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Life-Hacking Your Living Room

What do IKEA and high-end lipstick have in common? They’ve been hacked by enterprising people building cheaper or more creative alternatives.

Illustration of fake IKEA instructions for a product called “Haak” Ringer illustration

If you’re between the ages of 20 and 35, it is highly likely that your home—be it a bedroom, apartment, or house—features anywhere between one and seven pieces of IKEA furniture. The Swedish retailer is famous for its big-box stores, allegedly easy-to-construct pieces, relationship-dooming shopping sprees, frozen yogurt, and general air of niceness.

But at a certain age, we tire of IKEA furniture. Yes, it is blandly comforting—like a neutral Gap sweater for your home; it goes with everything, unremarkable yet oddly eye-catching. This was the year that I finally tired of that acceptable sameness, so I ordered a batch of self-adhesive wallpaper, laid my white floating bookshelf on the floor, and, armed with a bowl of water and a paintbrush, recreated the invisible piece of furniture into something altogether better. This act, I later realized, has a name: IKEA hacking.

IKEA hacking is hardly new, and the community that comes up with new and inventive ways to hack these projects has been engaged (where else?) on the internet for years now. Jules Yap (not her real name; Yap requested anonymity) runs a site called IKEA Hackers, which launched in 2006. Originally, it was a place for Yap to post her IKEA-born projects—items that used different pieces of the iconic furniture to achieve beyond their intended purpose. Eventually Yap began receiving user-submitted suggestions—like turning the LACK into a rustic coffee table or the AKURUM kitchen cabinets into a lofted bed. A community quickly grew around these hacks, and platforms like Pinterest, YouTube, and Reddit helped foster the DIY spirit.

IKEA Hackers, of course, isn’t the only place encouraging people to push the boundaries of their big-box-bought furniture. But with that name, its growth, and an active community, it became a target. IKEA, perhaps attempting to make an example of the site, sent Yap a cease-and-desist order in 2014. The company argued that Yap—whose site sold advertising against its content—was using its products to make money.

But IKEA did an about-face, and, according to Yap, backed down. In fact, IKEA invited Yap to Sweden—the backlash over its reaction to her blog was swift, and it quickly appeared as though the furniture-and-home-goods giant was trying to play nice. The company had, in fact, riled a community of IKEA fans who were buying its products for their creative pursuits. IKEA ultimately withdrew the cease-and-desist against Yap with a warning that the site’s content, including its advertising, should contain no negative connotations (no drugs, no sex, etc.) as it related to the company.

“The community has continued to grow,” Yap says. “People from all over are still contributing their hacks. I’ve also recently published a book, which kind of feels like the whole movement is going mainstream.”

iRobot, makers of the Roomba, took a decidedly less litigious course. Roombas have always been prime hacking territory, and nearly as soon as the robot vacuums were on the market, consumers began coming up with new uses and extended functions for them. There’s a book called Hacking Roomba, a whole guide on Instructables, and a forum called Roomba Community devoted to the brand—and then there is this, lest we forget DJ Roomba.

When I asked iRobot if it’s ever dealt with this manner of fan excitement (i.e., hacking and modding) around its products, the company declined to answer specifically. Instead, iRobot pointed to its efforts to encourage STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education via its products. “iRobot is committed to building a future for STEM,” I was told via email in a statement. “In addition to hosting visits at our HQ and employees volunteering to visit schools to educate kids on robotics, the company also makes available the Create 2 programmable robot. We launched Create 2 in 2014 to give educators, students, and developers the tools and resources to grasp the fundamental of robots and teach users how to program and code.”

IKEA seems to be taking a page out of iRobot’s book. In June 2017, the company announced DELAKTIG, a modular sofa bed that signals the launch of a hackable lineup from the brand. (It will be available in February 2018.) And, of course, IKEA also backed off trying to shut down Yap. “I think it worked out well,” Yap says. “I really like the open atmosphere we now have—we share more and let loose our creativity.”

“There’s a mutual respect,” Yap says. “[There isn’t] a fear of crossing boundaries. Rather, I want to respect their trademark and brand. And they do mine, too.”

What’s confusing about this world of life-hacking is the number of actors at play: There are the people creating the hacks, those providing instructions on how to achieve them, the platforms that publicize that information, and the people who sell the items they’ve made (along with ad space). It’s a tangled web. Residing in one corner is another type of hacking getting a lot of attention thanks to social media: duping.

Duping typically applies to makeup or beauty products—it finds a cheaper version of a more expensive product—like an $8 Milani lipstick that matches a Smashbox lipstick that retails for $24. A popular Instagram account called @dupethat is devoted to helping consumers find inexpensive matches to coveted, expensive brands—but not without criticism. (The companion website to @dupethat, dupethat.com, is also an extensive resource.)

Deciding whether a dupe crosses a legal line is difficult. According to Lesley Kim and Robb Roby, attorneys who specialize in intellectual property law for the Irvine, California–based law firm Knobbe Martens, the biggest issue isn’t whether the product itself has been copied, but if the packaging, design, and naming have.

“[This] type of duping can cross the line of legality and may infringe on the copied brand’s trademark rights, for example,” Kim and Roby wrote to me in an email. This seems … strange: If a lipstick’s physical formula has been copied but comes in a slightly different packaging, that’s not considered a violation? Apparently, yes, and it has to do with what we as buyers notice.

“Consumers are not likely to recognize a brand from the characteristics of the product itself,” say Kim and Roby. Things like texture, color, and scent are harder for us to qualify—and many brands can use the same ingredients. Design and packaging, however, are the things we latch onto. “For this reason, product design and packaging can be protected by trademark law as trade dress.”

And that means it’s easier to litigate based on these violations than the integrity of the actual product. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though. Kim and Roby say that in order to be protectable, design and packaging can’t be thought of as “functional” to a product, and that they should be something that consumers immediately recognize and know as belonging to the specific brand that wants to litigate. A lot of brands have similar looks, so you have to be pretty sure a competitor is piggybacking on your design’s popularity. And, they say, that means it’s even less likely a brand would take on a consumer review site, like @dupethat. “These sites can minimize the risk of conflict if they avoid using photographs of a brand owner’s trade dress, and identify products by showing only characteristics that are unprotected or unprotectable, such as the color of the product.”

I thought duping or advertising duping would be less offensive than Yap’s work with IKEA Hackers. Not true, say Kim and Roby. “IKEA Hackers does not divert sales away from IKEA. If anything it encourages the sales of IKEA products. … However, IKEA may be concerned with losing control of its image and the quality of the finished product. Because consumers are using IKEA parts, but not as intended, it exposes IKEA to potential reputational harm, especially where consumers are associating the resulting product with the IKEA brand. There also could be a slight risk of liability for IKEA if the modified product causes injury or harm.” Dupes, though, take money away from another product, and accounts that advertise them are helping that operation.

Makeup artist Kat Von D has spoken out against makeup duping, calling out another company for using a look and packaging too similar to her own. (She’d likely be unhappy with a page on dupethat.com dedicated to dupes of her line.) Other artists have taken issue with dupes as well, and it puts communities like Dupe That in a bit of a strange space.

Despite this comparatively gentle blowback, Kim and Roby don’t necessarily see a legal issue with @dupethat, or similar accounts. “We do not believe there is a problem with product reviews that publicize dupes,” they say. What if these accounts are collecting ad revenue, like an IKEA Hackers but for eye shadow dupes? “Paid advertising is a relevant issue in any type of consumer review, and does not make advertising dupes more problematic than advertising other products or services.” When I worked in the consumer-gadget space, debate over Amazon affiliate links and gadget companies buying space next to reviews on the sites were common.

As I dove further and further into these communities, I found myself wondering whether the “hackers” or “hacker collectors” felt that they could be hacked (or modded or duped, for that matter). It all gets fuzzier yet when sites reappropriate Yap’s hacks, for instance, trying to pass instructions off as though they originated the ideas, or simply reposted without attribution. Many of these accounts, like @ikeahackers (which is not run by Yap) and @ikeahacksdiy, are simply scouring the web and aggregating interesting IKEA hacks individual users have put out there. There is no shortage of Instagram and Facebook pages touting IKEA hacks, many of which feature designs that originally found a home on IKEA Hackers. Does Yap see a problem with this?

“No, I have no issues with that,” she says. “The site is about sharing our ideas and creations. … [They] are inspired to create something similar. Trends will always lead to replication. Like, at one point, everyone was spraying their VITTSJO tables gold and wrapping the shelf with marble contact paper.”

The internet will only continue to fuel the DIY revolution, and industrious modders and social media sleuths advertising their endeavors should hope for Yap’s (and eventually, IKEA’s) reaction to creation and creativity to become more tolerated. Speaking about the possible replication of her idea, Yap—who now runs IKEA Hacking as a full-time employment proposition—is laissez-faire about it all. “Who was the original hacker? That’s really hard to tell.”