Opening the Flatpack: Ethnography, Art, and the Billy Bookcase

This is a combined masters level university course and research/art project that explores the cultural significance of a specific object, namely IKEA’s Billy Bookcase. Fifty years ago, IKEA opened its first store in Älmhult, Sweden. Today, it operates 300 stores in 35 countries and is the largest manufacturer of furniture in the world; its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, is one of the richest men in the world. IKEA: a brand synonymous with affordability, mobility and functionality, introduced the Billy Bookcase – the quintessential item of flatpack furniture – in 1978, and has sold more than 35 million units worldwide since.

In his book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, David Edgerton argues against our attraction to novelty and “high-tech” in innovation and design. Instead, we should direct our sights towards what Edgerton terms the “invisible world of technologies” that people actually use, many of which have served the poor and middle class more than the wealthy. The condom and the sewing machine, corrugated metal and flat-pack furniture. Forget bioscience and nanotech, writes Edgerton, “Think of cheap PCs, mobile phones and IKEA furniture. Mass production is now so common it is invisible.” IKEA directly and indirectly employs more than a million people selling wooden furniture. This global triumph of “old” technology yields a compelling yet unexplored picture of the substantive relationship between human beings and their tools, technologies, and culture.

Co-organized by artist and author John D. Freyer (University of Iowa and 2011 Fulbright Fellow) and anthropologist Johan Lindquist (Stockholm University), in collaboration with design and architecture firm Uglycute and Konstfack, Opening the Flatpack aims to investigate and develop methods for approaching the Billy Bookcase; an object that is pervasive in everyday life but rarely taken seriously as a site of conceptual concern. Following Edgerton’s lead, and using multimedia and interdisciplinary approaches drawn from the disciplines of art, anthropology and economics, the Opening the Flatpack project and course explores the global reach of IKEA through the lens of this humble domestic object: the top-selling bookcase in the world.

In an attempt to disturb institutional boundaries and generate novel forms of inquiry the course will bring together art and anthropology students who together will conduct research on how the Billy Bookcase is produced, circulated, and, in particular, how it is used in everyday life. Readings on IKEA, from anthropology and art and social theory, will be combined with lectures and discussions with invited guests. In particular, students will be asked to conduct ethnographic investigations and interviews, while documenting the Billy Bookcase in and across Stockholm. From these readings, discussions, and fieldwork, the course will begin to develop a series of questions pertaining to the Billy Bookcase, and in the end develop a document or installation that will describe the course process and what we have learned along the way.

Invited Speakers:

- Pauline Garvey, an anthropologist at the National University of Maynooth on Ireland. She is currently writing a book on IKEA in Sweden. http://anthropology.nuim.ie/staff/garvey-pauline

- Inge Daniels, an anthropologist at Oxford University who works on material culture in Japan. http://www.isca.ox.ac.uk/about-us/staff/academic/dr-inge-daniels/

- Christine Hill, an artist and professor at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. Hill is represented at many exhibitions throughout the world; she presented her last major installation at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 at the invitation of Robert Storr, a curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art.