LIGHT and bright, cheap and cheerful: IKEA’s 400-plus outlets in 49 countries all run on the same central principle. Customers do as much of the work as possible, in the belief they are having fun and saving money. You drive to a distant warehouse, built on cheap out-of-town land. Inside, you enter a maze—no shortcuts allowed—where every twist reveals new furniture, in pale softwood or white chipboard, artfully arranged with cheerfully coloured accessories to exude a chic, relaxed Scandinavian lifestyle.

The low prices make other outlets seem extortionate, so you load up your trolley with impulse buys—a clock, a bin, storage boxes, tools, lampshades and more tea lights than you will ever use. You lug cardboard boxes holding flat-packed shelves, cupboards and tables into your car and reward yourself for your thrift and good taste with meatballs slathered with lingonberry jam. Then you drive home and assemble your prizes. You rejoice in the bargains. IKEA rejoices in your money.

The company’s name was a do-it-yourself job, too. It stands for Ingvar Kamprad, from Elmtaryd—his family’s farm—in Agunnaryd. That village is in the Smaland region of southern Sweden, known for the resourcefulness, stinginess and stubbornness of its inhabitants. Mr Kamprad founded IKEA aged 17. Well before that, he spotted a principle which would make him one of the richest men in the world: that customers like buying retail goods at wholesale prices. First he bought matches in bulk and sold them by the box. Aged ten, he plied the same trade with pens and trinkets, delivered by bicycle.

Setbacks inspired him. Facing a price war against his low-cost mail-order furniture business, he flummoxed rivals by opening a showroom. Dealers tried to crush the upstart retailer, banning Mr Kamprad from their trade fairs. He sneaked in, hiding in a friend’s car. When they tried to intimidate his suppliers, he turned to in-house design, and secretly outsourced production to communist Poland. Decades later, east Europeans freed from the shoddy scarcity of the planned economy drove hundreds of miles to newly opened outlets in Moscow and Warsaw.

His self-discipline was legendary. As a child, he removed the “off” button from his alarm clock to stop himself oversleeping. He shunned first-class travel. The champagne didn’t get you there any earlier, he sniffed; having lots of money was no reason to waste it. He bought his clothes in flea markets, and for years drove an elderly Volvo until he had to sell it on safety grounds. He had his hair cut in poor countries to save money. Even his tax exile in Switzerland was parsimonious. Visitors admired the views, but were surprised that his villa was so run-down. He worked well into his eighties.

His austerity and diligence set a good example to his 194,000 “co-workers”, (never “employees”). But he was no skinflint. The point of cutting costs was to make goods affordable, not to compromise quality. The real enemies were arrogance, cowardice, distraction and above all waste. He urged his staff to reflect constantly on ways of saving money, time and space. A tweaked design that allows easier stacking means shipping less air—and more profit.

Culture trumped strategy. He despised “exaggerated planning”, along with financial markets and banks. Better to make mistakes and learn from them. And use time wisely: “You can do so much in ten minutes. But ten minutes once gone are gone for good.” This did not apply to customers. The longer they tarried, the better.

Mr Kamprad’s impact on modern life rivalled that of Henry Ford and the mass-produced motor car. Furniture used to be costly, clunky, dark and heavy. For the cash-strapped and newly nesting, fitting out a home could cost many months’ salary. IKEA made domesticity not just affordable and functional, but fun. Out went the hand-me-downs and junk-shop monstrosities. In came the cool, tasteful, egalitarian look and feel of modern Sweden. Airy, sparse, uncluttered—a little bland, perhaps, but hard to dislike. The mission was civilisational, he felt, changing how people lived and thought, and boosting democracy more than anything politicians did.

His approach drew some fire. The intensity of company values struck some as creepy. At IKEA’s Corporate Culture Centre, ubiquitous pictures of Mr Kamprad accompany his mottos about humility, willpower and renewal. Some parts of the supply chain seemed whiffy; so did the empire’s extreme tax efficiency. The self-assembly, aided only by an Allen key and diagrams, could be infuriating, but piecing together IKEA’s accounts, this paper wrote in 2006, was even more exasperating.

Design flaw

His greatest mistake was a youthful but lingering flirtation with fascism. Though his best friend for years was a Jewish refugee, Mr Kamprad never disavowed his ties with Sweden’s leading far-right politician, Per Engdahl, nor his Hitler-loving German grandmother. Drip-fed excuses fuelled critics’ suspicion. In response, IKEA made a colossal charitable donation. “Why did I not reveal this past foolishness myself?” Mr Kamprad explained. “Simple. I was afraid it would hurt my business.” Frugality may be admirable, but not when it comes to telling the truth.