Ingvar Kamprad, who died Saturday, was businessman from an early age. When he was 5 he sold matches to his neighbors. Then when he was still in high school he began to sell fish, Christmas decorations, seeds, and pencils from his bicycle. He went on to found Ikea in 1943, when he was just 17 and the company began selling furniture in 1948. Things didn’t really take off until 1956 when the firm pioneered flat-pack furniture, which changed the way people in much of the world buy household products.
“One of the greatest entrepreneurs of the 20th century, Ingvar Kamprad, has peacefully passed away at his home in Smaland, Sweden, on Jan. 27,” Ikea said in an emailed statement on Sunday. He “was “surrounded by his loved ones,” and died “following a short illness,” the statement said.
The name Ikea is made up of Kamprad’s initials and the first letters of the farm (Elmtaryd) and village (Agunnaryd) where he was raised.
Kamprad, who was 91, was the eight-richest person in the world according to Bloomberg, which estimated his net worth at $58.7 billion. He has the flat-pack furniture to thank for much of his fortune, which was inspired by the way he saw an employee take the legs off a table to fit in a customer’s car. That ended up revolutionizing the way furniture was shipped, stored, and sold, making it possible for people to buy modern furniture at a low price.
In 2005, U.K. style magazine Icon characterized Kamprad as the most influential taste-maker in the world because “if it wasn’t for Ikea, most people would have no access to affordable contemporary design. The company has done more to bring about an acceptance of domestic modernity than the rest of the design world combined.”
Ikea’s 403 stores that are often in more isolated, suburban areas in 49 countries generated sales of $47.6 billion last year, and the company’s goal is to generate $62 billion in annual revenue by 2020.
Lots of tributes poured in on Sunday with Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven praising Kamprad as an inspiration. “Ingvar Kamprad was a unique entrepreneur who had a big impact on Swedish business and who made home design a possibility for the many not just the few,” national news agency TT quoted Lofven saying. Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström, said Kamprad was “a great entrepreneur who helped bring Sweden into the world.”
Despite his huge wealth Kamprad was typically known as a frugal businessman who lived the lifestyle he preached for his company in which executives travel on low-cost airlines and stay in budget hotels. He was known for driving an old Volvo and traveled economy when he was flying. That wasn’t quite the full story though. Reporters found he had a villa in Switzerland, vineyards in Provence, and he drove a Porsche in addition to his beat up Volvo, notes the New York Times.
Beyond the exaggerated frugal lifestyle that he claimed to follow, Kamprad was also a controversial figure who was forced to apologize for his support of a nationalist, far-right group that backed fascists around Europe in the 1940s. His support for fascism was revealed by a newspaper in 1994 and Kamprad apologized, saying it was “a part of my life which I bitterly regret,” and “the most stupid mistake of my life.” Many also criticized Kamprad for spending much of his time in Switzerland to avoid Sweden’s high taxes.