When I was a teenager, the interiors brand Habitat represented adulthood. My parents had furnished our home in a typically English cheerful but chintzy style, with a flowery sofa sitting amid patterned carpeting and wallpaper. The Habitat store on King’s Road in London was a different proposition: a little more Scandinavian, a little more French, a lot less cluttered. It felt…sophisticated.
Once I had a home of my own, it contained quite a few items from Habitat. The brand’s founder was the late Sir Terence Conran – he died in September 2020 – who over the years had become something of a hero of mine. When I realised that Habitat was no longer under his control, I switched my allegiance to The Conran Shop, makers of the sofa I can see as I write on my (Habitat) kitchen table.
An exhibition at the Design Museum in London, The Conran Effect, pays homage to the designer and his indelible influence on British lifestyles. As the introduction notes, “his ideas revolutionized everyday life, changing the way we eat, shop, and live today”.
Although Conran’s solutions were tasteful – and The Conran Shop is pricey – luxury was not central, rather “the premise that form and function could come together in a timeless way to improve the quality of life”.
Conran studied at the Central School of Art and Design (later part of the legendary Central St Martin’s) and eventually started his own design firm. An early impact on popular culture came when he designed a store for Mary Quant, the ultimate Swinging Sixties fashion designer.
Quant also provided the outfits for Habitat staff when the store launched in 1964. As the Design Museum’s description puts it, Habitat “presented an image of a complete way of life, putting furniture, fabrics and cookware together”. Everything from chairs to mugs to the then-revolutionary duvets were available.
Photo source: Design Museum, London
By the 1990s Conran was a ubiquitous figure in the UK media, casually dapper with cigar in hand, overseeing spacious restaurants, a retail empire and even urban regeneration: under his watch the neglected riverside area known as Shad Thames, below Tower Bridge, became a thriving hub of eateries, shops – and the Design Museum itself, which Conran founded.
His design philosophy felt accessible because it was: he wrote a great deal of books about it. Now, with the opening of the exhibition, there’s another opportunity to dip into his world. And if you can’t make it to London, the accompanying book is called Terence Conran: Making Modern Britain.
The exhibition is open until January 2022.