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Ingvar Kamprad, 91, founder of Ikea

CLAUDIO BRESCIANI/AFP/Getty Images/File 2002

Mr. Kamprad built Ikea into the world’s largest furniture retailer.

By Robert D. McFadden New York Times 

NEW YORK — Ingvar Kamprad, a Swedish entrepreneur who hid his fascist past and became one of the world’s richest men by turning simply designed, low-cost furniture into the global Ikea empire, died Saturday at his home in Smaland, Sweden. He was 91.

His death was confirmed by the company in a statement on Sunday.

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He grew up on a farm in the lake-dotted province of Smaland, in southern Sweden, a dyslexic boy who milked cows and found it hard to concentrate in school. His family was poor, and he earned money selling matches and pencils in villages. At 17, he registered his mail-order business in household goods, calling it Ikea, formed of his initials and those of his farm, Elmtaryd, and village, Agunnaryd.

During the next seven decades, Mr. Kamprad built Ikea into the world’s largest furniture retailer — an archipelago of more than 350 stores in 29 countries across Europe, North America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Asia, with sales of $47.6 billion, more than 930 million store visits, and 210 million recipients of catalogs in 32 languages.

It made him wealthy beyond imagining. Bloomberg Billionaires Index listed him as the world’s eighth-richest person, worth $58.7 billion. But his driving ambition led to alcoholism, years of fascination with fascism and, trying to lead his employees by example, into a life of almost monastic frugalities.

Mr. Kamprad was, like his designer wares, a studied Everyman. He cultivated a provincial openness: curious about everything, but a face lost in the crowd. He was bespectacled and balding, with wisps of graying hair plastered down the sides, jowls, and a pointed chin. His blue denim shirts and khaki pants might have been a gardener’s, but there was hard individuality in the dark eyes and compressed lips.

Although he lived mostly in seclusion, he traveled to Ikea stores around the world, sometimes strolling in anonymously and questioning employees as if he were a customer, and customers as if he were a solicitous employee. He spoke at Ikea board meetings and occasionally lectured at universities. He rarely gave interviews, but made no secret of his alcoholism, saying he controlled it by drying out three times a year.

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To millions of Ikea customers and the general public, he was largely unknown beyond the authorized version of his life and Ikea’s success: his “Leading by Design: The Ikea Story” (1999), written with Bertil Torekull. Its themes had been sounded for decades in Ikea publicity and reiterated in profiles of Mr. Kamprad and the company.

Ikea had been achieved, he said, by frugality: building stores on less costly land outside cities; buying materials at a discount; minimizing sales staff to let customers shop without pressure; putting no finishes on unseen furniture surfaces; and packaging items in flat boxes to be carried away by customers for home assembly (instructions provided).

In 1994, the Stockholm newspaper Expressen uncovered Mr. Kamprad’s name in the archives of Per Engdahl, a Swedish fascist who had recently died. They showed that Mr. Kamprad had joined Engdahl’s fascist movement in 1942, and had attended meetings, raised funds, and recruited members. Even after the war’s end in 1945, he remained close to the leader. In a 1950 letter to Engdahl, Mr. Kamprad said he was proud of his involvement.

Mr. Kamprad responded humbly to the disclosures. In a message to his employees, he said his fascist activities were “a part of my life which I bitterly regret,” and “the most stupid mistake of my life.” He said that he had been influenced by his German grandmother, who fled the Sudetenland before World War II, and that he had been drawn to Engdahl’s vision of “a noncommunist, socialist Europe.”

For Swedes, the revelations reawakened disquieting memories of World War II. Although Sweden was officially neutral, German troops had traveled across the country from occupied Norway, and an unknown number of Swedes were Nazi sympathizers. After the disclosures, Jewish groups called for a boycott of Ikea, but its business suffered little, if at all, and Mr. Kamprad soon returned to themes of frugality.

“Well, I’m known as a very thrifty person, and the stores are meant for people like me,” he told The New York Times in 1997 when asked about his contributions to the culture of Ikea. “I don’t fly first-class on the airplanes, and the stores’ executives don’t, either.”

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Ingvar Feodor Kamprad was born in Pjatteryd, Sweden, on March 30, 1926. He attended local schools and studied business in Göteborg. He founded Ikea in 1943, using money his father gave him for chores to register his mail-order business.

In 1950, he married Kerstin Wadling. They had a daughter, Annika, and divorced in 1960. In 1963, he married Margaretha Sennert. They had three sons: Peter, Jonas, and Mathias. His second wife died in 2011. He leaves his daughter and sons, the Associated Press reported from Stockholm.

In 1953, he opened a showroom in Almhult; in 1958, it became the first Ikea store. In the 1960s, Ikeas opened in Stockholm, elsewhere in Sweden, as well as Denmark and Norway. Alarmed by the company’s growing sales, its competitors organized a boycott by Ikea’s suppliers, but it backfired: Mr. Kamprad went to Poland for materials and manufacturing, which cut costs further.

In the 1970s, Ikeas opened in Switzerland and Canada. In 1985, the first Ikea in the United States opened near Philadelphia. In the 1990s, Ikea became popular across Eastern Europe, and by 2000, there were Ikeas in Russia and China. The company owned the vast majority of its stores, though about 10 percent were franchise operations.

In 1976, Mr. Kamprad moved to Switzerland. In 1982, he transferred control to the Dutch foundation, and in 2013 he stepped down from the board of Inter Ikea Group, a key company within the business, and named his youngest son, Mathias, as its chairman. His other two sons also held key positions. Mr. Kamprad announced his retirement in 1986, but continued traveling to his stores and making major decisions.

“I see my task as serving the majority of people,” he told Forbes in 2000. “The question is, how do you find out what they want, how best to serve them? My answer is to stay close to ordinary people, because at heart I am one of them.”