It was the shop that gave Brits a passion for interior design, introducing us to flat-pack furniture, bean bags and a peculiar item of bedding called the duvet…
On 10 May 1964, The Sunday Times ran a story about a new furniture store that was about to open in London. ‘We see ourselves as the Mary Quant of the furniture world,’ said the store’s founder, a 32-year-old restaurateur, designer and entrepreneur named Terence Conran.
Habitat opened its doors at 9.30am the following morning. Located on Fulham Road, in an area that was rapidly becoming the heart of Swinging London, this was a furniture store unlike any other of the time.
Its decor and stock were a game-changer for a generation of shoppers who grew up with furniture rationing and three-piece suites that were made to last a lifetime.
‘Habitat purchasers will live with their furniture, not alongside it – as my mother did,’ novelist Angela Carter later wrote. ‘My mother always thought her mahogany table was too good to use as a table. It inhabited the rarely used dining room like a rich lodger.’
What made Habitat really special was its innovative European stock. Conran’s genius came in offering customers stuff they might want… once they knew it existed. Habitat was the first British store to sell duvets, which Conran had ‘discovered’ while he was in Sweden.
At first, the British public wasn’t totally convinced that a ‘continental quilt’ could replace their sheets and blankets, and they were bought mainly for children. However, sales steadily increased once shoppers received instructions in the Habitat catalogue on how to use them. ‘A few shakes and in 20 seconds the job is done. That’s how you make your bed.’ Freed from the tyranny of hospital corners, Sixties housewives embraced the idea, and the duvet became a hit. Conran would later go further, claiming that his popularisation of the duvet had ‘revolutionised the sex life of Europe’.
Habitat’s kitchenware was also exciting – the terracotta chicken brick, which roasted chicken to perfection without the need for cooking oil, became a wedding list staple. The wok, introduced in 1966, came with an instruction booklet and recipes because nobody had any idea what ‘stir-fry’ meant. As Britons began travelling to Europe on package holidays, many brought back a taste for continental cuisine and a desire to experiment with foods and flavours. Fortunately, Habitat could provide the correct utensils.
But perhaps its greatest influence of all was in the living room. In place of chintz, dark wood and family hand-me-downs came Japanese paper lanterns, oriental rugs and brightly coloured bean bags. The furniture itself was ultra-modern – a bentwood rocker, a Robin Day sofa – but most
revolutionary of all was that you could take some of it away in a box and build it yourself. Conran did not invent flat-pack furniture, but his store was certainly responsible for making it popular and affordable, particularly with the younger generation.
But Habitat’s success was not to last. By the mid-Eighties, it might have had 47 stores around the globe, but it was losing its way. Quality declined, earning it the nickname ‘Shabitat’, and then, on 1 October 1987, IKEA opened its first UK store, in Warrington. IKEA sold similar products… but cheaper, and with kids’ playgrounds and cafés. Conran withdrew from the business he’d created in 1990, focusing instead on more high-end design.
Did you know?
Habitat’s UK operation was bought by IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad in 1992, but it went into administration in 2011. Habitat, UK, is now owned by Sainsbury’s.