The first branch of Habitat opened in Chealsea in 1964. Over the next 25 years the chain expanded to include 71 branches spread across Europe, of which 35 were in the UK. Terence Conran’s vision for the chain was to broaden the horizons of shoppers – introducing international tastes to an eager audience.
A Reputation for Quality
Habitat sold exotic products, and designer goods – some lines that Terence Conran came up with himself, others produced by carefully selected designers. Habitat introduced a lot of innovations to British life, from the duvet and the bean bag, to the garlic press and the wok.
The Habitat of old sold designer products that were high quality. They were well made, and long lasting. However, the brand failed to move with the times. Their expensive, futuristic designs went out of fashion, and as consumers moved towards the retro look, Habitat failed to update their product lines to reflect changing interests.
Terence Conran took an active role in Habitat’s product design and selection during the 1960s and 1970s, but when he moved on to explore other avenues of business, things went downhill. Aside from a brief collaboration with Tom Dixon in the early 2000’s, the brand lacked direction for many years, and there was nobody to really capture the imagination of modern consumers.
The current fashion is for wooden floors, big windows, oak doors, and retro furnishings, with World War II slogans and nostalgic paintings remembering a time long gone. Habitat’s futuristic, optimistic designs were simply not in demand.
The Legacy of Conran
Terence Conran has explored many different businesses throughout his life, and has also been a big supporter of the Design Museum. In his honour, the museum is running an exhibition which will explore his career, highlighting the innovations he brought to the country.
The Habitat retail chain may no longer be the success that it was under Conran, but many of his design ideas live on. Habitat’s trademark Black Leather Forum sofa, the Japanese Paper Lantern, the Duvet, and even the futuristic dining chair, are all things that Conran introduced to the UK. All of these things are still popular, alongside the retro fashions of today.
Modern interior design is, as with modern pop culture, a mash-up of designs from many different decades and many different countries. Conran’s personal designs, and his eye for quality produced by other designers, means that he created something that has had a much bigger lasting effect than anything most other designers could ever dream of.
Behind the oak doors and roman blinds popular in so many homes, there’s almost always something of Conran’s legacy. The modern kitchen benefited a lot from Conran’s foresight, and white the bean bag is now relegated to the status of a child’s toy, the duvet is almost ubiquitous in the bedroom. It’s unfortunate that without Conran’s guidance, the retail icon has fallen so far.