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Copyright Sebastian Ballard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Habitat Catalogued

Report of the lecture
given by Caroline McDonald Haig
on October 23rd 2013

Terence Conran founded Habitat in 1963 when he was 32.  He was something of a boy wonder as by this age he had already worked on textiles and gardens in the Festival of Britain, opened a showroom exhibiting his furniture in Piccadilly, been involved in the foundation of a restaurant in Knightsbridge called the Soup Kitchen, and had a factory employing 80 people working on the design of fabrics and furniture.  Even at school at Bryanston he had tremendous self-belief and Mary Quant's husband, a fellow pupil, described him as a surly boy with strong ideas about design.

A trip to France in 1953 with Michael Wickham, a photographer for House and Garden, left him deeply impressed by markets with their sense of abundance which was a concept he later strove to replicate in Habitat which he founded as a showcase for his furniture after a disappointing reception of his designs at the London Furniture Exhibition.  The first store opened in Fulham Road, Chelsea in 1963 showcasing Conran's designs but other designers were included.  He quickly realised that the kitchen is the heart of the home and began to include beautifully laid out kitchenware in the basement.  You might not want to buy a sofa but you might buy a saucepan.  The timing of the opening was perfect in what went on to be described as the swinging sixties.  Post war Britain starved of colour and fed up with old designs was ready for a change and the press and public loved it from the start.

In 1971 Habitat produced its first catalogue, an innovative action as it was the first time a retailer had presented products in this way.  In 2011 a copy of this catalogue was sold on ebay for 112.  In 1972 our lecturer, Caroline MacDonald Haig, arrived at Habitat working as assistant and general dogsbody to David Phillips, Terence Conran's right hand man.  She was a colleague of Stafford Cliff, a brilliant young designer, and described her years at Habitat as “chaotic, terrifying and exhausting”.  Her work involved copy writing and the staging of sets for the catalogues; she felt that after three years working with Conran you could design anything.  The offices were in an old paper warehouse in Covent Garden.  A vast space with no partitions, it was perfect for building sets.  Antique dealers were encouraged to lend furniture and artefacts to give glamour to layouts showing basic flat pack furniture designed for students.  Staff were used in pictures to save money.  Industrial shelving, civil service cabinets painted in white and bright colours, old oil drums vividly painted and brilliantly coloured light fittings all helped to create a contemporary and exciting scene.

Ideas came thick and fast and were beautifully staged in the new catalogues.  Notions conceived in morning meetings were taken down to the basement and prototypes were ready next day.  Products were innovative and fun.  Colours were strong, bright, often with an Indian influence, and fabrics had names like Elvis and Groovy.  Folding chairs sold for 5.25 each.  Duvets, unpopular until renamed from the French word for duck down, were an immediate success, as were spaghetti jars which were almost impossible to find in Britain at a time when the public was discovering pasta.  Habitat produced them in two sizes and one purchaser complained that her spaghetti jar broke when she filled it with water and put it on the gas hob.  When asked why she did this she explained it was too big to fit into her oven.  The chicken brick, based on an old method of cooking in terracotta, was so popular that the young potter could not keep up with the orders, and kitchenware was redesigned in thick colourful plastic.  Famous artists produced posters and a Charles Eames chair was reupholstered in William Morris fabric.  William Morris's maxim that you should have nothing in your house that is not useful or you believe to be beautiful was very much in tune with Terence Conran's thinking.  In 1974 the House book sold 2,000,000 copies - a tribute to his vision.

Caroline MacDonald Haig left Habitat when catalogue production moved to Wallingford.  Habitat continued to grow and expand but in 1990 Terence Conran lost control of the company.  Under different management Habitat went into receivership in 2009.  A man of many passions including architecture, gardening and cookery, Sir Terence had a successful new career founding many famous restaurants.  He remains active in many spheres of design, currently designing a range of furniture for Marks and Spencer, and is also involved with the New Design Museum scheduled to open in 2014.  At 82 he has no intention of retiring.

His lasting influence on British design has been and continues to be immense.  He is quoted as saying he would never design anything he could not make himself.  He feels that good design should be available to all echoing the Bauhaus principles he absorbed at the Central School of Art and design that good design should be available to the whole community and not just a few.  This he has certainly achieved.

Ann Brookes

Related Links (open in new window):

Conran website
Design Museum - Terence Conran biography

Caroline McDonald Haig
who gave us an insightful view of Habitat