IKEA and the flatpack revolution
This is the story of how a Swedish company revolutionised homes with flatpack furniture.
What does IKEA stand for?
In 1943, a 17-year-old named Ingvar Feodor Kamprad (1926–2018) got some money from his father for doing well in school, despite being dyslexic. Kamprad used the money to found a business named IKEA, an abbreviation for Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd, his childhood home.
Kamprad was born in 1926 in the Swedish province of Småland, on a small farm called Elmtaryd near the village of Agunnaryd. Many Swedes today will associate that time and rural region with harsher times, when Sweden was agrarian and poor. It was a time of hard work, frugality and egalitarianism – values that would eventually enter the IKEA ethos.
How it all began
At first, IKEA was a mail order business, and the range consisted of things like pens, watches and nylon stockings. Family members helped run the business. Two years after starting the company, Kamprad began using milk trucks to deliver his goods.
In 1948, the company started selling furniture – made by local manufacturers. The same year, the company took on its first employee, a bookkeeper. Then, in 1955, the established furniture industry initiated a boycott against IKEA, protesting against the company’s low-priced furniture. Many suppliers stopped selling their products to Kamprad's company. This forced the company to start designing their own furniture.
Shaping IKEA’s flatpack concept
IKEA is also behind the simple, yet revolutionary innovation that is the flatpack. Kamprad began selling the company's 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.
IKEA’s business grew. And grew. The company expanded throughout Sweden, to Norway and Denmark, via Germany to continental Europe, and on to the ends of the world. Today, there are more than 460 IKEA stores spread across five continents.
Throughout his entire helm at the company, Kamprad never borrowed money or issued a stock.
IKEA's 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.
The man, the myths
Anecdotes about Kamprad abound. When his father complained that Ingvar slept late in the morning, Ingvar supposedly 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 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 offshore 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.