X Close

How Habitat made Britain’s middle class Sixty years on, young professionals have lost their aspiration

Terence Conran sold a life of tasteful hedonism. Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Terence Conran sold a life of tasteful hedonism. Thurston Hopkins/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


May 13, 2024   5 mins

An elegantly dressed woman is polishing her nails, looking into the camera with a kind of feline arrogance. Before her on the dressing table lies a beautiful pair of hairbrushes, while in the background a young man is making the bed, straightening the duvet with a dramatic flick. This photograph appeared in a 1973 catalogue by Habitat, the home furnishing shop founded by Terence Conran. It gives us a sense of the brand’s appeal during its heyday. The room is stylish but comfortable, the scene full of sexual energy. This is a modern couple, the man performing a domestic task while the woman prepares for work. The signature item is the duvet, a concept Habitat introduced to Britain, which stood for both convenience and cosmopolitan style (Conran discovered it in Sweden, and called it a “continental quilt”).

As we mark Habitat’s sixtieth birthday, all of this feels strangely current. Sexual liberation, women’s empowerment and the fashionable status of European culture are still with us. The duvet’s victory is complete: few of us sleep under blankets or eiderdowns. But most familiar is how the Habitat catalogue wove these products and themes into a picture of a desirable life. It turned the home into a stage, a setting for compelling and attractive characters. This is a species of fantasy we now call lifestyle marketing, and we are saturated with it. Today’s brands offer us prefabricated identities, linking together ideals, interests and aesthetic preferences to suggest the kind of person we could be. It was Habitat that taught Britain to think and dream in this way.

The first shop opened on London’s Fulham Road in 1964, a good moment to be reinventing the look and feel of domestic life. New materials and production methods were redefining furniture — that moulded plastic chair with metal legs we sat on at school, for instance, was first designed in 1963. After decades of depression, rationing and austerity, the British were enjoying the fruits of the post-war economic boom, discovering new and enlarged consumer appetites. The boundaries separating art from popular culture were becoming blurred, and Britain’s longstanding suspicion of modern design as lacking in warmth and comfort was giving way. Habitat combined all of these trends to create something new. It took objects with an elevated sense of style and brought them down to the level of consumerism, with aggressive marketing, a steady flow of new products and prices that freshly graduated professionals could afford.

But Habitat was not just selling brightly coloured bistro chairs and enamel coffee pots, paper lampshades and Afghan rugs. It was selling an attitude, a personality, a complete set of quirks and prejudices. Like the precocious young Baby Boomers he catered for, Conran scorned the old-fashioned, the small-minded and suburban. And he offered a seductive alternative: a life of tasteful hedonism, inspired by a more cultured world across the channel. Granted, you would never fully realise that vision, but you could at least buy a small piece of it.

No one has better understood that strand of middle Britain which thinks of itself as possessing a creative streak and an open mind. The Habitat recipe, in one form or another, still caters to it. Modern but classic, stylish but unpretentious, with a dash of the foreign: this basic approach underpins the popularity of brands from Zara Home to Muji. It has proved equally successful in Conran’s other major line of business, restaurants: see Cîte, Gail’s Bakery or Carluccio’s (co-founded by Conran’s sister Priscilla). To one degree or another, these brands all try to balance a modicum of refinement with the reassurance that customers won’t feel humiliated when they examine the price tag.

Yet there was always something contradictory about this promise of good taste for the masses. In Britain, influential movements in design have been inspired by a disdain for vulgar, mass-produced goods since the Industrial Revolution. Conran liked to cite the great craftsman and designer William Morris — “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” — but Morris famously detested factory-made products. From the Thirties, proponents of modern design despaired at the twee aesthetics and parochial norms of petit-bourgeois life in the suburbs. The fashionable culture of the Swinging Sixties, Conran’s own milieu, likewise defined itself against the conventional majority. This was the era of John Lennon and the Rolling Stones after all.

“There was always something contradictory about this promise of good taste for the masses.”

In his outlook and his commercial ambitions, Conran tried to ignore such tensions: good design should be available to everyone. But they have inevitably come back to the surface. With the rise of Asian manufacturing, passable copies of classy or arty products are now as widespread as any other; think mass-produced ceramics that imitate artisanal imperfection. Similarly, successful Habitat-like brands have acquired corporate managers who force them to expand. Even an apparently exclusive institution such as Soho House, the private members’ club for wealthy creatives, is now a globe-spanning lifestyle brand with locations in dozens of cities and its own line in cosmetics, furniture and workspaces. These trends have made Conran’s vision of life appear increasingly hollow, because even in the absence of snobbery, it relied on a sense of originality, individuality and artistic inspiration. Such qualities are difficult to find when a product suddenly graces every living room and Pinterest board.

These same contradictions doomed Habitat itself. In the late-Eighties, Conran’s appetite got the better of him, and a botched effort to incorporate two other firms led to his ejection from the company. After 2000 the brand rarely made a profit, as it was passed along by a series of retail giants, including Ikea, Argos and Sainsbury’s. Like so much that was fresh and subversive in the Sixties, Habitat was absorbed by the mainstream, its lively identity reduced to a market segment and subject to the demands of accounting. Its famous shops were trimmed down to a handful of showrooms, and last year those closed as well. Today it is little more than the husk of a brand — a slightly upmarket, design-conscious Ikea — condemned to the purgatory of online retail, where every competitor has its endless thumbnail images of seemingly identical products.

A more serious problem is that, while we now have an overabundance of style, the “life” side of the equation has become increasingly sparse. The Boomers buying continental quilts were a generation on the up. They could plausibly imagine themselves moving towards the spacious and leisurely domestic life that Conran dangled before them. Most of those young professionals who entered work after 2008, by contrast, know they will never stack their French crockery in a French holiday home; they would be happy with a modestly sized apartment. So aspiration does not really capture the appeal of lifestyle consumerism for these embittered millennials. It is more a question of consolation, or escapism, or a desperate attempt to distinguish themselves from the mass market where they know they belong.

Then again, it increasingly feels like the whole notion of lifestyle was a recipe for dissatisfaction to begin with. Habitat emerged at a moment when traditional roles and social expectations were melting away; in their place, it proposed the idea of life as a work of art, an exercise in self-fashioning, with commodities and experiences guiding consumers towards a particular model of themselves. Today, with all the niches and subcultures spawned by network technology, there is no shortage of such identities on offer. If you like outdoor activities, you may find a brand community that combines this with certain political views and a style of fashion. If you like high-end cars, you might dream of occupying a branded condo in Miami or Dubai.

But these lives assembled from images remain just that: a collection of images, a fiction that can never fully be inhabited. It seems the best we can do is represent them in the same way they were presented to us, as a series of vignettes on Instagram, where the world takes on a idealised quality that is eerily reminiscent of those Habitat catalogues from decades ago. One gets the impression that we are not trying to persuade others of their reality so much as ourselves.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

wessiedutoit

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

18 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
14 days ago

I don’t understand this sentence. “The duvet’s victory is complete: few of us sleep under blankets or eiderdowns.” Here in Sweden, an eiderdown _is_ a duvet, indeed the very best sort. Ones made of other duck and goose down are also available — and cheaper. Synthetic ones are cheaper still, and also appeal to those allergic to feathers. Is the term ‘duvet’ only used for synthetic ones in the U. K. ?

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
14 days ago

An “eiderdown”, at least in the UK, has another name: a bedspread i.e. a covering material on top of blankets that looks less “blankety”. It’s actually got nothing to do with “eider” or “down”. I guess i’m showing my age here since most people born in the UK after about 1970 won’t remember an eiderdown.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
14 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Thank you!
We have bedspreads, too. My guest room has a bed, with a synthetic duvet (you never know if your guest is allergic) already made up for the use of the next visitor. And you put a bedspread over the top so that if it gets dusty between visitors it will be the bedspread that gets the dust so you won’t have to launder the bedding.
Does this mean that coverings like this don’t exist in the UK any more?

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
14 days ago

We would call such a covering a “throw”, so yes they exist.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
13 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan Smith

Thank you.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
14 days ago

As far as i’m aware (i’m no expert!) the UK bedspread/eiderdown was pretty much cosmetic, with a bit of additional warmth, rather than used for protective purposes.

Francisco Javier Bernal
Francisco Javier Bernal
13 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Essentially, similar to the Spanish “colcha”, you are supposed to pull it back leaving just the sheets and blankets… I hated the damned things growing up, either too cold or too hot, no breathability whatsoever. A few years later, I finally managed to convert my parents to bedding duvets or so I thought… it was utterly horrendous to see an “edredĂłn nĂłrdico” placed atop old fashioned blankets. Never felt more useless in my life

Glynis Roache
Glynis Roache
14 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Slight modification here : the original eiderdowns were full of feathers and down. Whether or not these came from the eider duck is debatable. Unlike duvets, eiderdowns were designed to be ornamental as well as warm. They were too heavily quilted and stuffed to drape. A bedspread or coverlet did that job between the eiderdown and the blankets, covering the divan base/bed’s legs. Let’s not get into the complication of valances. The eiderdown was frequently put away for the summer and the bedspread did the ornamental job.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
14 days ago
Reply to  Glynis Roache

Thanks for the correction! I bow to your greater knowledge in this matter.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
13 days ago
Reply to  Glynis Roache

Thank you. I have a much clearer picture now. We have ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ duvets and most people do swap their duvets out. There are guides for how to beat your feather duvet as part of the swapping process. You want the things as compressed as you can get them for storage but as fluffy as you can get them for use.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
14 days ago

The bed of my 1960’s youth would have had a sheet, then blanket, then eiderdown, then bedspread. The eiderdown would have been quilty, a bit like a duvet but not nearly as thick or warm. All came up to just under the pillow. The bedspread went over the pillow when the bed was made. It was usually candlewick.

The first time I came across a duvet was on a holiday to Austria in 1972. Compared to an eiderdown it was extremely thick and heavy.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
13 days ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Thank you!

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
14 days ago

It’s hard to imagine that there ever was a time before the concept of “life-style” overwhelmed the way we saw ourselves. I suppose we simply accepted each other as part of the landscape without so much need to categorize. Marketing and the profit motives of large companies have molded our culture in some very unhelpful ways.
A read a pertinent quote recently comparing life in Italy with the U.S. “The Italians still live in a society; we live in an economy.”
ï»żMore’s the pity.

David Morley
David Morley
13 days ago

Or how about: some countries have a culture. We just have marketing.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
13 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

Society develops organically; a web of little courtesies and understandings. Culture is more deliberate and more easily monetized. It attracts the kind of people who want to be gate-keepers.

David Morley
David Morley
11 days ago

I meant culture in the anthropological sense.

David Morley
David Morley
13 days ago

It was still known popularly as shabby tat – and I remember it’s almost unbearable middle classness being roundly mocked at the time.

David Morley
David Morley
13 days ago

No one has better understood that strand of middle Britain which thinks of itself as possessing a creative streak and an open mind.

Or put another way, no one has done a better job of selling tat to a particular strand of the middle classes by pandering to their pretentious and overinflated view of themselves. Oh wait a minute. Apple did an even better job of that. Though at least their products were genuinely innovative.