Gillis Lundgren's most famous Ikea design is a sleekly straightforward bookcase. You can probably guess which one. The Billy bookcase is believed to be the most commercially successful piece of modern furniture, having sold more than 110 million units since its debut in 1978. It slides right into the contemporary look of the Swedish furniture giant: functional with just enough design-forward flair. Back in the swinging ‘70s, the Ikea catalog was stocked with furniture that was full-on funky. One of the stand-outs also came from Lundgren: the Impala.
The Impala collection consisted of a sleeper sofa, armchair, and table—each with low-slung tubular steel frames and, for the seating, vibrant upholstery. The early 1970s was a high time for eccentrically designed sofas. Michel Ducaroy's now-infamous Togo sofa was introduced at Paris' Salon des Arts Ménagers, and Mario Bellini created Le Bambole for B&B Italia. Ikea's Impala packed a similar aesthetic punch at a fraction of the price. The 1972 catalog copy asked: "Do you think of IMPALA as a luxurious, different, 'difficult', fashion-conscious or even just an ordinary piece of furniture?"
Ikea's founder Ingvar Kamprad was convinced the design would flop. It was too outlandish to sell well. He was so confident in his thinking, he bet his designer a bottle of whiskey that no one would buy it. The Impala sofa became one of the catalog's best sellers. "Ingvar slunk in dragging that whiskey bottle," Lungdren recalled in Ikea, the Book. Regardless, the entire Impala collection was discontinued by the following year because it was deemed too expensive to produce. (It has never been put back into production.) In recent years, though, vintage Impala pieces have become collector's items. The chair sells in the range of $3,000; Ikea originally sold it for $40, or $266 in today's dollars.
Born in southern Sweden in 1929, Lungdren took a roundabout route to his influential design perch. He studied to be a draftsman at the Malmö Institute of Technology and joined Ikea as a catalog manager, the company's fourth employee. He was focused more on operations and production. Eventually, he worked to become Ikea's first-ever design manager and is even credited with creating the company logo. However, Lungdren's most significant contribution to the company was pushing towards "flat-pack" furniture. While on his way to a photo shoot for the catalog, he removed the legs of a table so it could fit into a car. That was all it took—Ikea's pivot to ready-to-assemble furniture came shortly after that revelation.
Lundgren passed away in 2016, but the Billy bookcase and catalog scans of his more avant-garde creations will live forever. Within the past two years, there has been a noticeable uptick of interest in vintage Ikea. The phenomenon has been written up everywhere from Architectural Digest to Financial Times and GQ. It feels like more eyes are on the Impala collection and other pieces from Lundgren's heyday than ever before.
I'm tickled that the very same mind designed both a funkadelic canary-yellow sofa and also the world's most prevalent (and boring) bookcase. "Ideas are perishable," he once told a journalist, "and you have to capture the moment as soon as it arrives." I imagine that Lungren had no shortage of ideas, and Ikea's hunger for volume was a worthy home for his technically-minded creativity. He worked there for over 60 years, creating 200+ designs in all shapes and silhouettes, oscillating from arty and unconventional to minimalist and practical. Not too shabby of a legacy for a former catalog manager.