Björn Rust (he/him) is a post-industrial designer cum researcher, innovator and educator, developing context-sensitive innovation practices for people, planet and beyond.

Recent writings

  1. Opportunity hoarding
  2. Doing away with bullshit
  3. The course of my life, so far

Democratic design and the environment

Scandinavian design is often celebrated for its democracy. However, unlike the work of Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto, only Ikea remains democratic to this day.

Aalto’s three-legged 60 Stool costs roughly 350AUD, while the four-legged E60 cost an additional 35AUD. Meanwhile, Ikea’s E60 derivative, the Frosta, costs just 14.99AUD, less than half the price of the E60’s fourth leg. Despite the design infringement of Ikea’s Frosta, there is no question that it serves the people in a way the 60 Stool can not, due entirely to its price.

But it’s not the Frosta that is the best indicator of Ikea’s incredibly thrifty nature, that title goes to the ubiquitous Billy bookcase. This extremely utilitarian product was introduced in 1979 by Ikea’s fourth employee, Gillis Lundgren who joined the company in 1953 to manage the now famous catalogue. Since that time the Billy has sold more than 41 million units. It’s so ubiquitous that Bloomberg measures the state of a country’s economy base on the price of the Billy. During October of 2015, it cost just 39.35USD in Slovakia when converted from the local currency, meanwhile, Egyptians would have paid 101.55USD.

Tim Harford describes some of the efficiencies that Ikea employs to arrive at its low prices in his podcast, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. But anyone with a keen eye can obverse the optimisations and evolution of its products over time. My first Billy was delivered with solid aluminium shelf support pins. By the time my younger brother bought his some years later, those pins arrived with a hole through the axis. This almost imperceivable optimisation would have had an enormous effect on the amount of raw materials spent in the part’s fabrication, and considering the huge number of units shipped to all corners of the globe, the cost of transportation would also fall significantly. More importantly, however, those new pins that are functionally equivalent to the originals, now embody and incur less carbon.

This is not to say this is Ikea’s primary motivation. It and its consumers are most likely motivated by lower costs, but there is evidence that the blue and yellow behemoth is making further optimisations to its products with environmental sensitivity at their core if one were to read Ikea’s 2016 Sustainability Report. Additionally, in an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Joanna Yarrow, Ikea’s head of sustainability for the UK and Ireland, revealed that the ever-evolving Billy will soon feature recycled cardboard components. For better or for worse. But while I remain sceptical that a company that delivers a clone of Aalto’s E60 for less than 4% of the price can do so in a sustainable and ethical fashion, they must be commended for the steps they appear to be taking. Most notably, during 2016 Ikea did not send a single gram of the 33,944 tonnes of waste produced in its UK-based stores to landfill.

Inspired by: 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy: Billy Bookcase
Reference: Bloomberg

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