Sell me a sofa, not a lifestyle

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The Independent Online
YOU don't have to be very old these days to find your lifestyle in a museum. London's Victoria & Albert museum is marking 30 years since the launch of Habitat with an exhibition of the store's artefacts. Visiting it this week, I found the display so meagre that at first I walked straight past.

The exhibition (which runs until 4 April) comprises two glass cases: one holds a white paper lantern, a red enamel coffee pot, lots of red metal mugs, and a Magistretti chair 'lent by Sir Terence Conran'. The other has a chicken brick, wooden cooking spoons, mustard-yellow pillowcases and another low-slung chair. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day outside: rarely have I left a museum feeling so depressed.

Habitat, says the museum's display boards, 'offered its customers access to a modern stylish way of life that had never been so accessible before'. So, did I just buy all the wrong things, year after year? And was I missing something now? For the exhibition confirmed my real-life experience of Habitat products: behind the claims there is little of lasting substance.

Habitat is a monument to the primacy of hype over substance. Until two years ago, I was still shopping there. Now, when I look around my house, I would happily dump all of our many Habitat objects. Tomorrow's treasures they are not. As William Morris said: 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.' In my home, Habitat fails on both counts.

Consider my house: discarded on the top floor, a pine coffee table, with a wobbly leg, moulders. The exhibition says 1974 was a key date when, in a 'democratisation of taste', Habitat introduced flat-pack furniture. This was one of the first and its destiny is the skip.

Going down a floor, my first daughter's bedroom beech veneer furniture (wardrobe, chest of drawers, dressing table) was bought in 1984. Almost immediately, the toddler-sized child swung on a wardrobe door and sheered it off its hinges. The veneer of the dressing table (bought later) is a different colour. It has never stood straight.

My second daughter has a white flat-pack Habitat chest of drawers. From time to time one of the front bits falls off. The kitchen has a row of gloomy brown storage jars, circa 1978. They just collect dust. Life is too short to fill Habitat storage jars. I never put rice or lentils in them, just take packets from the larder. I cook chicken in the oven, ignoring the heavy Habitat chicken brick in its corner. I had one of those red coffee pots, too: it rusted. Metal mugs are horrible for drinking hot things from.

But the coup de grace came two years ago, when my husband fell for a set of four Italian-style seating units, upholstered in kilim material. They cost pounds 2,000 and within two months two sagged badly. To be fair, a Habitat manager called, and eventually agreed to replace the units with two new Hadleigh sofas, though by now we just wanted our money back.

The replacements arrived in September last year. They look elegant but are terribly uncomfortable: you have to plump up the feather cushions every day. And they lack castors: surely even New Agers have to vacuum?

I know Habitat is being spruced up and sent upmarket by its new Ikea owner. Sure enough, it now sells linen baskets costing pounds 120. But visiting a store this week my resolution never ever to buy anything at Habitat again held firm, especially when I saw Hadleigh sofas still for sale. The 20-year spell it cast over me has been completely broken. There must be some people who are happy with Habitat products, just not me.

It's not only the quality that puts me off. These days, I don't want to shop anywhere that purports to sell me a complete lifestyle, which is why I also refuse to go near Ikea, and why I rather like department stores. My most recent purchases have been a kilim-covered stool from a specialist sale, and a pine bookcase made by a local shop. I recently bought some second-hand reproduction dining chairs (costing the same as basic Habitat chairs) from a local antiques shop. Good bye Habitat, hello good old British mix-and-match eclecticism.

RESEARCHERS are devising a contraceptive pill for grey squirrels. Please throw a packet into my garden: since I moved in 10 years ago, the population must have trebled. Most worryingly, urban squirrel behaviour has gone batty: their wild instincts have been corrupted.

Every weekend I put in bulbs. They spend the weekdays digging them up. But they don't eat or rebury them. The bulbs lie there on the bare earth. I put them back in . . . and so the cycle continues. As I dig I find acorns and nuts tucked away, yet I doubt whether modern squirrels have the memory or need to return to eat them.

John Major, in a recent interview, referred approvingly to a grey squirrel he had spotted burying nuts under a tree. 'Sometimes I feel like that about the British economy. We need to conserve the wealth we have and use it wisely,' he said. Britain has troubles enough, without imitating squirrels.