Francesca Cordido, Whiplash Team. February 2018.

Just a few days ago, on Sunday, January 27th, IKEA’s founder Ingvar Kamprad died in his native Sweden. Considered one of the world’s largest fortunes –valued at 65 billion dollars–, this visionary turned the global furniture and decoration industry upside down forever with a simple idea: offering a range of furniture and home products based on three basic principles: functionality, design, and prices so low that most people could buy them. Its purpose, to improve people’s daily life at their homes.

“A long, long time ago, we decided that, instead of making furniture for people with fat wallets, we would side with the majority giving them the opportunity to have a better daily life. We decided to offer a wide range of items for the home well designed and functional, at prices so low that most people could afford them.” – Ingvar Kamprad.

Born in 1926 in the southern Swedish province of Småland. Kamprad’s childhood and youth were marked by the precariousness and lack of resources that plagued Sweden’s rural areas. This sealed his character and boosted his vision of the business model that democratized access to designer furniture.

Young Kamprad started his business in 1943, at 17, with 10 Swedish crowns and the endorsement of his uncle Ernst, because he was a minor. He baptized the company with an acronym of his initials (IK) and those of the farm and town where he grew up, Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd (EA). He began doing business without a physical store, selling almost anything by catalog until 1948 when he began to include furniture made by local manufacturers.

His first choices were an armchair for knitting, a sofa, and a coffee table. He sold out. This was the real beginning of IKEA, which at that time was written in capitals and small letters with an accent in the “e”: Ikéa.

There were hardships, of course. The most significant obstacle appeared in the mid-50’s when Kamprad’s suppliers boycotted him. Paradoxically, though, this issue pushed IKEA to become a manufacturer. Kamprad turned a threat into an opportunity and gave a twist to making good furniture, beautiful and cheap, by reducing costs in a way nobody had done before: presenting the products by parts in a flat box to be assembled by the buyer with a simple hex key.

Kamprad’s ideas were innovative in terms of production, packaging, distribution, and assembly (for the first time the client was part of the process), and disruptive for the business world of the 1950’s. They started with a clear purpose –improving people’s daily life– focused on customers’ needs and not on the product, which was the norm back then. Also, IKEA’s way was a pioneer of many increasingly important practices in today’s modern organizations.

Pragmatic and visionary, Kamprad knew that staying on course is not always easy in a constantly changing world with a consumer society in exponential growth. He knew how easy it is to distort a brand’s identity in pursuit of greater benefits, neglecting the essence and forgetting why the company exists. Thus, in 1976 he published for the first time The testament of a furniture merchant, which states the nine commandments that summarize IKEA’s philosophy. The first two state what is immutable, summarizing IKEA’s purpose, personality, and proposal:

  1. The assortment, our identity. Offer a wide repertoire of useful household items by their form and function at prices so low that most people can afford them.

  2. The spirit of IKEA. Founded on enthusiasm, a desire for renewal, a thrifty attitude, responsibility, humility before the tasks and simplicity in the way of being. We must take care of each other, inspire each other. Poor who cannot or does not want to participate.

The rest of the commandments reflect IKEA’s founder character and personality, and set a timeless way of being and doing, which is the sap that nourishes the company.

Kamprad left as head of IKEA in 1986, although he remained on the Board of Directors till 2013 when he retired. His successors at IKEA’s presidency have kept the course set by the founder, adapting to the new consumer’s demands. The arrival of Marcus Ergman, as Head of Design in 2012, has refreshed the multinational incorporating fashion to their offering and adding sustainability and quality to the foundational trilogy of principles: design, functionality and low prices. The company says farewell to its creator, but his imprint will not fade.