Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, has died at the age of 91. He is a remarkable example of how enterprise and visionary entrepreneurship can have such a profound effect on the world. Even now, walking into an IKEA store for the first time is a riveting experience. It invites you to reassess your life priorities, how you live, how you spend your money, what you seek to do in life. It certainly did that to me, and I’ve never let go of what I learned. In some way, as I think about it, Mr. Kamprad, though I never met him, has been my teacher for a large swath of my adult life. Millions of others can say the same.
In the houses of my growing up, furniture was always called an investment. There were pieces around my house inherited from previous generations, so my parents bought with the understanding that I would inherit what they had today. Every piece was huge. It was designed to broadcast a certain social status. It was to convey a certain permanence. The furniture was heavy and big enough to seem to be bolted to the ground, and the style was elaborate beyond anything necessary. The styles of the kings of old had been widely distributed among the bourgeoisie and we loved to flaunt it.
I can recall as a young boy shopping with my parents for what was called a bedroom suite. There was a gigantic headboard with big side railings, a chest of drawers, a big chest for the end of the bed, two nightstands, plus a big matching mirror. You bought it all as a single set, hugely expensive but mainly just big overall. The movers put it all in my room. It seemed inconceivable that it would ever be moved again, and this was part of the point. We were supposed to think of ourselves as rooted and secure. The furniture we chose underscored that.
Then the unthinkable happened. We moved because my father got a new job. Moving day was a nightmare. We tried to do some ourselves. Everyone was suffering just to pick the stuff up and get it to the new place. There was breakage of course and lots of the furniture didn’t really look right in the new place. It seemed transplanted in some way. But we dealt with it because, in those days, your furniture was seen as the embodiment of the life of the family, physical symbols of who we are, almost like commoditized DNA.
Then we moved again. Then again. It was becoming absurd. At some point, my parents wised up and got a smaller home in a more urban environment. What used to be treasures started to feel like junk strewn about here and there, as if we had to find a place for this stuff because purchasing it in the first place seemed like such an epic event. You would never turn your back on this warehouse full of heavy wood else you might as well be invalidating your past.
At some point in this process, I began to despise furniture, though I didn’t fully realize it. I was a teenager making my way in the world of sales, and I was very good in the clothing industry. I tried to port my skills over to the furniture industry because the money was better. There I encountered a serious problem. I couldn’t sell it. Customers found me unpersuasive. And for an obvious reason: in my heart, I didn’t really want people to find themselves in the position of my own family. I knew that they didn’t really need all this junk. I also came to discover that the ticket price on the items reflected mostly illusion. I loved selling clothing but I despised selling furniture, and my numbers reflected this reality. I was the worst salesperson on the floor. I bailed before I was hurled out.
Years later, I found myself in an ideal position. I had mostly junked all my old furniture because I was tired of lugging it from place to place. I had a new space in Northern Virginia and it was mostly empty. Someone told me to go to IKEA for things like bookshelves and a sofa and so on.
Browsing that store challenged everything I thought I knew about furniture. It was not expensive. It was not heavy. It was not ornate. It made beauty out of the love of function. It does what it is supposed to do. There is an elegance in that. Even the showroom seemed to convey a completely different ethos than I had ever encountered. Today we call it minimalism. It is free of clutter, free of stuff and junk. Being in the presence of this settled my mind. It did more: it helped me rethink my life.
I snagged a few pieces made of simple pine wood, the smallest table, a bare-bones sofa, a stand for various odds and ends. I could put it all together myself. I could port it around in my car. I could move it around my house with no issues. And I became aware that if, when, I moved again, maybe to a new city, I could just leave all this furniture behind. No guilt. I could buy more at the new place for less than it would cost me to move. I fell in love with my new IKEA life.
Maybe you know this feeling after going to IKEA the first time. You sense that you have been doing it wrong. What these people are doing is doing it right. You buy a few items and take them home and look around. The place is stuffed with junk. You immediately feel the urge to declutter. You want to throw things out. You wonder why you have this huge sofa, this massive coffee table, this big chest of drawers, this ornate dining room table designed to expand to accommodate 12 people at the big dinner party you have never held.
Here’s the problem with buying things for your home. At the store, it is an isolated thing and it seems attractive. You want that thing. But you get it home and it’s not an isolated thing. It becomes just another addition to an accumulation of things that seem fine in isolation but terrible as a group of things. The whole room starts to feel like a pile of endless stuff. Then the whole apartment or house feels that way. It is disorienting, confusing, even mentally and emotionally rattling. You can’t find a single thing to throw away but all of it together is diminishing your life quality.
What the IKEA showroom does is a reveal a different philosophy of life. Now just consider how remarkable and implausible this is: a huge store that makes you want to get rid of all your stuff and buy their stuff instead. That’s a feat of marketing – or psychological magic. They made a business out of showing you how to live more simply. But the irony is penetrating: in order to live without, you have to buy their things! That’s a brilliant business.
It’s all not just a strategy. It is a real philosophy, which is why it feels so authentic.
The New York Times reports
All his life, Mr. Kamprad practiced thrift and diligence, and he portrayed those traits as the basis for Ikea’s success. He lived in Switzerland to avoid Sweden’s high taxes, drove an old Volvo, flew only economy class, stayed in budget hotels, ate cheap meals, shopped for bargains and insisted that his home was modest, that he had no real fortune and that Ikea was held by a charitable trust….
Ikea had been achieved, he said, by frugality: building stores on less costly land outside cities; buying materials at a discount; minimizing sales staff to let customers shop without pressure; putting no finishes on unseen furniture surfaces, and packaging items in flat boxes to be carried away by customers for home assembly (instructions provided).
For millions of people, this whole approach changed everything. Getting rid of the clutter permits clarity of thought. Spending less saves money. Enjoying a clean and lightweight domestic environment focuses the mind on what really matters. And it helps wipe away this strange myth that accumulation and mass in material objects somehow reveals that quality of your life. It turns out that generations have made a basic error.
The less you spend on junk the more you can save to really boost the quality of your life in food and travel, getting out of debt, saving for the future, even developing a financial legacy that matters, one about liquid funds, not about huge amounts of stuff.
The wisdom of this whole approach to life has grown on me over time. I recall when my father died, I was tasked with finding something to do with the amazing amount of stuff (tools, books, knives, papers, and just…stuff) he had accumulated in the course of his life. The truth is that I didn’t want it. It broke my heart but I held a yard sale. I saw strangers cart away my Dad’s things for absurdly low prices. He thought of all of this stuff as treasure. The market saw it differently. I saw it differently.
I returned from that experience to rethink my own attitude toward material goods, much more in line with what Mr. Kamprad believed. He made a huge impact on the way we think, not just about our domestic furnishings, not just about the mobility of the things we own, but more fundamentally. He helped us to discover what really matters, and to dispense with the illusion that bigger, more expensive, and heavier equates to life quality. It doesn’t.
There is delightful irony in knowing that he died as one of the world’s richest men. For clarifying our values, the market rewarded him handsomely. As it should be.