transformation month

How to Turn a Plain IKEA KALLAX Shelf into a Funky 1980s Memphis-Style Centerpiece

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After: Memphis-style cabinet with marbled paint effect and black legs
Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

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 you think 1980s decor, you probably think Memphis style, the design movement defined by terrazzo and laminate materials, iconic squiggles, bright colors, and offbeat shapes.

Started by the Memphis Design Group, an architecture and design group founded in Italy by Ettore Sottsass, the Memphis movement was all about big and bold statements — totally fitting for a decade known for over-the-top style. The IKEA KALLAX couldn’t be farther from a Memphis-style piece with its minimalist and understated look, and that’s why this transformation from the standard white shelving you know to a wild and funky remix is so much fun. Here’s how to pull it off.

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

Supplies you’ll need to create this Memphis-style cabinet:

How to create a Memphis-style cabinet:

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

1. Build the KALLAX.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to assemble your KALLAX piece.

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

2. Create your semicircle shape.

To make the semicircle, first decide the length you’d like it to be. The easiest way to do this is to lay your MDF board flat on the floor, then lay your KALLAX flat on top of it so that’s it’s flush with the bottom of the board. Mark where you’d like your semicircle to end. For this particular project, I went out to the first two shelves (74 cm, or about 29 inches). 

Find and mark the midpoint of your semicircle. Then, tie a piece of string to your pencil, leaving a tail that’s equal to one-half of the width of your semicircle. Holding (or taping) the end of the string onto the midpoint of your semicircle, pull your pencil so that the string is taut and trace an arc all the way around until you create the outline of your semicircle. You might need to trace over this line with a marker to make it more visible.

Use a jig saw to cut out the semicircle shape, and sand the edges smooth. Set aside.

3. Create your scalloped edge.

To make the scalloped edge, first measure the length of the side of the KALLAX and mark on your MDF. Trace the line so that it’s approximately 1 inch away from the edge of the MDF.

Divide the length of the line by three, then mark these points on the MDF with your pencil.

Next, repeat the process for tracing the semicircle on your three equal parts by finding the midpoint of each and using a pencil attached to a string to trace three arcs. At the end, you will have a scalloped shape that features three semicircles aligned vertically.

Cut with a jigsaw and sand the edges smooth. Set aside.

4. Paint on the base coat.

Paint your KALLAX, semicircle, and scalloped edge with your off-white base coat. I like to use a roller for this part, but you can also use a brush. Let dry.

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga
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5. Add marbling.

Dip your sponge into your gray color and sponge all over your piece, including the semicircle and scalloped pieces, to give it a slightly marbled effect. Once dry, you can go over parts of your sponging with a roller dipped in your white paint to help vary the intensity of the color. You’ll end up with a pattern similar to this.

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

6. Attach your MDF accent shapes to the KALLAX.

The semicircle will be placed in the upper left on the back of the KALLAX. Pre-drill holes in the back of the upper edge before hand screwing the semicircle into place using 1-inch screws.

The scallop will be on the front of the KALLAX on the right side. Secure it with three small hinges so that its front is flush with the front of the KALLAX unit. Make sure to use the smallest screws available for the job, so that you don’t poke through the MDF. (I used 3/8-inch screws.)

7. Create shelving pieces.

Cut a 6-foot-long 1×12 board of wood down to two different lengths: two pieces at 17 ¾ inches long and two pieces at 13 ¼ inches long. (You can use a circular saw to do this at home, but many home improvement stores will do this for you.)

Sand the pieces smooth, then paint in your bright orange color. Let dry.

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

8. Attach legs.

Tip the KALLAX unit onto its side, then mark the four corners where the legs will go. Pre-drill, then screw in the legs.

Credit: Cristina Chavarriaga

9. Put it all together.

Put the KALLAX back right side up, and add your orange shelves. Tip the longer ones at angles to create triangular openings, and use the smaller ones to give the bottoms of your cubbies a hit of removable color or stack on top of books. Then, fill the rest of the piece up with your favorite items and bask in that funky Memphis flair.

Want to give your home more of a ’60s or ’70s vibe? Check out all three of our throwback KALLAX redos here.