Home sweet home

Hugh Pearman looks at Habitat over the years and with its firm belief in design, how it intends to progress the empire in the future

I don’t know of any other retail organisation that is so aware of its patrimony as Habitat. Habitat is very self-absorbed, very aware that it has a reputation to live up to. Very aware, too, of a time when it slipped, lost direction, rapidly found itself with a lot of ground to make up. And this it is now doing, at a rate of knots.

This makes me happy because I am of the Habitat generation, and thus feel faintly possessive about the place. When Terence Conran opened his first store on London’s Fulham Road on 11 May 1964, I was eight. Conran found the name by looking in a Roget’s Thesaurus under ‘home’, and liked it because it was also an anagram of the name of his cat, Tabitha. Doubtless all this was in The Observer and The Telegraph weekend colour supplements my parents took at the time, but I don’t remember encountering Habitat until my teens.

By which time, the trendier parents of my friends trooped off to Brighton or Bromley (then the nearest stores to my home town on the Kent/ Sussex borders) to invest in – what was it? Brown hessian wallcoverings, in the case of one divorced mum. And, of course, all sorts of pots, glasses and vaguely hippyish things. I think I have a memory of the legendary chicken brick, but this may be false.

As for my own parents, they weren’t Habitat people, despite having a modern, architect-designed, semi-open-plan house that might have been made for the brand. They were (in furniture terms) Ercol and G-Plan people. This, I think, was because they didn’t agree with travelling long distances to buy stuff. I never thought about this until now, but one result of this was that, for me, Habitat came to represent a kind of aspirational living.

Consequently, my first flat in London, just down from university in the mid-1970s, naturally had to be furnished from Habitat. Along with a somewhat nauseous colour scheme of chocolate brown, harvest yellow and bright orange, we had those scooped foam chairs upholstered in cord that seemed designed to promote poor posture and were therefore ideal for slumping into, under the influence of the standard intoxicants. These chairs have now achieved semi-classic status, since they appear on the Habitat website in its ‘history’ section. Yes, their website has a history section. That’s how admirably self-conscious the outfit is.

So it went on, with Habitat always a fruitful grazing-ground for reasonably cheap stuff you wouldn’t be ashamed of, until the latter days of Conran’s Storehouse empire, when he spread his talents too thin, and then bailed out. Then came the interregnum, and then came the purchase by Ikea. I still occasionally dropped into Habitat for old times’ sake, but I stopped buying anything as it was too depressing. Until one day, 18 months back, when I went there, looked around, and thought: Blimey, this is good. We were into the Tom Dixon era. And the reason I have troubled you with this personal history is that Dixon too is of the Habitat generation. It’s part of his past as well. In other words, the people now responsible for what gets sold in Habitat are not just imported suits. They are people who have a personal, high regard for it as an institution.

Dixon arrived, then signed up Matthew Hilton for the furniture and Georgina Godley for ‘home accessories’. Because of the lead time to get new designs into production, the effect took a while to filter through. But by the time I went to talk to Dixon in his Tottenham Court Road studio in central London, earlier this year, things were motoring.

The first thing I noticed, apart from the reassuring clutter of the design studios, was the framed photo of Sir Terence. Dixon had found it knocking about the place in a mass of detritus that was about to be thrown out. He rescued it. The Habitat organisation, he determined, was not going to write Conran out of history. On the contrary, it was going to embrace him.

Conran and Dixon talk to each other a lot. Conran keeps a fatherly eye on the stores. It is a thoroughly ad-hoc arrangement – he has no official connection with Habitat any more, hasn’t had for over a dozen years – but Dixon, to his credit, finds it entirely natural and desirable that Conran should still be protective of the store he invented. ‘He rings me up if I get something wrong – if he feels that some wrong item has slipped into the range. He’s watching all the time. That really shows an interest, Conran really is authentically interested. He’s interested in the products that are sold – rather than being interested only in selling products,’ says Dixon.

Dixon is keenly aware that his task is entirely different from the young Conran’s. He was starting a new retail concept from scratch. Dixon has given himself the job of reinventing it in the spirit of the original, which in some respects is a more difficult task. On the plus side, he has an established entity. On the minus side, well, it’s an established entity. ‘It’s a middle-aged company, which is very different to how it was when it was created. It was all about the feel of the thing at the beginning, the taste’. At which point he pauses, searching for an image to convey the difference in attitude between Conran and other retailers, and finally adds, ‘ you know Conran, he loves to pick everything up, look underneath’.

Habitat is still associated with Conran to a surprising extent in the English public mind, but France is another story. Despite Habitat’s presence there since 1973, the French operation is currently the Achilles heel of the organisation – but Dixon admires and wants to recreate the adventurous feel of those early Habitats. Not recreate in the sense that he has dug up some classics and put them back on sale. Dixon doesn’t want the stores to become replicas of their 1960s or 1970s incarnations. What he wants to do is recapture some of the freshness of e e attitude that used to mark the stores out.

They had an informal but strong identity. When we met, he spoke of Galt Toys or Sainsbury’s as other retailers that spoke to people very clearly, if differently, at that time. Habitat, however, was at first genuinely shocking, with its supermarket-style baskets, background music playing, staff dressed in Mary Quant uniforms with Vidal Sassoon haircuts. This need to get to grips with the stores clearly rides high in his mind – because he wants to do it very badly, but it is not officially his job. Dixon and his team are there to design and source products. The look of the stores is – or was -in the hands of others. But he has it in his sights.

Appearances can deceive, but I didn’t get the impression that Dixon was being crushed by bureaucracy from his Ikea bosses – although as he pointed out, the somewhat anonymous Swedish way of doing business is the polar opposite of Conran’s personality-based methods. It seemed to me that he had a great deal of freedom, that the design studio was being run almost as an independent entity. The atmosphere there was certainly very uncorporate. But at first it must have been a rather lonely job. Having Hilton and Godley now in the same space with him is not just a matter of getting in good designers – it’s clearly also a matter of mutual support. Which is in itself interesting, for Hilton, as a furniture designer, is famed for working solo. His was always the garret existence. But again, that image is misleading. A designer like Hilton works a great deal in teams with manufacturers. Working with Dixon and Godley at Habitat HQ is a bit like that – and also, I would imagine, a bit like college days all over again. Which is brilliant: what other retailer has a bunch of exceptionally talented overgrown students looking after its image?

So let’s see what all this is leading to. If you’ve been to Habitat lately, you’ll certainly see a new sensibility in the range on offer. There’s a clear design eye apparent – modern, but with an unmistakable touch of wit. There’s also a Conran-like weakness for the ingenious, space-saving package. But the big stuff is still to come. This autumn and winter, you will find the BasicDeluxe range rolled out across the stores. Dixon has written the manifesto for this, and it makes interesting reading.

‘It’s a way of looking at the world, demanding luxury in the everyday and saying that mundane tasks need no longer be shabby or dull. It’s an attitude that’s very much in keeping with Habitat’s founding principles,’ says Dixon.

Then Dixon gets a bit carried away. It’s ‘making the everyday more gorgeous’, or ‘the mundane made magnificent’, and so on. Godley says the same thing in different words. For her, ‘It’s giving the establishment a modern slant. Taking things associated with lavish lifestyles and making them in basic materials.’

As for Hilton, for him it’s about ‘affordable designer classics’. Rather than select his own work, he chooses the latest pieces from the 20th Century Legends series – a 1960s clock by Kenneth Grange (though he wrongly goes on to attribute the design of London’s taxicabs to Grange). There’s a Marc Newson ashtray and a never-previously-produced 1948 side cabinet design (Forma) by Robin Day.

‘Day is a classic BasicDeluxe designer. The consideration of comfort, ergonomics and function that goes into his work is amazing. It’s what makes his furniture so beautiful,’ says Hilton.

I find this kind of talk, for all its PR hype, very revealing. For a start, great play was made, at the press launch of BasicDeluxe, of the designers themselves. Dixon, Hilton and Godley were given centre stage, not hidden away like some guilty secret. Design being put first – that in itself augurs well for the company. Then comes the relationship between our three chums and the previous designer generation – the Days, Grange, Conran himself. Far from reacting against them, they are consciously learning from the ideals of those that Dixon affectionately refers to as ‘the old codgers’. In conversation with him, it becomes clear why. Those people, emerging in the years after the Second World War, believed, and still believe, in improving people’s lives through design. They had, and still have, a mission. It is the same mission as William Morris.

In the hands of others, that mission became lost, diverted into cynical profit-making, or ephemeral fashion objects. Even people like Dixon and Hilton, like Morris before them, found themselves designing excellent, but expensive, furniture for rich people. But the old codgers reminded them of the true goal of democratic design – the goal of the greatest good for the greatest number. Paradoxically, the best way to achieve that goal is through the ordering and purchasing power of a large commercial organisation. And that organisation is Habitat. Which is why they are there.

These people have not sold out. They have bought in. They are not cynical. They are idealistic. Will their strategy work? Can they take Habitat successfully and profitably in this new direction? There is a lot of risk involved. If things go awry, their heads are on the block. But a glance at the shops today – and at what is going to hit the shops soon – tells you that if anyone deserves to succeed, they do.

Habitat – the business

Habitat was founded in 1964 by Terence Conran. His first outlet famously opened in London at 77 Fulham Road, with a vision to sell ‘good design to the mass market’, as he explained to House & Garden magazine in 1967. Its first catalogue was issued in 1964, with a wedding list service launched in 1970. The Habitat chain expanded across the UK, opening in France in 1973, then across Europe and the US.

Habitat floated in 1981, with over 50 stores and a year later, Conran used the business to acquire the Mothercare chain, adding Habitat rival Heals to its new retail empire the following year. Three years later, in 1986, Habitat became part of the £1.2bn Storehouse Group, formed to encompass the newly-acquired British Home Stores.

But the Storehouse formula never proved itself to be a successful one and Conran bought out of the group in 1990, during the troubles of the economic recession. The publicly-owned company continued to underperform, according to the Financial Times.

‘Since the [Storehouse] group was created in 1986 its shares have underperformed the market by 96.6 per cent and its own sector by 91 per cent,’ read a report by the FT last year.

Habitat was also losing money. In 1991, Habitat in Europe lost £1.1m on sales of £172m. Its US operation, Conran’s Habitat, was also failing, eventually forcing Storehouse to look for buyers for each.

Storehouse sold Habitat’s European operations, 37 French and Spanish Stores and 39 UK stores, to Ikea holding group Stichting Ingka at the end of 1992 for a cash and loans deal worth £78m. The chain continued to expand under Vittorio Radice of Selfridges fame, opening for a time in Italy in 1996. Today, aside from the UK, it has stores in Germany, Spain, Ireland, and France. In the UK, Habitat now has 40 stores and reported sales to March 2000 of £140m.

Current owner, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, was most recently reported to be passing control of the chain to each of his three sons in turn, in a bid to find a successor for his £19bn Ikea empire.

Habitat design recruits

1992: Vittorio Radice is appointed managing director at Habitat. Gregorio Cappa is recruited from Cappellini as head of furniture

1996: Radice leaves Habitat to become managing director at Selfridges

1999: Tom Dixon is appointed head of design. Previously the UK’s head manager, he takes over from group design director Laure de Gaudmaris

2000: Dixon recruits furniture designer Matthew Hilton and fashion designer Georgina Godley to join the retailer’s design team

2001: The inhouse team consists of: Matthew Hilton – head of furniture Georgina Godley – in charge of new store concepts Nick Green – design manager, furniture Bethan Gray – design manager, furniture Matt Hobbs – design manager, tabletop Ross Menuez – design manager, lighting Nikky Jones – design manager, textiles Art direction, design and photography of press material and design of in-store graphics by Graphic Thought Facility Creative direction and design of annual catalogues by Skeen and Co New stores interiors design and architecture by architect Gerard Taylor

2001: Digit is appointed to revamp the Habitat website, due to launch in September 2001. It takes over from digital group Pixelpark

2001: Habitat launches plans for a trial concept store in Hamburg

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