unrecognizable, but sometimes it’s as simple as adding legs to the ubiquitous Malm dresser. I talked to Jules Yap, creator of IkeaHackers.net and perhaps the best known Ikea hacker, about a few pieces that are perennially beloved by DIY enthusiasts—and why.

Why bother?

But first, a word about just why there are so many people doing such ambitious things to their Ikea furniture. Yap points out that first of all, you have to assemble most Ikea furniture, anyway, and you often have to pick from various customization options, from which kind of door you want to what type of handle. "I think somehow, it sparks that creativity," says Yap. "You kind of think, oh, perhaps I can do something else—instead of using what Ikea provides, maybe I could DIY something else and make my own door, make my own legs, not give it legs." (And IKEA too has encouraged customer upcycling in recent years.)

Then there’s the affordability. "I mean, a very expensive designer piece, you probably wouldn’t want to paint it or cut it up or something like that," says Yap. Plus it’s often minimal and basic—a nice, blank canvas for your most ambitious ideas.

And, of course, plenty of us have been hauling around Billy bookcases and Kallax units for more than a decade at this point. They’re not beautiful heirloom furniture (unless you’re lucky enough to own a vintage piece); mine are a little dinged-up and they’ve been relegated to increasingly less beloved corners of my home (the Kallax is currently stuck out in the garage for warm-weather snow boot storage). But they’re very much still kicking, with plenty of life in them. Maybe that old Besta bought a decade ago as a TV stand could form the core of a window seat reading nook for my kid.

Before you start, just remember that many Ikea pieces aren’t solid wood, and you’ll need to do your research and proceed accordingly. "Go in knowing it’s not a standard DIY, where you cut up solid wood and you can sand it down," says Yap. "There are lots and lots of tutorials all over the internet on how to paint laminate furniture, so those are techniques that you should pick up before you start." For painting in particular, it’s worth starting off experimenting with smaller pieces, first.

"It’s one thing to read a tutorial and you look at a YouTube video—it looks easy. It doesn’t always go as planned," she says. "So start with something easier and work your way up as you develop skills and understand how and what kind of techniques you need to have to hack Ikea pieces."

The Billy

The Billy is maybe the single most iconic Ikea product—and the single most iconic Ikea hack starting point. And that’s probably because people like the idea of custom built-ins, until they discover the cost, especially for something that’s a want rather than a need (compared to, say, fixing your fixer-upper’s problematic bathroom) and doesn’t add much resale value. (Not to mention being potentially tricky in a rental.)

But there’s always Billy. "It’s really a very basic design," says Yap. "You can embellish it quite easily." It’s a starting point, an affordable chassis on which you can layer your preferred paint, trim, and other flourishes. "Imagine having to build a bookcase from scratch, buying lumber and cutting it up," she adds. "Having a Billy bookcase as the starting point, you are already three steps ahead." That means you can focus your energies on filling up an entire wall with Billys in your preferred paint color, with molding, if you’re really feeling fancy, you can even attempt one of these projects for adding a rolling library ladder. The results can be pretty impressive.

The Kallax

If the Billy’s advantage is that it allows very embellished projects on top of a simple and affordable base, for Ikea hackers, the Kallax is all about versatility: "The range of what you can turn it into is a lot wider," Yap says.

The Kallax, which is designed as a series of 13.25 inch cubes, is heavier and chunkier than the Billy, and it’s freestanding, which opens up a world of possibilities: "You can use it as a wall divider or even as a kitchen counter or something like that," says Yap. It also comes in several different configurations and sizes, from 1 x 4 all the way up to 5 x 5. Perhaps the simplest and most popular hacks include benches and other types of entryway storage—you can even get premade cushions on Etsy designed specifically for Kallax dimensions. But the Kallax is also a popular starting point for kitchen islands, as well as platform storage beds.

One of the perennially favorite projects is for crafters: a table designed to both offer a workspace and hold all the supplies associated with things like sewing, knitting, or quilting. You can even put the whole thing on wheels.

The Trofast

The Trofast is popular with a very specific audience: parents. That’s because it’s designed specifically for toy storage; while it comes in several configurations, it’s essentially a rack for holding bins of stuff. Unlike the Billy and the Kallax, it has the benefit of a solid wood version. And Ikea hackers love tweaking it for various projects for kids’ rooms.

Lego tables are a popular Trofast project. They’re also often used to make desks, with two units side-by-side and a plank on top. A slightly more elaborate project turns them into a kid’s desk that can grow with them: "You can have two of them side by side, and then you put a piece of plank on top of it and that becomes a desk. And then when they grow taller, you can move it up to the second level and finally to the third level," explains Yap.

The Ivar

"Personally, I like the Ivar," says Yap. It’s a simple storage system made out of solid wood (pine, in this case), and the line includes both shelves and cabinets. "I think it’s very well done—very modular, very versatile, you can do a lot with it." The fact that it’s solid wood makes it easier to handle, without the extra steps demanded by the more composite materials. That makes it perhaps one of the friendliest options for the beginning hacker. Something like this bold blue cabinet with customized legs is a nice way to get your feet wet—before you start getting adventurous with Billy.

Top image courtesy of Ikea

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