Design guru, retail and restaurant entrepreneur, and founder of Habitat stores Sir Terence Conran died over the weekend. It’s not an exaggeration to say he changed the way the British lived, and the way our houses and flats (and restaurants) look now is in large part due to him. His philosophy was that good design should be accessible to everyone and, before IKEA came to our shores, Habitat was where we bought well-designed, modern furniture and household goods at reasonable prices. Habitat did flat-pack furniture before them too.
The first Habitat opened on the Fulham Road in 1964 just as the country was about to climb out of drab, post-war austerity and start swinging. The stores were bright and modern, played pop music, and Conran sold a type of design that was new to Brits: simple Scandinavian furniture (there was a lot of pine) rustic French kitchenware, and minimal Japanese paper lampshades which were bought by the aspirational young generation who were the first to have holidays abroad and wanted some of that Continental sophistication in their own lives, not the ugly, old-fashioned crap their parents had. He introduced the nation to exotic items like woks, chicken bricks, modular shelving, and duvets — no more nylon sheets and blankets! — perfect for the professional young boys and girls about town who were getting their own flats or shacking up together.
We had that wooden corkscrew bottom right in the above photo, and just seeing it gave me a Proustian rush back to my youth which just goes to show you how much meaning can be imbued in even the simplest objects (Conran understood that). They probably made thousands of those but it had a simple, artisnal quality that made you think it had been hand-made by some old man in a Provence cottage. I’m sure it made my mum feel positively bohemian when she used it to open a bottle of Mateus Rosé.
When I got my first flat on my own in the late 80s I bought a couch and bed (and a duvet of course) from Habitat and felt enormously proud and grown-up to be furnishing my own place. They stayed with me through the next two places I lived and, far as I know, that couch could still be where I left it in a house in Hammermsith. OK, probably not but it’s a nice thought.
Download: Furniture Music – Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (mp3)