In February 2010, sun-loving Australians who showed up at Sydney's famous Bondi Beach encountered something more than the usual towels and umbrellas. Thirty red bookcases snaked through the sand, stuffed with thousands of books ideal for beach reading. Proceeds went to charity, but the publicity went to Ikea. The stunt commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Billy bookcase.
That was six years ago. Today, the Billy remains not only the best-selling item at Ikea but also the best-selling bookcase in history. By our calculation, there are roughly 59.6 million Billy bookcases out there—this, despite the fact that 28 percent of Americans haven't read a book in the past year. But as Ikea's U.S. president Lars Petersson recently put it: "In spite of the fact that people seem not to buy books anymore, they buy Billys."
But why? Well, partly because the neutral, unassuming Billy (named after Ikea advertising manager Billy Liljedahl) goes with nearly any interior. "It's a really unfussy, unfettered look," said Sophie Donelson, editor in chief of House Beautiful. "It has clean lines, and it's modern without trying too hard."
But another major factor (as with all Ikea items) is price. The Billy starts at $29.99, and the reason it's so cheap goes to the very heart of the Ikea brand itself.
In 1978, designer Gillis Lundgren sketched the first Billy bookcase on the back of a napkin, based on a conversation he had with Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad. But Lundgren didn't just come up with a simple, serviceable bookshelf; he also pioneered the concept of flat packing—shipping the components of a piece in a box that takes up as little space as possible. Of course, flat packing shifted the onus of assembly onto the consumer (those bewildering assembly manuals are part of the Ikea legend). It also saved the company a lot of money. That made Ikea items cheaper for consumers, which helped make them so popular. Since the Billy first appeared in Ikea's 1980 catalog, economies of scale have enabled the retailer to reduce the product's price by 30 percent.
Even Ikea fans joke about the brand—how much of its products look more suited to a dorm room than a grown-up's home. But the truth is, designers take Ikea (and the Billy) more seriously than one might think. "We love Ikea because it's a great place for basic you can really dress up to make feel high-end," explained Mat Sanders, co-founder and creative director of Consort Design in Los Angeles. "A great room should be mixed with new and pieces having a variety of price ranges to achieve a layered, well-rounded personality in the space. When used tastefully, the Billy can feel very upscale."
Which is actually what Lundgren, who died earlier this year, had intended from the start. "All my products are simple, practical and timeless," he said in 2009. "They should be useful, no matter how old you are or what your life situation is."
This story first appeared in the September 26, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.