words Daneil West + Kieran Long
Flatpack furniture is 50 years old. Also known as RTA (ready to assemble), it was invented in 1956 by Swedish draughtsman and designer Gillis Lundgren.
Unable to fit a table that he had bought into his car boot, he broke off the legs, later reassembling the components at home. This inspired decision was recognised by his employer Ikea, which turned the concept into the cornerstone of a global empire.
But this is not just a celebration of the economic benefits of flatpack to corporations, but of an idea so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Its efficiency masks a phenomenon that has irrevocably changed the design, manufacture and consumption of furniture.
In the Victorian and Edwardian eras, manufacturers such as Heals and Asprey created foldable and demountable furniture for wealthy families working in the British colonies. But the first mass-market flatpacked piece was Ikea’s 1956 Lovet table, a low coffee table with a rich, veneered top. The legs were separate and the table assembled by the buyer, at home. The ensemble was packed (not entirely flat, it must be said) in a roll of corrugated cardboard tied with twine.
Flatpack furniture may be inextricably linked to the Swedish retailer, but the concept has since extended to everything from avant-garde design (Gaetano Pesce’s bulbous Donna chair of 1969, which came flat packed, and was inflated by the user using an integrated vacuum seal) to bicycles, pushchairs and even houses.
Ikea has development teams working constantly with designers to achieve “flatpackability” in their products, a design parameter that we now take for granted. And this has made the consumer the final stage of the production line.
The low prices of flatpacked items result not just from the manufacturer’s savings on the assembly but also from efficient storage and transportation. Flat-packing allows Ikea, for example, to ship 3,000 cubic metres of products every day from one of its 180,000 cubic metre distribution centres.
Flatpacking has spawned its own aesthetic, one that extends beyond the furniture itself. The graphic language of the assembly instructions is unmistakable: line diagrams intended as universal signifiers of a world where screws float in isometric space (rather than getting lost between floorboards) and too-thin plywood stays rigid and rectangular.
Perhaps in the distant future, new and even more efficient methods of transporting furniture, like home rapid prototyping machines, might replace the world of allen keys and heat-sealed plastic bags of screws. But for all its ubiquity, flatpacking is the technology that has defined furniture for two generations.