transformation month

How to Turn a Basic IKEA KALLAX into a 1960s Brutalist-Style Display Piece

published Sep 1, 2021
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IKEA KALLAX brutalist makeover, with wood veneer and wood blocks on face
Credit: Trisha Sprouse

September is Transformation Month at Apartment Therapy! That means we’re sharing stories about home transformations — from big renovations to tiny tweaks — all month. Head over here to see them all!

When it comes to mid-century design, you might be most familiar with the avocado green upholstery and tapered teak legs of mid-century modern furniture. But there was another design hit of that era that’s both divisive and poised for a comeback: Brutalism.

Brutalist style is all about utilitarianism and raw materials, focusing on blocky, geometric designs that put natural wood (or concrete, or metal) on display. And while that might not sound ritzy, the prices for real-deal pieces definitely are: Authentic vintage Brutalist dressers can fetch thousands of dollars each.

Fortunately, replicating the style yourself is pretty simple (and far cheaper, too). Here’s how to bring the Brutalist look home using a basic KALLAX shelf.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

Supplies you’ll need to create this Brutalist cabinet:

How to make a Brutalist-style cabinet:

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

1. Assemble your KALLAX per the instructions.

If your KALLAX shelf isn’t already assembled, assemble it according to the package’s directions. 

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

2. Measure and cut wood veneer to cover your KALLAX.

Place the shelf on a drop cloth to protect the floor while you work. Measure, mark, and cut a piece of wood veneer that’s an inch longer and an inch wider than the top of your KALLAX shelf. 

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

3. Apply and smooth out the veneer.

Peel off the adhesive backing from the wood veneer, place it on top of the KALLAX shelf so there’s approximately ½-inch overhang on each edge, and press it firmly into place. Then roll over the wood veneer with a seam roller, first in a horizontal direction and then in a vertical direction, to ensure the veneer adheres to the surface and to smooth out any air bubbles.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

4. Trim excess veneer.

Using a utility knife, carefully cut off the excess wood veneer along each edge. Tip: It may be helpful to turn the shelf upside down when cutting off the overhang.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

5. Repeat on each side.

Follow the same directions in steps 2 to 4 to cover both sides of the KALLAX shelf with wood veneer. Lightly sand any rough edges. 

Credit: Trisha Sprouse
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6. Apply wood banding to the cubby edges.

Measure, mark, and cut strips of wood edge banding that are slightly longer than the front edges of the shelf cubbies. Align the strips with the shelf edges, and press a hot iron (set to cotton setting with no steam) along the wood edge banding until it’s adhered firmly to the surface. Trim the excess with a utility knife.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

7. Cover door fronts with veneer.

Prior to assembling and installing the door inserts, cover the door fronts with wood veneer. Note: You’ll be covering up the hole for the door handle with wood veneer, but don’t worry — you’ll still be able to open the doors using the wood blocks that you’ll add later.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

8. Cut out blocks for door decoration.

Using either a hacksaw or power saw, cut out various rectangular and square blocks from the plywood to create a Brutalist pattern for the doors. I cut three pieces for each door (a total of 12 pieces) with the following dimensions: 3” x 6”; 4” x 6”; 6” x 6”. Be sure to sand any rough edges. Tip: You can ask the hardware store to cut the wood for you, if you don’t have a saw.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

9. Attach wood blocks to the doors.

Assemble the wood blocks into the desired pattern on the doors, and glue them in place with wood glue. Let the glue dry completely.  

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

10. Install the doors.

Once the glue is dry, assemble the door inserts with their hardware, and affix them to the shelf cubbies. 

Credit: Trisha Sprouse
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11. Prep and stain the wood.

Wipe on a layer of pre-stain wood conditioner with a cloth. Let sit 10 to 15 minutes, and then wipe off any excess. This will prepare the wood to accept the stain more uniformly and help avoid splotches.

Next, apply an even coat of wood stain using a clean cloth, and wipe off any excess. Allow to dry for two hours, and if a deeper color is desired, apply a second coat. Allow the wood stain to dry overnight, and then apply a clear topcoat to seal in the color and protect the finish.

Credit: Trisha Sprouse

Once it’s dry, you’ll have a swinging ’60s Brutalist cabinet that looks so convincingly vintage friends won’t believe it started as a KALLAX.

Want to give your home more of a ’70s or ’80s vibe? Check out all three of our throwback KALLAX redos here.