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Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea, dies at 91

Ingvar Kamprad Ingvar Kamprad, �lmhult, Sweden - 17 Jan 1966 (Rex Features via AP Images)
Ingvar Kamprad Ingvar Kamprad, �lmhult, Sweden - 17 Jan 1966 (Rex Features via AP Images) (IBL/REX/Shutterstock/AP)

Ingvar Kamprad, a Swedish entrepreneur who grew a childhood business selling matches and lingonberries into Ikea, a build-it-yourself furniture empire that introduced sleek Scandinavian designs into tens of millions of homes around the world, died Jan. 27 at his home in Smaland, a province in southern Sweden. He was 91.

A spokeswoman for Ikano Group, a finance and real estate conglomerate that Mr. Kamprad founded as part of Ikea, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Born into a family of rural farmers, Mr. Kamprad was a self-described lazy, dyslexic child who flirted with far-right groups in Sweden as a teenager, grew into a hard-driving alcoholic as an adult and built one of the most influential design and retail companies of the 20th century.

Founded in 1943 when Mr. Kamprad was 17, Ikea sold picture frames, nylon stockings, udder balm and other small-town necessities before focusing on low-priced furniture and home furnishings. Milking salves went by the wayside as Mr. Kamprad turned Ikea into the world's largest furniture retailer, making a fortune with products whose bright colors and minimalist designs have become a ubiquitous part of middle-class bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, dens and children's play areas.

"On some Sundays in Britain," the Guardian newspaper reported in 2004, "almost twice as many people visit [Ikea] as attend church; it has been calculated that 10% of Europeans currently alive were conceived in one of Ikea's beds."

Although Mr. Kamprad had stepped away from Ikea's board in recent years, serving since 1988 as a senior adviser, he was widely regarded as the company's leading architect and a powerful force behind the scenes.

The central tenet of his business model was simple, spurred by an idea from one of his chief designers, Gillis Lundgren, to take the legs off tables the company was storing in its warehouses. It was not the first time unbuilt goods had been sold to consumers, but the idea — "flat-pack" furniture for flat-wallet families — had never been tried on such a large scale.

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Ikea now sports 412 stores across 49 countries, branches that sprawl more than 400,000 square feet and feature model rooms stocked with Malm bed frames, Poang chairs, Billy bookcases and Ektorp sofas.

The company has become a leading cultural ambassador for Sweden, taking its name from Mr. Kamprad's initials and the first letters of the farm (Elmtaryd) and village (Agunnaryd) where he was raised. Its logo employs the blue and gold colors of the Swedish flag, and its restaurants and food aisles — created by Mr. Kamprad in an effort to keep customers shopping — offer candy Swedish fish and traditional meatballs served with cream sauce or lingonberry jam.

"Empty stomachs," Mr. Kamprad once quipped, "make no sofa sales."

In addition to foot traffic from its bricks-and-mortar stores, Ikea's business has been helped along for decades by a catalogue that is translated into more than 30 languages. With about 200 million copies printed each year, its circulation reportedly rivals that of the Bible, the Koran and the "Harry Potter" books, whose magical summoning spells might be useful for finding missing dowels and screws that vanish during the assembly process.

Yet while Mr. Kamprad's company has grown in prominence, the details of his personal life have become obscured by a public-relations machine that has made him a business-executive embodiment of lista, the Swedish concept of "making do" that Mr. Kamprad has described as being central to the Ikea mission.

Publicly, at least, he made an art of making do, demonstrating a frugality that bordered on asceticism. He drove an old Volvo, recycled his tea bags, reportedly pilfered the salt and pepper packets at restaurants and visited markets in the late afternoon to find discounted produce. Ikea catalogues were photographed using company employees instead of models, and staff were encouraged to write on both sides of a sheet of paper.

For decades, the company seemed to be thriving under his watch, as it avoided controversy and seemed to instill in its employees a near-fanatical devotion to Mr. Kamprad.

That appeared to change beginning in 1994, when Sweden's Expressen newspaper uncovered documents that linked the company founder to pro-Nazi groups in the 1940s. Mr. Kamprad disavowed his participation with the groups, describing it in a letter to Ikea employees as a youthful mistake and "a part of my life which I bitterly regret."

Nearly two decades later, a book by Swedish journalist Elisabeth Asbrink extended the claims, linking Mr. Kamprad to a group that succeeded the country's swastika-flying National Socialist Workers Party. His activity in the group was extensive enough that, in the same year Mr. Kamprad formed Ikea, Sweden's state police began investigating him and speculated that he held a leadership position in the organization.

Around that time, Mr. Kamprad's management style also came under criticism. "There was an unwritten law for Ikea upper management: loyalty to Ingvar unto death," Johan Stenebo, a former senior manager at the company, wrote in "The Truth About Ikea" (2009). Comparing the company's management culture to that of the Stasi, East Germany's secret police, he described a network of informers that kept Mr. Kamprad apprised of the latest office gossip and accused Ikea's executives of racism. (Approached by Germany's Der Spiegel newsmagazine, the company declined to comment.)

To followers of Mr. Kamprad, however, perhaps the most shocking allegation was a detail about Mr. Kamprad's preferred mode of transportation. The aging Volvo that appeared in many news stories about the executive was merely a prop and publicity device, Stenebo wrote. Instead, he said, Mr. Kamprad drove a Porsche.

Ingvar Feodor Kamprad was born in the Swedish village of Pjatteryd, near Almhult, on March 30, 1926. His father was a German-born farmer, and his mother was a Swedish homemaker.

According to company lore, Ingvar was 5 when he started his first business venture, selling matches to his neighbors. Sales of berries, seeds and other home goods soon followed, and after Mr. Kamprad graduated from high school he began using the town's milk van for deliveries.

Although Ikea is widely beloved in Sweden, the company initially riled competitors who were frustrated by its low prices and organized a boycott. Mr. Kamprad responded by buying wood from communist Poland and elsewhere around the world, and around this time began drinking heavily. He described the habit as alcoholism but later said he cut back on his drinking.

A marriage to Kerstin Wadling ended in divorce, and he married Margaretha Stennert in 1963. The couple lived in Switzerland for many years, reportedly for tax reasons, and Mr. Kamprad returned to his home country shortly after her death in 2011.

Survivors include an adopted daughter from his first marriage, Annika Kihlbom; and three sons from his second marriage, Peter, Jonas and Mathias Kamprad, who hold top positions within the Ikea empire.

Mr. Kamprad was once estimated to be the world's fourth-richest person, with a net worth of up to $28 billion according to Forbes magazine. But the valuations assumed his assets were Ikea's, and in the last several decades the company has restructured so that its assets are owned by a foundation. Swedish tax filings from 2013 established his wealth at about $113 million, according to the Associated Press.

While Mr. Kamprad's move to Switzerland and Nazi connections riled many Swedes, he remained widely beloved in his home country, where in 2010 the Malmo City Theatre premiered a show entitled, "Ingvar! A Musical Furniture Saga." Mr. Kamprad's character is crucified on a maypole, according to the New Yorker, but much like his real-life counterpart he remained unfazed.

In this case, he burst into song: "Do you think this can stop ­Ingvar?"

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