From early next year, shoppers will be able to buy a “hackable” sofa from IKEA. Developed in collaboration with Tom Dixon, a British designer, Delaktig is an austerely upholstered mattress on a sturdy aluminium frame. As nakedly functional as a sofa can get, it looks like something you might spend the night on if you were caught shoplifting frozen meatballs. But its minimalism is the point. The frame, made by Volvo’s supplier, has a groove into which can be slotted various “add-ons”. That’s when the fun starts. You “hack” the sofa by adding armrests or a back cushion or a footstool, depending on whether you feel like owning a chaise longue or an L-shaped three-seater. You can invest in a clip-on reading lamp or a stone side table or a fluffy cover made of Icelandic sheepskin, and exchange them for new ones when you get bored. Some of these add-ons will be sold by IKEA; others by independent designers.
IKEA is not the only brand embracing the notion of hackable furniture. In 2016 Vitra, a high-end Swiss furniture company, unveiled Hack, a modular desk designed by Konstantin Grcic. Made of chipboard panels that slot into aluminium brackets, its £2,557 ($4,775) price tag sits awkwardly with its knocked-up-in-a-garage aesthetic – but, as with Delaktig, this unfinishedness is deliberate. The “flexible and dynamic” desk can be adjusted in height, folded up, turned into a sofa, drilled into and sawn.
As Alexander Lotersztain, the founder of Les Basic, an Australian furniture brand, explains, “hackable” has two meanings. One is the capacity to physically adapt a product in order to change what it looks like or what it does. His modular sofa, Homework, can have tables and powerpoints added to it. “Hackable” can also refer to designs that perform more than one function: he gives the example of another of his products, Valet, an integrated stool and table with wheels, which can be a bedside table, a portable office or a plant stand.
All three brands are targeting millennials. People in their 20s and 30s, says Lotersztain, are “constantly striving for individualism”, which is reflected in what they spend their money on. According to a survey by Pew, 22% of Americans bought handmade goods from websites like Etsy in 2015. As well as craving products that look good on Instagram, millions of young people around the world are dealing with a shortage of affordable housing in the places they want to live. Marcus Engman, head of design at IKEA, believes frequent flat moves and a lack of space have created a growing need for “multi-talented products”. Delaktig is designed to “adapt to the constant changing and disruption in people’s lives”. Hack, Vitra explains, is aimed at “office environments with changing requirements” – fast-growing startups that are run by and employ millennials.
Shape-shifting furniture has been around for centuries. Extendable dining tables stretch back to the 1500s, while chairs that metamorphosed into library steps were invented in the mid-18th century. In the 1960s, Scandinavian designers produced coffee tables that turned into dining tables and desks that turned into wardrobes. Le Corbusier and Marcel Breuer were experimenting with modular shelving in the 1920s, and Harvey Probber, an American designer, came up with the modular sofa in the 1940s. People have customised their furniture – painting it, changing fabrics, taking a toolbox to it – for generations, as a visit to the Bloomsbury Group’s country retreat, Charleston, will confirm.
So you could argue that hackable furniture is an old idea, rebranded to attract digitally native consumers, for whom hacking – disrupting the status quo – can have a positive meaning as well as the identity-stealing, ransomware-demanding one. Social media have encouraged the sharing of IKEA “hacks”: blogs and YouTube videos show you how to turn a Lack TV table into a comfy hallway bench or rustle up bespoke shelves from Billy bookcases. Several companies have monetised the concept, selling fronts for IKEA kitchen cabinets, and slip covers for IKEA sofas (one of them, Bemz, is responsible for Delaktig’s sheepskin). Until recently IKEA was a bit uppity about hacking: its lawyers sent cease-and-desist letters to websites like Ikeahackers.net that innocently collated techniques.
But while IKEA’s volte-face is good PR, it would be wrong to dismiss hackable furniture as mere spin. The techspeak is not just rhetorical – it represents an attempt to remodel the furniture industry along the lines of the technology industry, as advances in digital manufacturing promise to transform how and where products are made.
Engman says he was inspired by how tech companies provide a base for other people’s creativity and entrepreneurship: “that approach makes ideas grow faster.” He and Dixon see Delaktig as an “open platform”, the furniture equivalent of an iPhone. One company producing “apps” for Delaktig is Opendesk, which provides open-source furniture designs that can be manufactured by anyone with a ready supply of plywood and a milling machine hooked up to a computer (the wood is cut through a process known as computer numerical control, or CNC). Opendesk’s tabletop and under-mattress storage turn Delaktig into office furniture.
“Trying to produce an iconic piece of furniture is quite old-fashioned,” says Dixon. “Design is traditionally about control. This is more of a departure point.” But letting go can, paradoxically, be a way of staying in control: bringing outsiders into the design process can spur innovation within big companies, and prevent them from being usurped by disruptors. Not that the digital-manufacturing revolution will unseat the world’s biggest furniture retailer anytime soon: small-batch production using CNC-milling or 3D-printing is still much more expensive than traditional mass production.
With Vitra’s Hack desk, the metal parts are made in a factory, but the panels can be cut anywhere, so long as you have some chipboard and the right equipment. A local “maker” could download the digital pattern from Vitra’s website and hack it on-site to suit the needs of a particular company. As Grcic puts it, “We make the hardware, craftsmen make the software.” It’s a nice way of looking at it. Hackable furniture is about giving consumers the low prices, efficiency and quality-control of mass production, with a dash of individuality.