The furniture retailer Habitat has lost its identity but there may be hope of recovery.
There has been hand-wringing aplenty since the announcement 10 days ago that Habitat has called in the administrators. With the dismantling of the UK’s venerable high-street design chain and the potential loss of 750 jobs, it’s no wonder the media has been quick to hover its magnifying glass over “British design”. Yesterday, the Radio 4 programme You and Yours asked, “Has the demise of Habitat damaged Britain’s design image?” Fear not: British design is alive and well. But British retail – that’s another matter.
This is not the death of Habitat. The brand will survive – although what direction it will take is not clear, as there is an association with Homebase on the cards – as will three central London stores. But it is a precipitous fall for the company that, until the arrival of Ikea, had done more than any other to modernise the homes of the British middle class. In its 1960s heyday it was quite the glamorous hangout, before broadening its appeal into a multi-billion pound business that floated on the stock exchange in 1981 and turned its founder, Terence Conran, into the UK’s designer-in-chief. Yet it was not Conran’s originality that made Habitat a household name, but the opposite: his talent for tweaking European and American modernist designs for temperate British tastes.
There have been dips in this success story before now. In 1992 when Habitat was sold to Ikano Group (the owners of Ikea) there was much wailing and hair-pulling about the sale of a great British brand to a Swedish flat-pack giant. Some people wrote it off even then, but they will have had to wait 19 years for their “I told you so” moment. So where did it all go wrong?
There is no simple answer. Certainly it is true that, as in the fashion industry, the middle of the market is the most treacherous channel to steer, with all the profits being scooped up by the Ikeas and the H&Ms at the bottom, or the luxury brands at the top. In such a competitive global marketplace, Conran’s original vision of high-quality design at affordable prices is increasingly hard to pull off. In a recession, why buy solid oak from Habitat when you can have oak veneer from Ikea for a third of the price? But this is not just about the consumer’s bottom line. Somewhere along the way, Habitat lost the unique brand identity that enabled it to stand out in an increasingly crowded high street.
Habitat is best known for marketable versions of Scandinavian-infused mid-century modernism – lots of wooden furniture and paper light shades – with touches of contemporary innovation sprinkled here and there. Classics include the Days Forum sofa, designed by Robin Day in Habitat’s founding year, 1964, and still sold today. More recent bestsellers include Tord Boontje’s laser-cut metal Garland lamp shade and Claire Norcross’s Aperture pendant light, an origami paper creation that you’ll find hanging in every EAT franchise. Lighting, along with flatware and bed linen, is what most people head to Habitat for.
But these days it’s hard to see what’s unique about Habitat. I paid a visit to the Tottenham Court Road store the other day, and the furniture on offer was more generic than I remembered. The shop floor was cluttered with choices, none of them standing out. And there’s a reason for that. The pressure to keep manufacturing costs as low as possible means that high-street furniture brands now manufacture most of their products through the same conglomerate sourcing agents. In other words, Habitat uses the same Asian factories as the likes of John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Next and B&Q. And while the in-house design team will create certain signature products, many are simply bought off the shelf from these factories. So the curse of the Identikit British high street is not just about the same brands – it’s the same stuff.
Are Habitat’s problems symptomatic of a broader malaise in the design market? Partly. The problem of generic merchandise is exacerbated in this country by the onerous price of high-street rents and a perpetual sale culture forcing prices down, and the retail experience with them.
But to see this state of affairs as a failure of British design is like blaming the Atlantic for sinking the Titanic. The UK is a global design hothouse, with companies from all over the world dropping in to cherry-pick the best talent. The fact that there are so few outlets for that talent within these shores is simply a side-effect of an economy focused on services – such as design – rather than products. With so few connections to industry, it’s understandable that more and more young designers are turning their back on industry altogether and designing products in small editions made by craftsmen or even by themselves. And in that reality lies a clue to the future of a company like Habitat.
The chain’s predicament suggests that the strategy of selling mass-produced, generic design has reached its sell-by date (unless, like Ikea, you have the muscle to force everyone along the supply chain to play by your rules). The middle of the market will have to diversify. It would be too simplistic to argue that we should manufacture furniture in the UK again – it’s far too expensive – but bringing Asian manufacturing back to Europe is less far-fetched.
Now that it has only three stores (owned by Home Retail Group, the UK’s fourth largest retailer), Habitat should commission local talent to design products that distinguish it from its rivals. In other words, it’s back where it started in the 1960s, with the same core values but a new mission. That’s not such a bad place to be.
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