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Sweden: IKEA touts folksy roots. (Yes, IKEA)

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

STOCKHOLM – “My name is Ingvar and I’m a farm boy from Småland,” said Ingvar Kamprad, introducing himself on Swedish public radio recently.

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The founder of IKEA, one of the richest men in the world, described how his humble rural origins and well-known frugality shaped the multinational corporation over the past five decades.

“I’ve never flown in first or business class, because I know that ordinary people don’t,” he said.

That same folksiness was on show this summer in an exhibition on 50 years of IKEA in one of Stockholm’s most prestigious art museums.

Almost half a million dollars in sponsorship from the furniture giant ensured that the exhibition was also a self-portrait – albeit an entertaining one.

In pre-IKEA Sweden, a sofa bed and dining-room table cost the average Swede four months’ wages. Access to cheaper furniture was a question of democracy and equality, we learn. Moreover, semidisposable Swedish furniture gave consumers the right to “variation” or to “chuck out the chintz,” in the words of one advertising campaign.

The company’s rise to prominence coincided with Sweden’s Folkhemmet (People’s Home) policy, which included an expansion of the welfare state, higher standards of living, and the construction of a million new homes in the 1960s and ’70s.

Visitors left the exhibition with the impression that IKEA and Sweden are one and the same: modern, practical, dynamic, down to earth – and above all, steadfast defenders of the common man.

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But does IKEA share Sweden’s preoccupation with recycling? One exhibit floats the idea of buying back discarded products for environmental reasons, a good idea that never saw the light of day.

Leaving the well-lit gallery it’s easy to miss a stairwell leading to a basement selling dusty, secondhand IKEA items, but no one is buying.