Ingvar Kamprad's death at the age of 91 is the end of an epoch for design. In his 75-year career, the IKEA founder was responsible for putting modern design into more homes than anyone in history. In doing so, he invented contemporary living.
IKEA's products are today so ubiquitous we hardly notice them. In the future, wherever in the world people make period dramas about the late 20th and early 21st century, the characters will live surrounded by Billy bookcases, Lack tables and Expedit shelves. IKEA is simply a design brand that has universal reach.
Kamprad began his mail-order business in his garden in the south of Sweden in 1943, built his first store in Älmhult in 1958 and then made IKEA into one of the biggest consumer companies in history. Today it employs over 150,000 people, and has over 300 shops in 49 countries, and revenue of tens of billions of dollars annually.
IKEA is the lens through which the world sees Sweden
We should put what he achieved in business in perspective. The Swede was not merely successful in a middling James Dyson or Richard Branson kind of way. He was successful at the scale of Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. He was a business titan, a unicorn hundreds of times over. He is a different generation from the Silicon Valley mavens, but some of his maxims are worthy of its most hawkish entrepreneurs: "Only those who sleep don't make mistakes. Fear of failure is the bureaucrat's cradle and the enemy of progress," he wrote in his A Furniture Seller's Testament – a notebook of such pearls of Kamprad wisdom.
It says a lot about Sweden and Kamprad that he is much loved in his native land, a country that does not always unreservedly celebrate its biggest stars. The obituaries in the Swedish press praise him as a businessman, but also for being the person, more than anyone else, who exported Sweden itself, as a country. Kamprad is without equal as a cultural exporter, and his company has spread Swedish values and vocabulary (or at least IKEA's version of them) across the world. From its blue and yellow corporate colours to the names of its products, from the gentle self-mockery of its advertising to today's rather earnest claims in its stores about Democratic Design, IKEA is the lens through which the world sees Sweden.
The design historian Sara Kristoffersson's book Design by IKEA: A Cultural History is the most important insight into IKEA as a cultural phenomenon. In her introduction, she asks whether any other major global brand is so completely associated with an individual country. I always wonder what shoppers in China make of the Lingonbery jam, gravadlax and meatballs on sale in the food section.
He embodied many of the values that Swedes prize in themselves
Kamprad did a lot for the country of his birth, even if he lived much of his life in Switzerland and long ago moved the head office of IKEA out of Sweden to avoid its high taxes. But he is still popular here, also because he embodied many of the values that Swedes prize in themselves. He was the perfect modern Lutheran. Frugal, down to earth, unassuming to the point of shyness. A very private man, his notebooks attest to a self-punishing attitude to productivity and a restless ambition to grow his business.
His style of management was in his words "to set an example", to show through his actions that he was no different to his colleagues. He has been quoted as saying that he would never spend money on luxuries that his customers at IKEA could not afford (and he expected his colleagues to follow that example). The billionaire drove a 15-year-old Volvo. He only flew first class once in his life, and then when all standard class tickets were already sold. He said that his wife used to complain that he only bought her things that were on sale. His sole aim in the relentless amassing of cash seems to have been to fund further expansion. As the company he built now moves into China, India and other markets, Kamprad's attitude will ensure his legacy will touch many more consumers yet.
Kamprad was more than just a business man. He was innovative in manufacturing, pioneered self-assembly and revolutionised the design of retail environments. The first two stores in Sweden in the 1960s were designed by architect Claes Knutsson and interior designer Eva Ralf, who together with Kamprad reinvented the department store, and created many of the elements that have become so familiar to all of us who shop there today. The store at Kungens Kurva, just south of Stockholm, was inspired by the Guggenheim museum, with a descending spiral ramp as the showroom. The retail "maze", self-picking and in-store creches (known as Småland, after the region of Sweden where Kamprad and IKEA were founded) were just a few of the retail innovations that IKEA pioneered.
Kamprad will be remembered in Sweden and across the world as a business visionary and a design pioneer
Unlike so many corporate bosses today, Kamprad had the common touch. He spent a lot of time on the shop floor, eating cinnamon buns with truck drivers or taking coffee in store restaurants. I had the chance to ask a senior IKEA executive in Sweden about the impact of Kamprad's death, and the answer came that, while it is some years since he was actively involved in running IKEA, it was a profound moment. TV news bulletins here showed long-time employees laying floral tributes at Älmhult, where IKEA's museum is today.
Kamprad will be remembered in Sweden and across the world as a business visionary and a design pioneer. For most of us, he made well-designed, modern-looking furniture and products that anyone could afford. He made us all experts with an allen key. IKEA's commitment to design has ebbed and flowed over the years, but right now the Swedish giant is working with the best again. Kamprad's company has created a design aesthetic and a design history all of its own. Kamprad is dead, but IKEA has a long way to run.