Retail shock therapy

Self-confessed shopping phobic Hugh Pearman pays an unavoidable visit to Habitat and is pleasantly surprised at Tom Dixon’s user-friendly creation

I quite like spending money, when I have any, but nobody could ever accuse me of being a shopper. The idea that some people derive pleasure from the act of shopping is to me a strange, perverse one. Shopping is how I imagine skiing to be (never having done it, and happy to keep it that way): a gruelling, thankless, expensive chore masquerading as entertainment.

For this reason my clothes are generally a disgrace, because the thought of seeking out new ones fills me with dread. Nobody outside the world of the homeless can make clothes last as long as I do. I am not proud of this fact. I am ashamed. No doubt I am precisely the target market for on-line catalogue shopping, and, indeed, I dabble.

However, there are times when you have to enter shops. One of those occasions is when you have just moved house.

Having just moved house, I have to shop. I cannot delegate it like all the other onerous tasks. I had to buy, for instance, a highly specialised pair of pliers. So specialised, I amazed myself by knowing they existed. These pliers can do only one thing: remove a particular kind of spring clip, shaped like a horseshoe. The spring clips in question were to be found inside all the door handles in my house. Don’t ask why I had to remove them all, I just did. But that was an easy purchase. You go to an ironmongers – a nice kind of shop, in my view, full of interesting things – and describe the thing you want. Ironmongers, like pharmacists, are skilled at interpreting incoherent requests. Sorted. But other domestic goods – particularly those requiring aesthetic judgement, which means anything to do with interior decoration – are far more daunting.

Which is why I am very, very, grateful to Tom Dixon. Dixon is head of design at Habitat, and Habitat is a store I had not been near for years. Well, that’s not quite true. In fact, I had been into Habitat many times in recent years, and had usually emerged empty-handed. It had lost its way even before it slipped from Terence Conran’s grasp. But it fulfils, or ought to, a vital need. It attempts that old William Morris ideal of good, low-cost design. Of course, Habitat is owned by Ikea, which knows all about that, but to shop at Ikea is to flirt with madness. It can tip you over the edge.

Habitat is also cheap, and I needed cheap. Anyone who has just had miles of Vitsoe 606 shelving installed in their home – the best shelving system in the world, designed by Dieter Rams, not exactly bargain-basement stuff – needs cheap very badly. Vitsoe 606 is as much a design classic as a Corbusier recliner or an Eileen Gray table, except that it escapes cliché. It is the storage solution that Charles and Ray Eames should have designed, only they weren’t German enough. Like my clothes, it will last forever. Unlike them, it will never embarrass me.

However, having paid for the shelving system, I needed Habitat to put a brake on the financial outflow while there were still finances to flow out. I did not, to be honest, expect much. But after tangling with John Lewis for some weeks, I needed a retailer with design sense.

Dixon, you are a genius. Habitat has become very good. It was not so much the excellence of individual items in the shop – though I found myself in the unfamiliar position of wanting to buy a lot, all at once. No, it was to do with the general air of purpose about the store. Everything felt coordinated. There seemed to be an underlying intelligence at work. If it’s not all Dixon’s doing, even better: he is not alone. And now he has signed up Matthew Hilton as the Habitat furniture maestro, which can only be good.

You’ll know about Dixon’s campaign to revive great modernist designs of the past at Habitat. It worked for me. Having picked up a pair of silver venetian blinds, I paused at some long cream curtains, printed with Lucienne Day’s spiky, early 1950s Graphica textile design. Strange to think that Robin and Lucienne Day were once design coordinated at John Lewis. I don’t think I’ve willingly bought a pair of ready-made curtains in my life, but I bought those. And, to hold them up, a rather nice slender gunmetal rail with invisible fixings. I even put them up, and they’re delicious.

Respect is due to Dixon. We have a design-led, low-cost high street retailer again. And I even enjoyed myself shopping there. True, one of my two blinds fell into a thousand pieces the moment it came out of its box, but I don’t think we can blame Dixon for that. It gives me a reason to go back, and I feel pretty good about it. Never mind what’s happening to Habitat – what’s happening to me?

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