The founder of Sweden’s Ikea furniture chain, Ingvar Kamprad, has died at the age of 91.
The company said Kamprad, whom it described as “one of the greatest entrepreneurs of the 20th century”, had “peacefully passed away at his home” on Saturday.
Kamprad founded Ikea in the 1940s at the age of 17, and built it into one of the world’s best-known retailers. The name was composed from his own initials and those of the places in the Swedish countryside where he grew up.
Known for its functional, flatpack furniture – such as Billy shelves and Malm chests of drawers – that has to be assembled by customers, Ikea became the world’s largest furniture chain, with 412 stores across 49 countries.
Torbjörn Lööf, chief executive and president of Inter Ikea Group, the furniture giant’s parent company, said: “We are deeply saddened by Ingvar’s passing. We will remember his dedication and commitment to always side with the many people. To never give up, always try to become better and lead by example.”
The Swedish prime minister, Stefan Löfven, said Kamprad was “a unique entrepreneur … who made interior decorating accessible for the many, not just a few”.
Kamprad had not been involved in running Ikea since 1988, but had been acting as an adviser. In 2013 he stepped down from the board of Inter Ikea, and his youngest son became chairman.
Neil Saunders, managing director of retail at the analysis firm GlobalData, said: “Few people can claim to have genuinely revolutionised retail. Ingvar Kamprad did. When he founded it, Ikea was markedly different to anything that had existed in retail. Much of this difference was down to Ingvar’s Swedish heritage and instincts.
“It is no exaggeration to say that his innovative approach changed not just the furniture sector, but the way people decorated and led their lives at home.”
Kamprad was estimated to have accumulated a fortune of 610bn Swedish kronor (£54bn) by 2016, according to Swedish media reports, which would make him one of the world’s richest people.
But Per Heggenes, chief executive of the Ikea Foundation, said Kamprad had long ago passed on his stake in Ikea’s stores and franchise to the INGKA Foundation and Inter Ikea Group.
“His death has no impact on the foundation or the companies at all,” he said. “It has no impact beyond the loss of him as a founder and an icon. It’s a huge loss but if you look at the company structure, nothing will change. His personal wealth is very limited.”
Kamprad was married twice. In 1973 he moved to Denmark, before seeking to lower his tax bill by moving to Switzerland. He returned to live in Sweden in 2014.
The billionaire had a reputation for penny pinching, which he claimed helped Ikea become one of the world’s top brand names, and wore secondhand clothes bought at flea markets.
“It’s in the nature of Småland to be thrifty,” he said in a documentary released in 2016, referring to Sweden’s southern agricultural region where he was born. “If we want to be cost-conscious, we should do it, not just talk about how cost-conscious we are.”
The Ikea founder had faced questions over his past involvement with Nazi groups, which he admitted in a 1999 book about his life and described as his “biggest mistake”, asking for forgiveness for his “stupidity”. He also admitted to Swedish media that he had attended meetings of Nazi organisations between 1945 and 1948.
Kamprad grew up on a farm in southern Sweden. He turned into a budding entrepreneur aged five selling matches to his neighbours. As a teenager he graduated to selling seeds, pens and nylon stockings from his bicycle.
He founded Ikea in 1943 and began selling affordable furniture five years later; the first mail-order catalogue came out in 1951. In 1955, the Ikea employee Gillis Lundgren had the idea of removing the legs from a table and tucking them under its top to create the firm’s trademark flat-pack furniture, which was easier and cheaper to transport. Ikea’s first store outside Sweden opened in Norway in 1963 and it began colonising Europe; the first US store opened in 1985.
The initial success of Ikea’s no-nonsense furniture was ascribed to the Swedes’ obsession with functionalism. Lars Engman, Ikea’s then design manager, said in 2003: “Sweden created the Volvo, Italy the Ferrari.” The bright colours of the products were designed as an antidote to Sweden’s long, dark winters.
Jesper Börjesson, a TV reporter who, like Kamprad, was born in Älmhult municipality and was the last to interview him, said Kamprad had continued to play a role in the company until last year, with executive training taking place at his house.
“He lived upstairs and that was his flat, and then downstairs was where he took some of the meetings, and I think it was where he grew up, so it was very symbolic.”
Börjesson said Kamprad had been pleased to return to Älmhult, where the first Ikea store was opened and where the firm’s head offices are still based. “He was so happy to have moved home again, and he got to meet his old friends, and he could sit there in the countryside at his home and contemplate.
“I think everybody is sad today, but he’s talked about his death for a long time. He’s prepared himself and the company for this day.”