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National Socialist Furniture: Ingvar Kamprad and the IKEA Vision

It seemed to be an act of counter-intuitive genius, one framed in a manner that could have been deemed both insulting and flattering.  You, dear customer, would be the one expected, not only to fork out for a product; you would also be expected to assemble it, to envisage the functioning of its parts, to have the means by which to realise a vision.

Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, who died last Saturday, was certainly on to something.  A love of labour’s products might not have been accidental. The issue of self-realised productivity might well have had traces in fascist sympathies, a particularly national socialist view of furniture and living.

Kamprad came from a family of Sudetenland immigrants. Both his paternal grandmother and father were avowed Nazis, while Kamprad would, in time, express more than a passing commitment to the Swedish fascist movement.

The Stockholm Police, in fact, took note of a certain Member 4,014 of Socialist Unity, Sweden’s far-right party which was active during the Second World War.  He showed a continuing interest in Per Engdahl, a notable anti-Semite and Holocaust denier who kept up his work even after the guns had fallen silent in Europe.  In an uneasy contradiction, one that baffled Elisabeth Åsbrink, he could still maintain a friendship with Otto Ullman, a Jewish refugee whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz.

Kamprad’s vision of modular furniture, the combination of no-frills, industriousness, and self-reward was sparked even as European Jewry was being exterminated in the apocalyptic realisations of the Third Reich.  He had his mind both on business and finding recruits for Socialist Unity.  “Ingvar Kamprad’s image and Sweden’s,” concludes Åsbrink, “continue to reflect each other: without shadows, without disgrace, and without any ambition to come to terms with their past.”

Kamprad did make small steps towards acknowledging a course of life which he “bitterly” regretted.  In 1998, he wrote of those wayward “delusions” of youth.  During a speech at the book release at an IKEA store in suburban Stockholm, he claimed to have “told all I can.  Can one ever get forgiveness for such stupidity?”

His near ascetic view of life, combined with a democratising vision of furnishings, is recalled in The Testament of a Furniture Dealer (1976), a pamphlet that has a curiously fascistic tone of self-preservation with a fundamental “duty to expand.” In it, Kamprad stakes the mission of his company to offer “a wide range of well-designed functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible can afford them.”

The great ambitions Kamprad writes about are expansive, involving influencing “practically all markets” while also being “able to make a valuable contribution to the process of democratisation outside our homeland too.” A set of values are then outlined: simplicity is touted as virtue; profit endows the company with resources while good results can be attained “with small means”.  If the Kamprad outlines were followed religiously, a “glorious future” awaited.

In time, IKEA also realised shopping as a collective ideal, the Volk who needed to be invigorated even as they went about their journey in the centre.  Customers could dine on meals specific to the IKEA brand using IKEA cutlery and crockery. They could consult merchandise even as children were being looked after at IKEA day care facilities.

A few accounts of his passing have also shown a clean, unreflected vision, only momentarily dipping into his right-wing nourishing.  Note is taken of his frugal living, his tendency to plunder the salt and pepper packets from restaurants, his generally miserly disposition.

For the chief executive officer of the IKEA Group, Jesper Brodin, “His legacy will be admired for many years to come and his vision – to create a better everyday life for the many people – will continue to guide and inspire.”  The Los Angeles Times wrote admiringly over the “boyhood business of selling pencils and seeds from his bicycle in Sweden” while Brodin nostalgically noted how he “started as a 17-year-old with two empty pockets, but a ton of entrepreneurship.”

By shifting the focus away from the ready-made and cutting costs with a flat-pack vision of distribution, the IKEA view became a global phenomenon.  In time, it even collected a name on the way, the “IKEA effect” technically defined by Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely as “the increase in valuation of self-made products.”

Norton et al do make the relevant point that having it all, a product readied, available and easy to use, might have made things too elementary.  The introduction of instant cake mixes during the 1950s, for instance, was billed to be a revolution of ease for the US housewife.  Yet scepticism was expressed: “The mixes made cooking too easy, making their labour seem undervalued.”

To foist assembly costs on an individual, to effectively suggest to a consumer who will still pay a premium for the relevant product that can only be realised with his or her labour, suggests a reduction of value, not a gain. The IKEA effect postulates the opposite, a sort of Lockean vision of imbuing a good with one’s labour, thereby adding value to it.

With the 1956 invention of flat-pack furniture by IKEA employee Gillis Lundgren, the company could also add to its own value, cutting shipping costs by astonishing margins.  An explosion, and in fact, a conquest of taste, was imminent.  The innovation would be sold, not as a profitable advantage to the company, but a sensible one to the customer.  All would be happy.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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