Sarah Sands: Habitat showed us the way – and then we moved on

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The rise and fall of famous shops is social history. Why did we fall out of love with Habitat? Was it them or was it us? Has the timid young provincial couple "going designer" become a thing of the past? Or does a retail concept, however good, die if it does not develop?

The trip to buy a first Habitat sofa was a rite of passage in the Sixties and Seventies. The store had a big enough brand and just enough reinvention to make it through the decades that followed. But now the high street is awash with indistinguishable modern sofas in muted colours. The radical purchase today would be a fussy floral sofa surrounded by heavy brown antique furniture. Habitat's demise is the old story of failing to keep ahead of competitors in an unfriendly market.

Habitat gets the attention because it has the name, but nearly all shops are having a rough time of it in the recession. The ones I feel especially sorry for are those cut-price furniture shops in unfashionable districts. They have offered rock-bottom discounts, infinite credit, free delivery.... What more is there?

For the retailer, one of the beautiful flaws of gadgetry is that it does not last. It breaks, better versions come along, there is built-in obsolescence. But you need to be Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to break a bed; sofas can be re-covered. We have acquired a recycling gene that did not exist in the last century. We know about eBay or Freecycle. Today we find something obscene in piling up perfectly good furniture at the municipal dump.

I suspect there are other social factors at play. Habitat is based on the assumption that young people leave their parents' homes and set up on their own. However, many now sit it out, and it is a toss up whether parents leave first. If you have wiped out a generation of home owners, it follows that lampshades and side tables will also suffer. Even renting is a push. A young New Zealand hairdresser I spoke to the other day was rushing off to secure a two-bedroom flat in Brixton for £300 a week. She said that her goal was "not to live in a shit hole". There wasn't going to be much spare cash to splash on furniture.

A young relative of mine has found an ingenious solution to independence. His weekly earnings are not enough to move out, but they cover a bed at a youth hostel. The nearest youth hostel has a smart address and a supply of fit Australian young women who are happy to chat at 4am, which is not the case at home. He talks dreamily of plans to live there full time.

Economic behaviour is not necessarily rational. I have long since abandoned Habitat but cannot resist making a detailed inspection of Oka, nearby, where Samantha Cameron's mother is selling taste much as Terence Conran did in Habitat, only to a more monied demographic: cream and beige with a splash of naughty red so that the customer feels marvellously bold; modern furniture with a twist of ethnic, to suggest travel and free-spiritedness; a glass of wine and a book artfully placed on a table to evoke terroir.

Terence Conran educated us, changed public taste and made a fortune. Perhaps Habitat lost its way when it fell into a corporate chain and he moved on. People still want reassurance and guidance in home decoration, but it's a long time since they came to Habitat to find it.



Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the 'London Evening Standard'

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