Rise and fall of the empire that shaped Britain's habitat

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Stephen Bayley mourns the demise of the original modern furniture chain – and picks the designs that defined its era

There never was – and still isn't – anything wrong with a chicken brick, one of the products that made Habitat's early reputation.

But Terence Conran was always irritated when lazy journalists used it as an eponym for his singular retail creation. The accusation of "stripped pine" made him even more cross. There never actually was any. But there was always a lot more to Habitat. News of its imminent demise, acquired by representatives of the very same high street mediocrity that it was designed to eradicate, is melancholy. An optimistic adventure in improving popular taste is over.

Habitat's great years were from 1964 to 1989 and are inseparable from the character of Conran. As a designer-maker of cheerful, clean, modernist furniture he had found selling to Fifties department stores a depressing business: oceans of brown furniture under bad lighting attended by cadaverous salesmen in ill-fitting suits was not an environment receptive to novelty. So, like the man who bought the razor, Conran opened a shop of his own. Caroline Charles dressed the staff in black jeans and polo necks. They played The Beatles on the sound system. This was in Chelsea; just two years later Time magazine declared London to be "swinging".

There is no single Habitat product that explains the phenomenon, although a great many products have, like the chicken brick, passed into collective memory. Especially among a new generation of graduates emerging from the concrete-and-glass universities created by the Robbins report, people who needed to buy their own furniture.

But Habitat was always as much an idea as a business. Although a very capable designer, Conran was ultimately more of an editor of merchandise, a synthesiser of genius, a motivator of people, a curator of ideas. There was a Habitat prototype in a store called Design Research in Boston. And Habitat brought to London a version of the furniture Conran had seen at the Milan Triennale. His own inspirations and companions were from that curious and engaging haut-boho elite: eccentric photographer and bon viveur Michael Wickham, or Philip Pollock, a maker of industrial foam and racing car amateur, or Ronnie Stennett-Wilson who introduced the British to the brightly coloured and boldly shaped Scandinavian glass of Kosta and Orrefors.

But Habitat's and Conran's occult inspiration was Elizabeth David, whose book Mediterranean Food was published the same year that the Festival of Britain introduced the country to the possibilities of sophisticated European pleasures. Mrs David revealed the quasi-erotic mysteries of lemon, oil, fresh tomatoes and garlic to a public starved of colour and taste.

It was only a small step from wanting to make ratatouille to needing the Provençal kitchen and batterie de cuisine to make it in. These, Conran's Habitat provided. His friend, David Hockney's dealer, John Kasmin, once told my friend with a weary sigh: "Terence's problem is just that he wants the whole world to have a better salad bowl." That was, indeed, the rather fine principle on which Habitat was based.

Habitat's growth was assisted in the Sixties and Seventies by Conran's comfortable relationship with journalism. Quite correctly, he despises the word "lifestyle", but this was what an endless series of articles presented. The proposition was: buy Habitat merchandise and you can live like me with beautiful people for delicious lunches in agreeable surroundings. His third wife, Caroline, who later became a Sunday Times journalist, composed the first Habitat catalogue which was printed on brown paper with a faux-typewriter font. I later became industriously involved in this same relationship. When Conran plucked me from the obscurity of a provincial university to extend his good works, I soon began giving (designed to be inspirational) lectures to his staff and writing little pieces about the essence of the Bauhaus for the now glossy Habitat catalogue.

For my generation, Habitat represented a belief system. I am too young to have visited the original stores, but I well remember the revelatory excitement of Habitat opening in Manchester and then Liverpool in the Seventies. Suddenly, all the modern stuff I had thought was only available in Helsinki, Stockholm or San Francisco, reviewed voyeuristically by me in architecture magazines, was now available at home.

Not only was this a personal redemption, it revealed an essential truth about design itself. Design was not to be the exclusive province of a bien pensant elite, but something to furnish your Didsbury flat. Here was, in the enamel mugs, basic teapots, campaign chairs and Bauhaus derivatives, convincing proof that the democratisation of luxury was a civilised possibility. The missionary zeal with which Habitat conquered new ground always had a proselytising educational character: Conran acted with the inflexible moral certainties of a Victorian panjandrum in his campaign against sadness and ugliness and squalor and crap. And this blurring of commerce and culture was confirmed when in 1979 he made a million shares in Habitat available to the educational charity I had created for him. On Habitat's flotation, these shares funded the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Design Museum which evolved from it.

The Habitat-funded Boilerhouse Project was a cheerful adventure which produced splendid anecdotes richly revealing of the tensions and absurdities in national life. Negotiating our tenancy of the basement in the V&A, the treasury solicitor sought from me an insurance that Conran did not intend to "trade" on the premises. The word really was in inverted commas. One day, Lady Di's stepmother came into my office and asked if I could get her a discount on some cutlery she wanted to buy from the Milton Keynes Habitat. A pompous fool of a keeper at the V&A told me we had traduced a great institution by putting a car on display as a masterpiece of design in the spiritual home of Giambologna.

When Mrs Thatcher opened The Design Museum in 1989, a 25-year cycle was at its end. The idea had been that, paid for by Habitat, the Boilerhouse Project and Design Museum would enlarge the constituency of design and inflame curious consumers to spend more money in the shops, thus, in an elegant virtuous circle, creating ever more funding for us to continue our design promotion. Then in 1990 Conran resigned as chairman of Storehouse, the clumsy retail conglomerate that had, during the insane mergers and acquisitions riot of the late Eighties, been parlayed into existence from the simple proposition of Habitat.

So where did an excellent idea go wrong? First, while Terence Conran's vividly creative personality was ideally suited to managing a coherent group of privately owned design shops, it was wholly unsuited to the grey and dismal disciplines of corporate governance and shareholder returns. Businesses need inspired leaders, as newspapers need editors, and after 1990 Habitat did not have a credible one.

Second, Ikea (which acquired Habitat in 1992) proved a poor custodian of a precious idea.

Meanwhile, undetained in its plans for global dominance by any educational, design, aesthetic or philanthropic principles, Ikea removed from Habitat any prospect of moving into or even influencing the volume home furnishing business. And, at the other end of the market, more nimble competitors became responsive to changing and more complex taste.

I know Terence Conran will groan when I say that Zara Home and OKA are selling some very interesting stuff which acknowledges that "design" has many interpretations.

But he should be pleased that when John Lewis is (at last) selling well-designed merchandise and you can buy an Eames chair in Peter Jones, it's evidence of the enduring success of the Sixties experiment that was Habitat.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first record. But while the name Habitat might be disappearing, an idea which has changed national life endures.

Because we no longer have to argue the case for design, because a sense of educated hedonism attends all shopping activity, because we all care about where we live, because there are decoration programmes on telly, because we have a better salad bowl.

All of this is because of Habitat. Terence Conran has to me been at various times a hero, patron, mentor, occasional antagonist and nowadays old friend.

We used to have some hilarious arguments which began with him holding an object and saying: "Tell me, my dear Stephen, is this or is this not good design?" With weaselly academic wriggle I often demurred, muttering,"It's not as simple as that, Terence."

But actually, I think it is. Or was.

Kilim

Ethnic products played an important part in Habitat's retail theatre. Kilims are colourful, patterned tapestries produced from the Balkans to Pakistan. They also softened the sometimes harsh environments of brick and bare wood which Habitat stores presented as a domestic ideal

Chicken brick

The often ridiculed terracotta chicken brick is, in fact, a useful kitchen cooking tool. The brick aids the preparation of that most elementary, but essential, dish – the perfect roast chicken

Chesterfield sofa

Conran's own re-edition of the classic upholstered Chesterfield sofa became a Habitat staple. Referring to an 18th-century original, it showed that the Habitat proposition was always an eclectic one

Philip Treacy armchair

As Habitat struggled for identity, a well-meaning exercise was the Very Important Products range where celebrities created products, including a chair by the milliner Philip Treacy

Dieter Rams' Braun food mixer

When it opened in 1964, Habitat sold electrical goods as well as kitchenwares and soft furnishings. Dieter Rams' 1957 classic was included. The ultimate in Germanic "Gute Form" (good form), was an appliance as a missionary of design: dignified, beautiful, life enhancing

Breuer chairs

Many chairs were produced by the furniture workshops of Bauhaus, but the most famous were those designed by the Hungarian architect Marcel Breuer. Inspired by the tubular steel of a bicycle's handlebars, Breuer's designs were a modernist masterpiece

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