IKEA, founded in Sweden in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad, is a brand name synonymous with practicality and comfort. Undoubtedly, it is the best-known Swedish furniture and homeware brand, and tops the ranks of the largest furniture retailers since 2008. IKEA is notorious for its simple modernist design and customer-focused approach.
In 1894, Achim Kamprad and his wife Franziska acquired a property in a small village of Småland in the South of Sweden for 54000 Swedish kronor, consequently relocating there from Germany with their two sons 1896. Facing failed business ventures and unwelcoming neighbors, Achim committed suicide. His wife Franziska later remarried and gave birth to three more sons. One of them, Franz Feodor, married Berta Nilsson, who in turn gave birth to Ingvar Kamprad in 1926.
The family was living in Almhult, and experienced multiple financial struggles. As a child, Ingvar started buying and reselling pencils and match boxes to generate profit for his parents. Ingvar later noted, “I still remember the pleasant sensation experienced by receiving my first profit”. The venture quickly gained momentum, gaining Ingvar a loan from a Swedish bank, which he used to purchase reservoir pens from Paris. The pens were also resold for profit. Unfortunately, Ingvar was suffering from dyslexia. He found it hard to do well in school, focusing his attention instead solely on his business ventures throughout his childhood and young teens.
Ingvar’s uncle owned a hardware store in the village of Älmhult. At the age of 17, Ingvar purchased the property. He used the first letters of his name, along with the name of his family farm, Elmtaryd, and his home town Agunnaryd to create the acronym IKEA. The company’s catalogue offered staples like pens, wallets, watches, and nylon stockings by mail order. In 1948, furniture also got integrated into IKEA’s inventory list. One of the first pieces included a chair Rut, which was named by Ingvar after a Swedish girl’s name. The products were given names strategically to avoid remembering item numbers, which was a struggle due to Ingvar’s dyslexia. That system still remains a distinguishing characteristic of IKEA. Swedish towns are often used to name sofas, while tables are named after Finnish cities. Glasses, on the other hand, have adjectives as their names.
Remarkably, none of the early items were manufactured by the brand. Rather, they were shipped to and packaged by IKEA, using a milk bus for distribution. However, at the time, shopping by mail order was not favored by the consumers, leading Ingvar to open a showroom in 1953 in Älmhult. That allowed the customer to see and touch the pieces. IKEA’s catalogues often famously featured armchairs and sofas, recreating a warm ambiance of the home.
Ingvar later got acquainted with the Swedish designer Leif Gillis Lundgren, who ended up making illustrations for IKEA from 1953. Gillis later began developing new designs for IKEA. Some of Leif’s most notable work included the Bohem chair, 1955, the Gondol chair, 1961, and the Galax, 1969. A lot of Lundgren’s work drew inspiration from other brands popular at the time, with minor alterations to ensure that it could be sold by IKEA without legal concerns.
A good example of a borrowed design by Lundgren is the chair Ake, made in the early 1950s. Inspired by the work of Philip Arctander, prominent at the time in Denmark, Ake bears resemblance with the Clam Chair, 1944, and the two have been often confused at auctions. Crafted with beech legs, the Clam Chair had a fabric-covered seat, and imitated the shape of an open clam.
In the later years, Lundgren put forward the idea of using flat parcels with mountable furniture to lower the shipping costs and enhance the quality of the brand’s mail orders. The idea, however, was inspired by another Swedish architect Yngve Ekström, who granted Gillis the permission to bring it to life, later publicly regretting his decision.
In 1958, the first IKEA store was built in Älmhult. The news about it quickly gained public attention, bringing over 1000 people on the day of grand opening. Free coffee was offered to each customer.
After World War II, the demand for cheap furniture had highly increased. This demand was met by IKEA, and the second franchise was opened in 1965 in Stockholm. Kamprad famously noted, “To design a desk which may cost $1,000 is easy for a furniture designer, but to design a functional and good desk which shall cost only $50 can only be done by the very best.” IKEA’s low prices created competition in Swedish market of the time, followed by an attempt to place restrictions on the brand’s suppliers. As a result, the furniture was delivered to IKEA at night, keeping the suppliers undisclosed to the public.
In 1950, IKEA got banned from all Swedish furniture fairs, along with Kamprad himself. However, he was caught selling carpets at a fair in 1954, and was consequently fined a penalty. The Swedish Federation of Wood and Furniture industry urged suppliers to further seize all business interactions with the brand. These tensions led to IKEA being able to produce and deliver only half of their furniture to the consumers.
In 1960, the Polish minister of trade visited Sweden in the pursuit of investors, resulting in Kamprad's visit to Poland a year after. Soon, much of IKEA’s pieces started being produced in Polish factories, including Radomsko, who had previously produced Thonet chairs. In 1963, IKEA began expanding internationally, with the first overseas store opening in Oslo, Norway.
IKEA opened a store in the Plymouth Meeting suburb of Philadelphia in 1985, marking their first location in the United States. The fall of the Berlin wall led to the ending of IKEA’s contracts with the Polish government, thus terminating much of the production. In the early 90s, IKEA started manufacturing their own furniture.
In 2016, IKEA incorporated smart home devices into their inventory, leading to a partnership with Philips Hue. In 2020, IKEA also launched its own apparel line.
Ingvar Kamprad died in 2018 at the age of 91. He led the company for 70 years, forever changing the landscape of the modern furniture market. Paving the way to cost-effective production, the company nowadays self-identifies as a brand on a mission to “democratize furniture”. IKEA successfully runs 445 franchises in 52 countries, with the average size of the store being 3500 m2. The history of the brand is synonymous globally with the classic success story scenario.
The company’s iconic use of flat parcels and ready-to-assemble furniture still remains a distinguishing characteristic. However, nowadays, IKEA also offers assembly assistance for customers.