Five Habitat products that changed the home
- 14 May 2014
- From the section Magazine
It's been 50 years since Habitat's first branch opened, with a mission to bringing affordable, well-designed furniture and homeware to the masses. Here are five of their most influential products.
With only three main outlets left in the UK, it may be hard for some to remember how Habitat revolutionised the home.
But the first store - which was opened by Sir Terence Conran on London's Fulham Road on 11 May 1964 - led to a sea change in home styling, especially among the middle classes.
The chain is credited with introducing a raft of exotic, "Continental" products such as Le Creuset casserole dishes, Sabatier knives and woks.
Here are five other products that Habitat helped bring to the home.
The Magistretti Modello 115 chair - made from stained beech with a rush seat - was one of the first products retailed by Habitat in the early 1960s.
"It was something he imported from Italy which sold from at least 1964 to 1974, and really sums up Conran's desire for good design from Continental Europe," says Alex Goddard, curator of Geffrye Museum (The Museum of the Home).
She says the chairs - one of which resides in the museum - appealed to the "young, funky swinging 60s Londoner". "In a way Habitat was the Biba of the furniture world," she says.
Conran agreed. In the late 60s he is reported to have said: "Bright young chicks have got to have a red Magistretti chair the way they've got to have a Sally Tuffin and a Marion Foale dress."
The Modello also has a place in traditional furniture-making because the rush seat has been used for centuries, according to Goddard. "It is more of an updated version of a traditional form than an innovative form which went on to influence future designs," she says.
The Continental Quilt - now better known as the duvet - is said to have arrived at Habitat after Conran slept under one in Sweden. The bedding had been available in the UK for some time in the more avant-garde catalogues, but again Habitat made them almost ubiquitous.
Old Habitat catalogues included instructions on how to use them: "A few shakes and in 20 seconds the job is done. That's how you make your bed."
Goddard says a large part of their success coincided with women joining the workplace. "It was time-saving and made making a bed - which at that time involved sleeping under layers of sheets and blankets - much more easy and convenient."
Habitat says at first the duvet was seen as "distinctly European, distinctly sexy - distinctly un-British". A 1973 catalogue also created a controversy when it was shown covering the modesty of a sleeping mixed-race couple.
However the duvet became an instant hit. Conran is reported to have once said his popularisation of the duvet "revolutionised the sex life of Europe".
The chicken brick
The terracotta chicken brick was introduced to Habitat in 1968. The ceramic device - designed by duo David Queensbury and Martin Hunt - was a modern take on a primitive cooking tool that dated back to the Romans, which kept the chicken moist while ensuring it browned during roasting. It effectively operated like a small oven within the oven, allowing the chicken to cook in its own juices without the addition of fat.
"Each chicken brick was sold with a recipe card, to persuade customers of its versatility.
"Habitat's influence in the kitchen was huge during the 1960s as it also introduced the wok in 1966 and had to be sold with an instruction and recipe book as nobody had heard of the idea of stir-frying," Habitat says.
The head of De Montfort University's School of Design, Stuart Lawson, says the products played a big part in introducing oriental cooking in the 1970s.
"There was more of a foodie culture, an enjoyment in the aesthetic process of making food that the Japanese and French had that we were just finding," he says. The clay pottery piece became a wedding present staple in the 1970s, but often ended up being used as a pen and paper-clip store in kitchens.
The Robin Day
The Robin Day chair and sofa range - designed by Robin Day, who came to prominence when he designed the seating for London's Royal Festival Hall - was brought to Habitat in 1999. It was first designed to make a striking modernist statement in 1964.
Product design expert Philip Davies, from Kingston University, says the collaboration which brought "one of the UK's best ever furniture designers" to a High Street store was "hugely influential". "It proved contemporary design both had a market and was embedded in the hearts of the public. Habitat fostered this relationship between designer and public often acting as a catalyst that promoted design but also delivering a lifestyle."
Other modern classics such as the Tord Boontje lampshade made out of etched metal leaves wrapped around the bulb also took off around the same time. "From the designers view Habitat forged working methods that aligned manufacturing, contemporary design thinking with the aspirations of a demanding public. This approach changed the game and still influences we work in design today," says Davies.
Ikea is often thought of as the brand that brought self assembly to the masses in the UK. The Swedish business may have mastered the art of the slick flat-pack production line, but back in 1952, Conran was already pioneering flat-pack furniture. "He didn't invent flat-pack, but he was the first to popularise it and find a commercially astute way to make it available to a bigger proportion of the market," says Goddard. "He tried to concentrate on areas that he could distribute with a low overhead - stack them high, sell them cheap type of thing. The flexible piece of furniture lent itself to a younger population that was more on the move."
Flat-pack furniture - or "knock-down" (known as KD) - was stocked in Habitat stores from the mid-1960s. Instructions and all the parts could be taken away in a carton or ordered through catalogues.
Lawson thinks the kick-starting of the UK's flat-pack revolution in the early 1970s was Habitat's most significant contribution to furniture innovation.
Goddard agrees. The Campus range - mostly epitomised by the three-seater sofa manufactured by Lupton Morton in 1968 - marked an important expansion of the flat-pack market, particularly for expanding numbers of students in digs setting up home, she adds.