Among Swedish exports, only Volvo and ABBA spring to mind as readily as the furniture store IKEA, the letters standing for the name of its founder – Ingvar Kamprad (born 1926) – and his birthplace, Elmaryd, a farm in the Småland parish of Agunnaryd. Outside Sweden, the identity of IKEA’s originator, now one of the world’s richest men, is played down, and the firm is known for simple, modern design lines and prices that appeal to a mass market. Every item of furniture IKEA produces is assigned a fictional or real Swedish name; the styles of certain items are drawn from particular areas of the country, and are given a relevant name.
Founded in 1943 at Älmhult, a small town 50km southwest of Växjö, as a mail-order company, IKEA began producing furniture based on folk designs, which Kamprad had simplified. In the 1950s, Sweden’s existing furniture-makers were sufficiently irritated by what they regarded as an upstart that they tried to pressure IKEA’s suppliers into boycotting the company. Kamprad responded by importing furniture from abroad.
In his 1976 book, Testament of a Furniture Dealer, Kamprad wrote that from the outset, he wanted to promote “constructive fantasies”: to change the world’s view of design, rather than produce what people already believed they wanted. Having opened in Denmark in 1969, the company began expanding around the world, though it didn’t enter the US market until 1985 or the UK until 1987. In 2006, IKEA opened its most northerly store in the world in Swedish Haparanda, drawing shoppers from across Lapland.
A number of biographies have been published on Kamprad, one of which (The History of IKEA) was authorized. They have revealed Kamprad’s Nazi sympathies during World War II; in response, he blamed his former political leanings on the folly of youth.
Today, if you pass through Älmhult, you can see the original IKEA store, built in 1958; the street on which it stands is called, appropriately enough, Ikeagatan. Ironically, IKEA’s headquarters are no longer in Sweden, but Leiden in the Netherlands, and Kamprad himself has lived in Switzerland since 1976.