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Älmhult Postcard: Ikea Model Lives On After Founder's Death

Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA's famously frugal founder died last month at 91. In southern Sweden, where his mega-business began and continues to thrive, locals remember him fondly.

Cars parked outside the first IKEA store in Älmhult
Cars parked outside the first IKEA store in Älmhult
Frédéric Faux

ÄLMHULT — After a three-and-a-half hour journey through an endless forest of birch and pine trees pierced by frozen lakes, the train from Stockholm stops at Älmhult. Between the station and the town hall is a small square where the only signs of activity are a hot-dog hut and a nail salon. Behind the ancient wooden houses, lines of small buildings with plaster facades have mushroomed, giving the village — population 9,000 — a distinct 1970s look. This is where IKEA was born.

And it's still here, in Älmhult — in southern Sweden's Småland province — that the world's leading furniture company, the apostle of Scandinavian design, manages a large part of its business empire. "The rooting of IKEA in a small town like ours is a blessing," says Eva Ballovarre, a local nurse who went on to become mayor. "Nearly 5,000 employees come here every day to work for IKEA. And about 1,500 of them live in Älmhult. I can't even imagine our lives without them."

The man who made this miracle possible has his portrait displayed in the local IKEA store, accompanied by flowers bouquets and condolence books. Ingvar Kamprad, the company's founder, who died on Jan. 28 at the age of 91, grew up and made his fortune right here, in Älmhult.

Life in the pious, barren and stony province of Småland was so miserable in the early 1900s that thousands of its people emigrated to the United States. But young Ingvar chose to stay, visitors to Älmhult's IKEA Museum are told. He didn't care much for studying, and so he started selling matches, pens and decorative items, first by bike, then by correspondence. This is how IKEA was born. Ingvar was 17 years old.

He soon became interested in furniture and in 1950, opened his first store in 1950 — in Älmhult. The idea of detaching the feet of a table to make it fit into the trunk of a car would propel the small business and help launch the era of flat-pack furniture, ensuring the brand's success around the world.

Fond memories

The museum in Älmhult is sprinkled with excerpts from the furniture dealer's Testament, which praises frugality and domestic order, and which became required reading for IKEA's 200,000 employees. There is also mention in the displays of Kamprad's Nazi past — for which he later apologized, calling it the "biggest mistake" of his life — and a mock-up of the office he had in his villa in Switzerland, where he managed the company for nearly 40 years. The latter is a reminder of his phobia of taxes, an issue the European Commission is currently investigating.

The mention of Ingvar Kamprad's dark side does little, however, to dampen local enthusiasm for the legendary entrepreneur. Peter Ottosson, a reporter with the local newspaper Smålandsposten, says he hears only positive things when he asks residents what they think of the idea founder. "He was a good man," people say. "A great person; a simple guy, like us."

"You can spend all day asking people in the street and you won't find anyone calling him into question," Ottosson says. "We leave Ingvar Kamprad alone. That's just the way it is."

This devotion is partly explained by the business mogul's out-of-the-ordinary personality. Legend has it the billionaire bought his clothes in second-hand stores, drove an an old Volvo and flew in economy class. Like the good peasant's son that he was, he worried about every last cent.

In Älmhult, people take those stories at face value. They also recall Kamprad's generosity: In the schools, discreet donations made it possible to purchase computers and hire more teachers; at the retirement home, he treated residents to Christmas meals, and bought them bikes.

People in the local IKEA offices share memories as well. Kamprad's operational role in the company ended in the late 1980s. And yet, he'd still make unexpected visits to the design studio, or attend strategic meetings, employees recall. "Until the end, he would come to us with his ideas. He was attentive to the slightest detail," says design manager Evamaria Ronnegard. "He was very present in Älmhult, because all our crafts are represented here."

Global ambition

IKEA is a global brand, with 412 outlets in 49 countries, nearly a billion annual visits, and a turnover of roughly $45 billion. But its heart and brains are still in Älmhult. Behind the small train station, a series of buildings are home to the group's purchasing department, PR agency and designers. There's even an IKEA hotel to accommodate the thousands of executives who come here to immerse themselves in the company's "spirit."

There are 15 production units in the town. But to really get an idea of just how massive the company is, all one needs to do is visit the place where IKEA's famous catalog is designed. "Every household living within a 40-kilometer radius of an IKEA must receive our catalog, of which we currently print 200 million copies," says department head Dorte Hjort Harder.

It's true that it's difficult to live in Älmhult if you don't work for IKEA.

In more than 40 studios, Dorte Hjort Harder and his team reconstruct interiors from around the world, a vision as fascinating as it is disturbing. And there isn't just one version of the catalog. "The sofa that appears on the Asian cover isn't a three-seater but a two, because interiors are smaller there. And in Russia, where people usually sleep in the living room, it's a sofa bed," he explains. "Our goal is to improve everyday life, and it's to better understand the specific needs of everyone that we have multicultural teams."

This global ambition makes Älmhult a unique village in Sweden, in which 50 different nationalities live together. To attract executives to Småland region, where the only leisure activities are fly fishing and canoeing — weather permitting — IKEA pulls out all the stops. Fast trains from Malmö, the nearest big city, stop at Älmhult. Employees have a leisure center with a restaurant, two gyms, and can enroll their children in an international school. IKEA also offers its own daycare service.

"It's true that it's difficult to live in Älmhult if you don't work for IKEA," admits Eléa Nouraud, a young French designer who moved here two years ago. "Here we live IKEA, we think IKEA, but it also allows us to better understand the values of the company, including the concept of democratic design, which is about creating a quality, durable, beautiful and functional object at the lowest possible price."

Pending challenges

Company mantras like "democratic design" and "improving everyday life" are linked, intrinsically, to the values of the town, says Henrik Elm, IKEA's purchasing and logistics head. "There's a reason IKEA was born and stayed in Småland," he says. "It's still the same company that began manufacturing BILLY bookcases in the 1950s. Sweden is still the fifth country in our list of suppliers, and you will always find a Swede at the executive level in any IKEA store, wherever it is in the world."

Since Ingvar Kamprad's death, however, there is a shadow hanging over Älmhult. Will it continue to matter to the company's senior executives — headquartered in Delft, Netherlands — that the heart of IKEA beats in this quiet Småland village? Will they even see it that way?

Kamprad's three sons sit on the boards of directors of the company's main structures. But they don't actually run the company. Still, for the first time, they recently published an open letter, from Älmhult, pledging to "preserve IKEA's heritage" along with its "values' and the "jobs of hundreds of thousands of people around the world."

The mayor of Älmhult, of which Ingvar Kamprad is the first and only honorary citizen, is positive that this promise will be kept. "Keeping IKEA here is a challenge," she admits. "But I'm sure they'll stay ... at least for now."

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