On a bleak, frosty morning in the heart of London, the same question is on everybody’s lips: can Habitat, the design brand which transformed millions of homes back in the Sixties and Seventies, really make a successful revival in the harsher, more penny-pinching world of 2013?
That’s the awesome challenge for Polly Dickens, seemingly handed something of a poisoned chalice when she was named Habitat’s new creative director in January 2012 - just six months after the battered brand almost disappeared from our high streets as 30 of its stores went into administration.
At the time, the company’s condition was widely viewed as terminal. Just three shops in London were rescued when Habitat was bought by Home Retail Group, owner of Argos and Homebase.
But now, it’s coming back in fighting form, and today Dickens is unveiling the brand’s revitalised ranges to the press.
On first impressions, the sparkling new spring/summer collection doesn’t disappoint.
Quirky accessories, from paint-splashed cockatoo ornaments (£40) to camel candle holders (£20), an array of elegant, sleek contemporary furniture pieces made special with details, finishes or bold colours, is proof that the affordable British design brand has once again found its form.
Clearly basking in a flood of compliments at the collection’s first outing, a delighted Dickens says: “This has been about breathing new excitement and appeal into a much-loved, brilliant brand. I believe there are a lot of frustrated Habitat fans out there who still love its timeless classics but are now looking for it to have fresh pieces, exuberance, fun, a sense of humour and edginess. I think we’re giving them that and hopefully we’re well on the road to winning new converts.”
But will it be as easy second time round? In its first incarnation, Habitat, launched in 1964, was a brilliant concept which practically established Terence Conran overnight among the top rank of designers.
Habitat designs had instantly recognisable quirks and quality. The brand pioneered or popularised duvets, bean bags, paper lanterns, sofa beds and self-assembly furniture, and sold its own affordable version of idealised country and urban living.
The first generation of Habitat devotees, the baby-boomers then in their 20s, are in now their 60s and worrying more about how to fit hip replacements in between long-haul travel plans than their ‘des res’.
Today it’s their sons and daughters who are wondering how they can make their homes distinctive - and Polly Dickens, obviously, is pretty confident that she can appeal to them as they buy their first homes well into their 30s, much later than their parents did.
“People now want an identity to their homes and pieces which are individual, interesting and a little bit different. They also want to know where they’ve been sourced and the story behind them. So as well as a fantastic team of young designers - from Italy, Japan and America as well as England - we’ve travelled the world looking for inspiration, craftsmen and suppliers,” says Dickens. “We’re lucky enough to also draw on a wonderful history with many of our makers. So our woven rugs collection, which includes an Ikin rug (£195), is made by a supplier Terence originally found in India in the Sixties. The man’s son now runs the carpet weaving company where they still hand-spin yarn on looms.
“That contrasts with one of our newest recruits who is in Lithuania and helping us produce stunning furniture. We have a ceramic collection with some pieces hand-dipped by a lady in Thailand, so no one item is the same. And there are beautiful, traditional quilts made in India.”
She and her team have travelled thousands of miles - Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Thailand, Croatia, to name but a few destinations - in pursuit of the new Habitat vision, so that customers won’t have to.
As well as its three London stores and website (habitat.co.uk), a selection of more than 1,000 Habitat products are available in more than 200 Homebase stores nationwide.
In addition, Habitat’s opened three mini-stores within Homebase with further openings to follow this year. A selected product range is also available in a 20-page section of the Argos catalogue.
Dickens believes people will now easily be able to find all the ingredients necessary for a distinctive contemporary home, both indoors and out.
One of her favourite pieces is a Hanoi bowl (£35), with its sunny yellow lacquered outer finish and woven bamboo interior.
“This piece is so indicative of the whole collection - a mixture of the natural combined with a shot of bright colour and a slightly hand-crafted feel,” she says.
Comfort ranks as highly as style, and Dickens is keen that this combination stays at the core of Habitat’s designs.
“I know exactly what I want from a sofa - it needs to look brilliant and be somewhere you can sit all evening, with a glass of wine and watch your favourite telly programme, and feel totally cosseted and relaxed,” she says.
“Our British-made Clarke sofa (£750) fulfils all those expectations.”
Alternatively, you can rock back in style on a Lyra rattan rocking chair in vivid blue (£320), one of many pieces in this material range, including a Margo rattan light shade (£60).
It’s hard to believe Dickens has time for much lounging in her own home. She seems a powerhouse of energy who’s never happier than when she’s working.