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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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