In Praise of the IKEA Billy Bookshelf

I moved house recently. Or more specifically, I moved in with my boyfriend, and it’s the first time I’ve ever lived with a significant other. Neither of us drink, which makes us by necessity a little anti-social, and so we spend a lot of time in the microcosm of our apartment. I thought this would annoy me because I like my own space (as does he) but it’s been an easy transition. Frankly, we’re both very happy to sit there ignoring each other except to ask occasional questions like “D’you want tea?”

We knew we were going to have a problem moving books. I have collated an entire bookcase in the short two years I have lived in London, with the shelves each packed two books deep. My cheap Argos bookshelf fell apart as soon as I tried to move it so I had to wave that goodbye. To be fair, it was very over-stacked and I worked it much too hard. My partner has also accumulated quite the collection of books, and collects comics, meaning we had five large cardboard boxes of those to move also. Worse, I moved most stuff on foot because the new apartment was less than a ten minute walk from the old. I took some books on each of my walks and my muscles were really feeling it by the end.

As soon as we moved in, we knew we had to purchase some serious bookshelves, but we were skint from forking out for all the moving expenses. We took the obvious trip to IKEA and looked around, figuring out how we could make it work.

Eventually, we worked out that with three bookcases, we could safely hold all of our books without ruining them, with some additional space, and the comics, safely in their boxes, would be neatly stacked. In IKEA that day, we paid £7 for three pots because we legitimately couldn’t justify spending more at that time. The books would have to wait.

We waited a few weeks, with books and comics stacking up in the apartment, dust bunnies everywhere, before I cracked and placed an online IKEA order. Three Billy bookcases, two narrow and one wide. It was time to get the books into their new homes.

The IKEA Billy bookshelf was recently the topic of a BBC podcast about objects that define the modern economy; for something so unassuming, it’s become iconic.

The Billy was created by IKEA’s fourth ever employee, Gillis Lundgren, who wanted to make something timeless and functional. He drew it on the back of a napkin so he wouldn’t forget. The IKEA Billy bookshelf might not be a paragon of beauty, but it is cheap and functional- the benchmarks of the economy we now live in. Lundgren probably didn’t realise how far his creation would spread—there are  60 million existing worldwide—that’s one for every 100 people (ish). A Billy rolls off the production line in Sweden every three seconds. If they became sentient, we might have problems.

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According to the BBC, Bloomberg has created the Billy Bookcase Index to assess purchasing power worldwide. Bloomberg can tell you where is cheapest and most expensive to buy a Billy. That’s how ubiquitous the IKEA Billy bookshelf has become.

The huge scope of the operation behind the Billy is astonishing. The Billy debuted in the 1980s and obviously wasn’t selling immediate millions—yet the factory, Gyllensvaans Mobler, has only doubled its workforce since the beginning, even though its output has greatly increased thanks to machinery investments. Millions of Billys have not created millions of manufacturing jobs. The factory is a niche in the market; it basically produces nothing aside from IKEA bookcases. It takes an economy of scale to make something like that work, keeping prices down while the product maintains the same quality. That level of consumerism is mind boggling (and not necessarily good).

Right now, the three Billys reside in our living room, our books climbing high on either side of the television in two narrow bookcases while a third, wider, lurks in the back corner with little bits of art, prints and even a replica WWE belt making their homes on its shelves. The Billys allowed us to fix a space problem with relative ease; I wonder if, in another forty years, the IKEA Billy bookshelf will still be part of so many homes and stories.