Ingvar Kamprad, who has died aged 91, is not a household name, but the company that made him a billionaire most certainly is. Ikea, the Swedish flat-pack furniture group with 412 stores in 49 countries, bears the name that Kamprad registered in 1943, when, aged 17, he needed to a company in order to buy a job-lot of pencils. It stands for Ingvar Kamprad and Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd, after the farm and village in the southern Swedish region of Småland where he grew up.
Nearly 75 years on, sales of self-assembly pieces such as a bookshelf called Billy and basics such as the sofa called Klippen, are thought to have amassed him a fortune of $54bn. In 2006, he was placed fourth in Forbes annual list of the world’s wealthiest billionaires. His affairs are complicated, however, involving a family foundation based in Liechtenstein, and he claimed his personal wealth to be far less.
Growing from a small local furniture business in the 1940s to the global brand it is today, Ikea has done more to change the look of homes in many parts of the world than any other retailer. While some believe that its cheap-enough-to-be-disposable goods are an unnecessary evil in a society that should be building sustainability into consumer products, for others Ikea represents the fulfilment of the modernist dream that preached the message of calm, clean, affordable design for all. In Britain, when its advertising campaign exhorted the public to “chuck out the chintz” in 1996, people quite literally followed orders and did just that.
With the exception of perhaps McDonald’s, Ikea has uniquely transcended barriers of class, culture and geography in the late 20th and early 21st century, flying in the face of received retail wisdom by selling the same products with unpronounceable Swedish names all around the world. The catalogue once had a print run of 150m copies, and some statistics claimed that more than 10% of the population of Europe had been conceived in an Ikea bed. In 2016, the company celebrated its own achievements by opening an Ikea museum in Älmhult, on the site of the first store, opened in 1958.
Kamprad’s journey to world furniture domination was punctuated by problems. He liked to say, self-deprecatingly, that “no one has had as many fiascos as I have”. These included boycotts, accusations of nazism, tax avoidance and plagiarism, and alcoholism. Yet those who worked closely with him have suggested he found it painful if things seemed to be going too well – that the struggle and the solution were part of the same continuum. You can perhaps take the farmer’s son out of Småland, but in Kamprad’s case you can’t take Småland – a harsh, agricultural and punishing region – out of the boy.
Born to Feodor Kamprad, a German immigrant, and Berta (nee Nilsson), on the farm, Elmtaryd, Ingvar kicked off his first business venture – selling matches, bought in bulk in Stockholm, to the villagers – at the age of five. By the time he was 11, he was making enough money from selling seeds to buy himself a racing bike and a typewriter. Cycling remained a passion and, well into old age, the famously thrifty billionaire enjoyed nothing more than a Swedish cycling holiday with his friend Erling Persson, the founder of Hennes & Mauritz (H&M).
In 1943, the first incarnation of Ikea appeared, a mail-order business selling pencils, postcards, and other merchandise. Many farmers in Småland made furniture as a sideline, and Kamprad soon added these products to his stock. By 1951 he had made his first million kroner.
Sweden was undergoing dramatic and rapid modernisation. During the 1950s, 50,000 farms closed, and between 1946 and 1966 1m flats were built to house those leaving the land. In 1952, the first flat-pack item, a table called Max, was produced to service those moves. The idea was that if the customer did some of the work, the customer paid less of the price. In 1971, when Ikea’s flagship store at Kungens Kurva in Stockholm reopened after being gutted by fire, self-service was introduced. The idea remains strong in Ikea’s culture that the customer’s blood, sweat and tears is repaid in savings – something of a Lutheran consumer model.
Kamprad’s tendency to undercut his rivals did not go down so well. In the 50s and 60s producers and retailers boycotted the company under pressure from the National Association of Furniture Dealers, and he was banned from furniture fairs. Eventually he took his production to Poland (and later all over the world), where costs were low, and it was there, where most minutes of the day were washed down with vodka, that his battle with alcohol began. Kamprad dealt with his excessive drinking by drying out for three weeks at a time once a year. In 2014 he claimed his drinking was under control.
Accusations of plagiarism dogged the company throughout Kamprad’s directorship, which finished in 1986, after the company switched to a franchising model, and beyond. Kamprad seems to have preferred to make the mistakes and then apologise later. Speaking about his first marriage to a secretary, Kerstin Wadling, with whom he adopted a daughter, Annika Kihlbom, and which collapsed in 1960, he said years later: “The whole matter pains me and still hurts. I considered myself a real shit.”
When, in 1994, he was faced with charges in the press about his Nazi past, he sent a handwritten fax to all his staff headed “Could not stop the tears”, and recounting his shame. He denied any direct memories of being a fully paid-up Nazi party member, though it has been said Nazi sympathies were encouraged by his German grandmother, Franziska. But he could never escape from the reality that he had been very close to Per Engdahl, the Swedish fascist leader, for many years and had even invited him to his second wedding, to Margaretha Stennert, a teacher, in 1963. In 2001 the company expanded into Israel without the subject being raised.
Kamprad’s politics pervade the entire culture of Ikea, which is a sort of moral humanism sold through furniture. When he opened a 28,000 square metre store in Khimki near Moscow in 2000, he said: “Opening in Russia was important to me because I believe in decent capitalism as a spur to democratisation.” In 2011, he set up the Kamprad Family Foundation, whose mission is, Ikea says, “to support, stimulate and reward education and scientific research in a way that supports entrepreneurship, the environment, competence, health and social progress”.
In 1973, in order, he said, to avoid “tax consequences”, Kamprad took his family off to Denmark, and then four years later to Switzerland. He returned to Sweden in 2014, three years after Margaretha’s death. Last month, the EU launched an investigation into the tax affairs of Ikea after claims that the firm had saved around €1bn in tax through its complex corporate structure.
In 2000, he had, in the manner of the best fairy stories, given each of his three sons from his second marriage, Peter, Jonas and Matthias, a piece of his empire to run. In 2013 he stepped down as chairman of the board and handed over to Matthias.
In 1992, Kamprad bought up Habitat, thought by some to be the fulfilment of a personal ambition to win one over on its founder, Sir Terence Conran, than making a really useful addition to his empire. Habitat staff recall how the company culture changed gradually from one of style and sensuality to Ikea’s ascetic standards. He eventually sold it in 2009, writing off its debts.
Kamprad’s modesty was legendary, driving only a Škoda and a 1993 Volvo, and trawling flea markets for clothes. “He was so unassuming, you’d never guess at his wealth,” said an acquaintance who visited him at home in Switzerland. “The whole family, they are just not interested. There are no fancy cars or watches even. The company is the passion. And yes, he was a friendly person.”
Perhaps in another life Kamprad would have made a good preacher. There was something evangelical about his zeal, and religious about his method. In 1976, he wrote A Furniture Dealer’s Testament, published as an appendix to Bertil Torekull’s Leading By Design: The Ikea Story, in 1999. It was filled with homilies such as “No method is more effective than the good example”, and headings such as “the Ikea spirit is a strong and living reality”. Another favourite line was that: “Only those who are asleep make no mistake.” At least Kamprad can now rest assured that his days of causing fiascos are over.
He is survived by Annika, Peter, Jonas and Matthias.
Ingvar Kamprad, entrepreneur, born 30 March 1926; died 27 January 2018