Gillis Lundgren, one the most important designers of the 20th century, has died at 86, The Washington Post reports. But there’s a good chance you’ve never heard his name before.
Lundgren designed Ikea’s logo, although that’s not the only reason why you should know him. He also designed the minimalist Billy bookcase, which Ikea produces at a staggering rate of 15 units per minute. In a career that lasted over 60 years, the former head of design created more than 200 designs for Ikea.
Yet ultimately, what earns Lundgren his title as one of the most important designers of the 20th century, is that he pioneered flat-pack, ready-to-assemble furniture, an innovation that is hard to overstate.
In 1943, 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad started Ikea as a mail-order business selling pens and nylon stockings by mail. By 1948, the company began selling furniture, but it was not the sort of furniture Ikea sells today. Rather, Kamprad sold chairs, tables, and more, produced and assembled by local manufacturers. By 1951, Kamprad was selling enough of these by mail that he had put together the first Ikea catalog. The furniture was big and bulky, making it expensive and difficult to ship.
In 1953, Lundgren joined Ikea as a catalog manager, after studying at the Malmo technical college. Three years later, he was tasked with delivering a new, leaf-shaped table called the Lovet to a nearby photo studio so it could be shot for an upcoming catalog. But he got frustrated trying to fit the table into his small post-war car. “When I looked at how we might keep a large number of these tables at our low price,” he once said. “I thought: ‘Why not take off the legs?’” The rest was history.
Lundgren always admitted that he was not the inventor of flat-pack furniture. A fellow Swede, Fiolke Ohlsson, patented a ready-to-assemble chair in 1949. Lundgren’s legacy was in popularizing flat-pack. He became such a tireless advocate for flat-pack furniture that he soon convinced Kamprad to make it the cornerstone of the fledgling furniture maker’s business model.
Going flat-pack uniquely positioned Ikea to grow from a relatively small business operating out of the Swedish countryside to a multinational empire making over $30 billion a year. First, it made Ikea’s furniture more affordable than competitors, since the company was offloading the assembly process to buyers. It also meant that Ikea stores could keep more furniture in stock than its competitors, since only show floor models needed to be stocked fully assembled. Third, it made Ikea furniture easier to transport, not just for consumers, but in bulk. Ikea could ship 10 times as many flat-pack desks, tables, or bookcases as competitors, for almost the same amount of gas. Finally, it encouraged Ikea’s designers to embrace a clean, minimalist, geometric aesthetic, which the company still pursues today. Would so-called Swedish design really look the way it looks today if not for flat-pack?
Today, everyone knows Lundgren’s work, even if they don’t know his name. As for flat-pack? It’s taken over the design world, not just in furniture, but in architecture, disaster relief, sporting goods, and more. There’s even video games about flat-pack. Not a bad design legacy for a guy who just wanted to fit a table in his trunk.