IKEA – The Swedish Way of Life

Sweden has a lot of iconic brands out there. Volvo, Absolut Vodka, H&M, TetraPAK, Scania have been around the globe for decades. And recently others such as Spotify, Skype, and King (Candy Crush, anyone?) have taken the world by storm. However, I dare to say no one promoted the Swedish way of life better than IKEA.

This week, the founder of the blue and yellow furniture giant passed away. Ingvar Kamprad was 91 years old and died during his sleep. So, as a homage to the fantastic brand he built and the way he promoted Sweden everywhere, I decided to write a little about it. How about that?

This is Ingvar back in the day. (Picture from IKEA newsroom)

The Origins

Born in 1926, Ingvar Kamprad was part of a wealthy family, as far as I can tell. The family was a big state owner back in Germany, but for some reason, his grandparent decided to buy a farm (the biggest in the region) and move to Småland, in Sweden. Form his early days, he had some talent for business, and at age SIX he started selling matches in the village; soon after realizing that if he went to Stockholm, he could buy cheaper in bulk and profit from it. As a side note, I don’t know how someone can leave their under10 kid traveling around the country for business, but I guess those were calmer days.

IKEA was founded a decade later, in 1943. At age 17, Ingvar started a business selling tables, only by mail; and a couple of years after he added furniture to the catalog, ending up in the opening of the first store in 1958. From there the business grew hugely.

Fun fact: IKEA is an acronym for Ingvar Kamprad, Elmtaryd (the family farm where he grew up), Aggunaryd (his hometown in Småland).


Although recognized as probably the most significant Swedish entrepreneur of the century, Ingvar has been subject to lots of criticism. The primary reasons I could find were an alleged involvement with fascism/Nazism in his youth, and sketchy business practices to avoid paying taxes. To be honest, I haven’t researched much into that, but it is important to acknowledge those critics.

IKEA: the giant

From Småland to the world, looking at IKEA’s numbers is baffling. As of today, the company more than 400 stores in 49 countries around the world (sadly, not in Brazil!). These are the facts and figures for 2017, according to their website:

38 billion euros in retail sales

936 million customer visits in their stores

14 new stores

149000 employees

2 MILLION meatballs served everyday in stores around the world

Billy: the bookcase

Ikea has a bunch of iconic products, but one maybe its the biggest hit goes by the simple name of Billy. It is a simple bookshelf. Plain wood, no patterns, no textures. Just a rectangle where you put whatever you need to store. But maybe that is the reason why Billy became so popular: it is the perfect example of IKEA mindset. Simple and effective, with some charm to it. Nothing fancy or trendy, but good enough to be a top seller for almost 50 years now (it debuted in 1979). I mean, not every piece of furniture has its own Wikipedia article, right?

According to the New York Times, a Billy is sold every 10 seconds. I, for example, now that my new apartment will get a Billy as one of its first real furniture.

The classic Billy is on the left; you can use it as a module if you need bigger spaces.


One of the things that are really particular to IKEA is its naming system. To non-Scandinavians it sounds really weird, no doubt about that. For example, Buzzfeed has a collection of unfortunate names, which probably will make you giggle. Stuff like Sensuell cooking pots and Dombås wardrobe. It guests worse when you add other languages rather than English, like some products that meant getting to the third base or having sex in Thai.


Found it on Google Images, don’t know the author.

But there is a logic behind all that, believe it or not.

Our fellow Ingvar was dyslexic, so he wanted to avoid numbers and codes for all the products. After some thought, he came up with a system on which each product category was named according to some group of things.

For example, outdoor furniture is named after islands in Scandinavia. Bedsheets and pillowcases after flowers and plants. Kids stuff inspired by animals. Kitchen utensils with herbs and spices. Given there are around 12.000 products, there are lots of naming to be done.

The just mentioned Billy is named after Billy Liljedahl, a former IKEA employee, who used to say he wanted a simple bookcase, just for books.


I hope you liked to learn more about IKEA. Given there is no store (nor plans!) to open one in Brazil, I never got what was the whole craze about it. But, living as a student here, I totally get it. And if you come to Sweden I guarantee you will make at least a few trips there. (some people even see a trip to IKEA as a tourist attraction).  And before you leave, just listen to this song. It really says a lot 🙂