Ingvar in Milan

Not just for the wealthy.

Photo: Paolo Monti, Servizio fotografico, Milan, 1960 (BEICCC BY-SA 4.0).
Photo: Paolo Monti, Servizio fotografico, Milan, 1960 (BEICCC BY-SA 4.0).

Ingvar Kamprad started to explore new supplier markets around the world for IKEA at an early stage. In 1960 he went to Milan for the first time to visit the big Triennale exposition.

As one of the world’s leading cities for design, fashion and trends, then as well as now, Milan was the place to go to see the very latest developments. It may seem like a huge contrast to little Älmhult, but Ingvar felt right at home, and the IKEA range fitted in well too – particularly as much of the furnishing on display at the exposition was “clearly Scandinavian inspired” in design, as Ingvar noted in his travel report to his colleagues back in Älmhult.

Furniture exhibition with several seating groups, stylish sofas in 1960s style with modern abstract art on the walls.
The exposition included everything from light fittings, chairs and cutlery to washing machines and refrigerators. Ingvar Kamprad was very impressed by an “amazing” section for household items and “absolutely beautifully designed” fridges and washing machines. Photo: Paolo Monti, Servizio fotografico, Milan, 1960 (BEICCC BY-SA 4.0).

The vision is born

In 1960 the exposition’s theme was “Home and School”, and Ingvar was of course most drawn to the Home aspect. The enormous exposition centre contained around 30 halls showing everything from furniture to textiles and household items. Ingvar quickly established that modern furniture dominated the displays, but that it was very expensive. He also thought that the quality of Swedish products was better than that of the foreign products.

Exhibition with stylish design, large table in glass and wood, chrome lamps hang from the ceiling.
The elegance and diversity of the 1960 Triennale de Milano made quite an impression on Ingvar Kamprad. Photo: Paolo Monti, Servizio fotografico, Milan, 1960 (BEICCC BY-SA 4.0).

Chairs and refrigerators

After wandering around talking to many different companies, Ingvar bought 500–600 chairs of different types from Fratelli Montina. Ingvar said himself that these could fill an entire train carriage. He also looked at lighting and ceramics, and chatted to the suppliers as well as he could, despite some language barriers: “None of the many people there could speak a foreign language, but if my sign language worked we can expect some swatches and quotations,” he wrote optimistically in his travel report. Only later did Ingvar discover that he, as a foreign visitor to the exposition, could have had access to guides and language interpreters free of charge.

Ingvar was most impressed by the hall showing household items. “An absolutely amazing section with tens of kilometres of aisles,” he wrote in his travel report. He was surprised by “so many kitchen appliances, more or less fully automatic, of the most varying kinds”. He was particularly interested in an “especially nice, solid barbecue, made in Italy under French licence”. Hundreds of exhibitors were also displaying fridges and washing machines, which Ingvar found “absolutely beautifully designed”. Several suppliers showed an interest in working with IKEA, and were prepared to negotiate and offer lower prices than competitors.

Old picture from the 1962 IKEA catalogue, two chairs in black wood, CARENA and CALYPSO, with braided seat and back.
Ingvar bought the CALYPSO and CARENA chairs during his trip to Milan. They were later presented in the catalogue as two Italian beauties with “Italian charm”. The smaller chair was described as “slender yet durable” while the larger one had “unusually beautiful lines”. Image from the 1962 IKEA catalogue.

A delightful meeting

Ingvar was at the exposition for three days. He spent the rest of his trip to Italy visiting different furniture and textile factories in and around Milan. Most significant was his visit to rug manufacturers Vittorio Vergani & Co. Ingvar was met already at the airport by the “delightful” Mr. Reslieri, who took him to the factory. Ingvar was very impressed, both by the large stock of raw materials and the streamlined production with an “ultra-modern dye shop and spinning shop”. He was also pleasantly surprised by the reception he got. All three representatives spoke English, and one even spoke German! “Their approach to representation was very classy,” wrote Ingvar in his travel report.

An awakening

In Bertil Torekull’s book The IKEA Story, Ingvar Kamprad talks about his trip to the Milan exposition and the rug manufacturer as an awakening for him “in terms of ideas”. Mr. Reslieri took him to “regular Italian homes”. Ingvar was surprised by the difference between the modern design he had seen at the exposition and the more traditional furnishings in Italian workers’ homes. He described it as “Dark, heavy furniture, a solitary light bulb over a heavy dining table. There was a huge gap between all the elegance at the exposition and what I saw in the homes of the many people.”

“Why should nice furniture of good quality only be for the rich?”

Ingvar told Bertil Torekull that he didn’t want to exaggerate his gift of foresight, but he did think that his trip to Milan was the first nudge towards what would later be called “Democratic Design”. Mats Agmén, a long-time co-worker at IKEA, also believes that the visit to Italy was a key moment. “That was when it dawned on him. Why should fine furniture of good quality only be for the rich? Is that really the way it should be? Needless to say, Ingvar Kamprad saw this as a great opportunity,” says Mats.

The rya rug SKOGSBRYNET in different green shades.
After Ingvar’s trip to Milan, production of the popular rug SKOGSBRYNET was moved from Salanders in Lund to Italian manufacturers Vittorio Vergani & Co.

After his visit to the rug factory, Ingvar suggested that Vittorio Vergani & Co should take over production of the SKOGSBRYNET rug, designed by Kerstin Svensson, on a trial basis. The rug, which had sold quite well, was previously made by Salanders in Lund, which Ingvar found to be a bit slow with their deliveries.

Frequent letters

A frequent exchange of letters now began, with Ingvar and the factory owner discussing everything from prices to product samples, and whether glossy or matte yarns should be used. The letters from Italy were quite formal and polite, while Ingvar kept things short and direct. It was clear that they got on well and IKEA placed its first order for 500 rugs at a price of 39 kronor (EUR 3.90) per square metre.

Facsimile of typewritten letter from Ingvar Kamprad to Vittorio Vergani & Co in Italy, dated 15 July 1961.
In a letter to Vittorio Vergani & Co, Ingvar Kamprad writes that IKEA has confidence in the company and would like to order 500 SKOGSBRYNET rugs at a price of 39 kronor (EUR 3.90) per square metre.
Facsimile of typewritten letter from Vittorio Vergani & Co, Italy to Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA, Sweden, dated 18 July 1961.
In their reply, Vittorio Vergani & Co thank IKEA for their order, assure IKEA of their best attention, and that they will get back to IKEA with an exact delivery date.

The trial became permanent and marked the beginning of a long business relationship. This is thought to be the first time Ingvar and IKEA moved production of one of their own designs from Sweden to a foreign supplier – yet another important step in the development of the IKEA business concept: to find as many ways as possible to create a better everyday life for the many people.

Some good travel tips

In his travel report, Ingvar also noted some general reflections and good advice for future trips to Milan. For instance, foreign visitors were given “a lot of attention” at the exposition, but it was worth booking a hotel room early to avoid ending up too far away from the city centre. The ever-thrifty Ingvar also noted that hotel rooms and food were expensive. He enjoyed several delicious dinners, including one of “fantastic specialities” at the Le Quattro Stagioni restaurant on the outskirts of Milan. There were also one or two night-club visits, and Ingvar shared the following piece of advice: “Campari Bitter is a lovely drink, but don’t start too early in the morning.”

Italy came to be an important country for Ingvar, not just for purchasing and manufacturing. In one letter, he writes about wanting to “spend a few weeks lying in salty Mediterranean waters, to preserve me before I go into winter storage”, referencing the severe Swedish climate. It was also in Italy, on a trip to Capri, that he met his wife, Margaretha. But that’s another story.