Ingvar Kamprad as a young boy in shorts sitting on a wooden toy car next to his sister.
Ingvar Kamprad (left) with his sister Kerstin in the 1930s. Photo: IKEA

Kamprad – king of IKEA

Here is the story of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, from farm life to flatpacks.

Ingvar Feodor Kamprad (1926–2018) was born in the Swedish province of Småland, on a small farm called Elmtaryd near the village of Agunnaryd.

To most present-day Swedes, the date and the names, in a famously rural region, resound of harsher times, when Sweden was agrarian and poor. They speak of hard work, frugality and egalitarianism rooted in shared poverty – values which would eventually enter the IKEA ethos.

Humble beginnings

Kamprad began his career at the age of six, selling matches. When just ten, he criss-crossed the neighbourhood on his bicycle, selling Christmas decorations, fish and pencils.

In 1943, when Ingvar was 17, his father rewarded him with a small sum of money for doing well in school, despite being dyslexic. With it, Ingvar founded a business named IKEA, an abbreviation for Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd, his boyhood home.

Bookshelf Index

The IKEA Billy Bookshelf Index was introduced by financial company Bloomberg. Different countries' local prices are converted into US dollars and compared. The idea is to measure the purchasing power of different currencies.

Shaping IKEA’s flatpack concept

Two years after starting IKEA, Kamprad began using milk trucks to deliver his goods. In 1947, he started selling furniture made by local manufacturers. By 1955, manufacturers began boycotting IKEA, protesting against Kamprad’s low prices. This forced him to design items in-house.

Kamprad was also behind the simple, yet revolutionary innovation that is the flatpack. He began selling IKEA products in flatpack form, from his own warehouses. Thus the basic IKEA concept – simple, affordable flatpack furniture, designed, distributed and sold in-house – was complete.

The driving idea behind IKEA was, and is, that anyone should be able to afford stylish, modernist furniture. Kamprad felt he was not just cutting costs and making money, but serving the people as well.

Kamprad’s business grew. And grew. IKEA expanded throughout Sweden, to Norway and Denmark, via Germany to continental Europe, and on to the ends of the world. Today, there are nearly 450 IKEA stores spread across the globe.
Throughout his entire helm at IKEA, Kamprad never borrowed money or issued a stock.

A large building in blue and yellow with IKEA written on it.

The IKEA store in Älmhult is near Ingvar Kamprad's birthplace. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

The open boot of a car with cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other inside.

IKEA's flatpack idea revolutionised furniture shopping. Photo: IKEA

Ingvar Kamprad in a suit, leaning forward opening a cardboard box with a little girl inside. On the wall is a sign that reads "IKEA Älmhult".

Kamprad at the opening of the first IKEA store in Swedish Älmhult. Photo: IKEA

Many IKEA catalogues spread out.

Älmhult is now also home to a museum. Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020

Paper labels and some string on display, all branded "IKEA".

The IKEA Museum showcases various items from the company's long history. Photo: Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se

Ingvar Kamprad as a fairly old man gesticulating with his hands.

Throughout his life, Ingvar Kamprad kept visiting new IKEA stores around the world. Photo: IKEA

A large building in blue and yellow with IKEA written on it.

The IKEA store in Älmhult is near Ingvar Kamprad's birthplace. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

The open boot of a car with cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other inside.

IKEA's flatpack idea revolutionised furniture shopping. Photo: IKEA

Ingvar Kamprad in a suit, leaning forward opening a cardboard box with a little girl inside. On the wall is a sign that reads "IKEA Älmhult".

Kamprad at the opening of the first IKEA store in Swedish Älmhult. Photo: IKEA

Many IKEA catalogues spread out.

Älmhult is now also home to a museum. Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020

Paper labels and some string on display, all branded "IKEA".

The IKEA Museum showcases various items from the company's long history. Photo: Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se

Ingvar Kamprad as a fairly old man gesticulating with his hands.

Throughout his life, Ingvar Kamprad kept visiting new IKEA stores around the world. Photo: IKEA

A large building in blue and yellow with IKEA written on it.

The IKEA store in Älmhult is near Ingvar Kamprad's birthplace. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/imagebank.sweden.se

The open boot of a car with cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other inside.

IKEA's flatpack idea revolutionised furniture shopping. Photo: IKEA

Ingvar Kamprad in a suit, leaning forward opening a cardboard box with a little girl inside. On the wall is a sign that reads "IKEA Älmhult".

Kamprad at the opening of the first IKEA store in Swedish Älmhult. Photo: IKEA

Many IKEA catalogues spread out.

Älmhult is now also home to a museum. Photo: © Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020

Paper labels and some string on display, all branded "IKEA".

The IKEA Museum showcases various items from the company's long history. Photo: Tina Stafrén/imagebank.sweden.se

Ingvar Kamprad as a fairly old man gesticulating with his hands.

Throughout his life, Ingvar Kamprad kept visiting new IKEA stores around the world. Photo: IKEA

Furniture names

IKEA's furniture names are based on an elaborate system. Beds have Norwegian place names, sofas are named after Swedish towns, kitchen tables have Finnish geographic names, chairs mostly have male names, and rugs mostly have Danish names.

Are the anecdotes true?

Anecdotes about Kamprad abound. When his father complained that Ingvar slept late in the morning, Ingvar got himself an alarm clock, set it for six o’clock, and yanked away the off button. According to Kamprad, we should all divide our lives ‘into 10-minute units, and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.’

Until his death in 2018, Kamprad continued to travel the world to visit new IKEA stores. He flew economy class, called his employees ‘co-workers’, encouraged everyone to dress informally, stayed in cheap hotels and even replaced bottles from the hotel room mini-bar with cheap bottles bought in local supermarkets. He drove an old Volvo. He gave no interviews.

Critics of these stories say they seem intended to reinforce the company’s no-nonsense brand and encourage cost-awareness among company staff. They point out that Kamprad may have been the world’s richest man, that he owned several lavish houses around the world, and that it would be ludicrous to assume a man of such wealth would not have used any of it for private purposes.

Top of the rich list

IKEA’s elaborate ownership structure, with several off-shore trust funds that were controlled but not strictly owned by Kamprad himself, made it impossible to establish just how rich he was, but estimates frequently put Kamprad between number 1 and number 11 on the world rich list.

IKEA has dodged anti-corporate sentiments remarkably well. Few allegations of poor labour practices, bad environmental policies or arrogant customer service have tarnished the brand name.

Is there room for expansion? Sure. After all, so far only a quarter of the world’s nations have access to an IKEA store.