As I write this, it dawns on me just how many items in this room alone came courtesy of IKEA. Four bookshelves, several picture frames, a clock, a coffee mug. Even the food that I am eating now (Swedish meatballs) was purchased at the end of my most recent excursion to the Swedish furniture giant. All of these items were had at astoundingly low prices – so low, in fact, that one can find some of them being resold on eBay for double the cost. How is that even possible?
Many of the answers can be traced back to founder Ingvar Kamprad and his upbringing in the Swedish countryside. Now ninety-one years old, Kamprad remains vital to the company culture of thrift, democratic design, and rock-bottom prices. So intertwined are IKEA and Kamprad that the latter’s story is basically the story of the company. In the updated edition of The IKEA STORY Swedish business journalist Bertil Torekull traces Kamprad’s journey from his childhood business pursuits all the way to his position atop one of the world’s greatest retail empires.
Kamprad’s goal in the early days was simple yet powerful – delivering quality goods to consumers at the lowest possible prices. Fascinated by the intricacies of the supply chain, the founder constantly sought to cut waste and find new and cheaper ways of producing goods, transforming the furniture industry in the process. Frustrated by the expense of shipping and the frequent damage that occurred during transport, one of Kamprad’s lieutenants invented flat packaging. Minimalist Swedish design, with its clean lines and lack of flair, also helped bring prices down. So focused is the chain on cost control that it pioneered a method to build furniture out of waste wood. The ubiquitous particle board is so cheap that it is literally not worth the expense of shipping the furniture from one home to the next, hence the enormous number of IKEA products thrown away annually.
If anything, Kamprad is capitalism personified. But to The IKEA Story’s detriment, the author seldom challenges the reader to think critically about his subject. The most blatant example of his bias is the vigorous defense of Kamprad’s dabbling in the Swedish fascist movement during World War II. Kamprad apologized profusely for his youthful indiscretions when the story came to light during the 1990s, causing a firestorm in the global press. Does Kamprad deserve forgiveness? Probably, but it is not Torekull’s place to take up the mantle of defense attorney.
Overall, I found The IKEA Story fascinating for its peak into one of the world’s most mysterious companies, but also rather disappointing as a piece of critical commentary. The section on the company’s byzantine ownership structure, designed to insulate IKEA from tax authorities and protect it for eternity from outside takeover, is particularly illuminating. But the book fails to really challenge IKEA or Kamprad as a man, reading more like company propaganda than authentic journalism. Originally written in Swedish, The IKEA Story’s English translation is also incredibly inept. I do not know what share of the blame should be assigned to the translator, but the book is rife with grammatical errors and odd phrasing. Despite its sometimes poignant subject matter, The IKEA Story lacks the emotional connection to truly get the reader involved.
Quality journalism about this company can be found elsewhere with far fewer pages to get through. For casual readers, I highly recommend Lauren Collins’ excellent piece in The New Yorker. I cannot say the same for The IKEA Story.
Rating: 2/5 stars