Farewell Ingvar, were you the William Morris of the day?

by georgehep

Farewell, Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea  who died last week aged 91. Was he indeed  taken away in a flat pack coffin?

I was reading Fiona MacCarthy’s  life of William Morris at the time he died  which was the heaviest tome in my Christmas stocking.  The two events were not connected but both men, in different centuries, changed the way we live.

In Kamprad’s case, it started, as so often, with a stroke of genius. He adapted his uncle’s kitchen table into what become the trademark  MAX  table. Morris designed a simple but elegant  dining chair with a rafia seat, the Sussex chair, which sold and sold. Likewise,  Dyson invented the bagless vacuum cleaner and Wylie the accountancy software package. The rest is history or rather marketing.

Today, Ikea is the largest furniture manufacturer in the world. 10% of Europeans are reckoned to have been conceived on an Ikea bed. The brand with strange Swedish names is popular everywhere. Three people tragically died  in the rush when Ikea opened in Saudi Arabia.

An HND is self-assembly has eluded me.  I am always convinced there is a bolt missing and get to the point of returning it all to the store. But I have learnt  to persevere until the chair, table, bed, chest of drawers comes together.   Assembling the furniture induces a sense of  pride and ownership which is known as the Ikea effect.

When Kamprad’s flagship store burned down in 1971,  he rebuild it as a self service operation, which encourages the shopper to throw more items into the trolley on the long and well defined route around the store  with the obligatory stop for a plate of meatballs .

I have been a regular visitor to the  Gateshead  store since it opened in 1992 – only the second  to be built in this country.  I enter an exciting new world of contemporary design, with clean uncluttered lines at remarkably low prices. It is a colourful, and complete life experience.  There was recently a craze to hide in an IKEA store at closing time and spend the night there.

The store is decked out in the bright yellow of the Swedish flag. Scandinavians jump into icy water straight out of their saunas and have an enviable  uninhibited  lifestyle. They are, dare I say it in these troubled times, European and I want to buy into it.

William Morris had a similar effect on domestic lifestyle in the late nineteenth century. He and his friends, the self styled  Fellowship, started by designing bespoke and beautiful furniture for lords and ladies of the land.  Swaths of oppressive  Victorian furniture were swept aside. As Morris said in one his public speeches “ I have never been in any rich man’s houses which would not have looked the better for having a bonfire made outside of it of none tenths of all it held”.

The fashion for simple craftsmanship caught on among the professional middle classes setting  up house in the London suburbs and spread throughout the world. It embodied an ideal of the rustic and creative workman from whom  flat pack builder is directly descended.

Then  Morris moved on to designing textiles and wall papers  that are still in production today. They grace  my living room right now. Why have Morris’s free flowing designs of flowers and birds proved so enduring? They are quintessentially an innocent English rural idyll  summoning memories deep in our psyche, as Morris’s  daughter put it. I relax when I see a  Morris design in a friends house. I know we are kindred spirits and share the same outlook on life.

Morris was the antidote to the industrial revolution  and a hugely underrated figure. His bearded head  deserves to  be on the £20  note. In his life time, Morris was best known as a poet but he was also a founding father of the  peculiar English variation of socialism. In 1887, he was supporting of striking miners in Northumberland. Morris marched from Blyth to Horton where his speech was “inflammatory without being irresponsible” according to the Newcastle Chronicle. He was dismayed by the dismal living conditions in the North East.

By contrast, Kamprad had right wing affiliations and was accused of being sympathetic to the Nazi party. He later apologised for the mistakes of his youth but maintained his political friendships. Maybe furniture making is really a political act?

Both Morris and Kamprad were contradictory characters. Morris regularly had to answer questions about his own wealth on the soap box. He paid his workers well but never shared his profits or set up the kind of collective enterprise that he espoused. He too was a shrewd businessman who knew how to sell his wares.

Kamprad  made his fortune by undercutting his rivals. He was the 8th richest person in the world but squirrelled his money away and lived as a tax exile. He travelled economy,  bought second hand clothes and took home the salt and pepper from restaurants.  He saw himself as the father figure of the Ikea family and ran the company for 70 years.

Great wealth cannot be easy to live to live with and geniuses can become  deluded over time  but  both   William Morris and Ingvar Kamprad have bought a lot of joy to my home. As Morris once  said “the true secret of happiness lies in taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life”.


published in Newcastle Journal Tuesday 6th February 2018