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IKEA Founder Leaves Behind A Furniture Empire And A Troubling Past

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Last week, IKEA announced that its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, had died at age 91.

Kamprad left behind a company that has, in many ways, revolutionized the way people shop for furniture and home goods. But his personal legacy was complicated by his associations with fascist and Nazi movements in Sweden during his youth.

Nancy Koehn, professor at the Harvard Business School, joined Boston Public Radio to discuss Kamprad's impact. She explained that IKEA's low prices transformed furniture's status as an expensive, durable good.

"The most revelatory thing IKEA has done is to make furniture into a perishable good, in effect," Koehn said.

"It used to be that you bought a dining room set for your 30s, 40s, and into your 50s. Maybe you thought, 'I'll give it to my daughters when I pass on into my great reward,'" she said. "You buy IKEA [and] you shop for a dining room table, which is priced as low as $100. You can buy a dining room every couple of years, if you want."

That's one way IKEA has managed to keep prices so low, Koehn said, along with pushing the cost of assembling the products onto the consumer.

"The way you take long-term, durable purchases and make them into short-term, do-it-yourself, create-your-own-by-assembling-them kind of purchases, you make things very cheaply in all kinds of ways," Koehn said.

Beyond the legacy of his store, Kamprad's past has also played a role in how he is seen in Sweden and abroad. Revelations that Kamprad had, in his youth, been involved with Sweden's fascist movement and attended the meetings of pro-Nazi groups came to light in the 1990s. There were calls to boycott IKEA, and Kamprad wrote a letter to the store's employees apologizing for his past views. As "The Washington Post" reported, Kamprad wrote that those views were “part of my life which I bitterly regret.”

Click the audio player above to hear more from Nancy Koehn.

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