I became a teenager at the dawn of the 1960s. As Wordsworth said (of the French Revolution - but never mind, it’s still apt) “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven.”
They say that if you remember the 1960s then you didn’t really live it, presumably because you needed to be off your head on psychedelic drugs, but I have powerful memories of my teenage years and all those people who had such a profound impact on my life. I can remember being delighted that my father abhorred the music of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and that my mother thought that Twiggy looked ridiculous in her Mary Quant clothes, Vidal Sassoon haircut and Courreges boots. My parents’ disapproval was all that I needed to confirm that something seismic was happening and that I was privileged to be a part of it, albeit as a passive consumer rather than a revolutionary (after all I lived in rural Suffolk and was a convent schoolgirl!)
Memories of the iconoclasm of the 1960s came flooding back this weekend with the announcement of the death of Terence Conran who single-handedly did for our homes what Vidal Sasson had done for our hair.
And to appreciate the impact that Conran had on our homes with the opening of his first Habitat store in 1964, we have to remember what it was like to furnish a home in the post-war era of the 1950s. As a child, I grew up surrounded by some very ugly utilitarian furniture. It wasn’t my parents’ fault that the heavy brown varnished cupboards, chests of drawers and tables and chairs were all that was available. They were so grateful to have a home to call their own when I was born in 1947 that they’d have fashioned things out of packing cases if needs be. A shortage of timber had led to rationing post-war and ‘make do and mend’ was still the order of the day. In the kitchen, my mother cooked our plain and simple food (chops, liver, sausages, stews and roasts) with some fairly basic utensils and our beds were heaped with heavy blankets to keep out the cold. I’m not complaining, we were some of the lucky ones, but our home and everything in it was low on style and high on functional practicality. Until Conran.
Terence Conran was first and foremost a designer and lover of beautiful objects. Happily, he was also an astute businessman and entrepreneur and, with the opening of the first Habitat store in London in 1964, he revolutionised the way we furnished our homes and cooked our food and ultimately how we lived our lives. I slowly became aware of Habitat as a teenager and when I got married in 1970 and moved into a brand new house on an estate in Basingstoke, Hampshire costing £4,990 I wanted our living room, bedroom and kitchen to look like the room sets I had drooled over in the Habitat catalogue. I also knew that my life wouldn't be complete without a chicken brick, a set of red Le Creuset saucepans, some Provencal bowls and a duvet for our double bed. And what was brilliant about Habitat was that it was all more or less affordable even to a young couple starting their married life on a fairly limited budget.
So what did my first very own home look like? Well, as different from my parents’ home that I could make it! The colours I chose for the large L shaped living cum dining room were red, white and black. I could sew, so I went to John Lewis and bought enough curtain material in a brilliant red and white design to make six full-length curtains to go along the longest wall which had windows onto the small garden. All the walls throughout the whole house were painted in brilliant white. In the smaller dining area, I had a black and white chequer patterned tiled floor and then bought a round white Habitat dining table and four chairs to match. In the ‘lounge’ area were two Habitat sofas with a (pale) wooden frame and bright red cushions. Two small square coffee tables with white lamp bases and red lampshades and a white shelving unit to the right of the fireplace completed the look. And (this was the 1970s after all) on that part of the floor we had deep shag pile carpet in white. My mother was horrified and warned that it would ‘show the dirt’ unlike the dark brown she was pushing me towards. I didn’t listen because I loved everything about that room. It felt modern and stylish and is probably one of the favourite rooms I have ever created. Fifty years later I still have the two white coffee tables in my living room in France, as you can see in this photograph.
Alongside our new furniture were the cooking utensils and other homewares that Habitat sourced so brilliantly. Conran had an unerring eye for simple but beautiful design. Much of it was from France and fitted with the revolution that Elizabeth David’s recipes for delicious Mediterranean food had begun in the 50s and 60s. I still regularly use a red and white chequered tablecloth from Habitat redolent of simple Parisian bistros which I received as a wedding present and which looked perfect with our plain white dinner service and smart stainless steel cutlery.
So I was sad to hear of Terence Conran’s passing and wanted to pay him this special tribute. I remember so vividly the excitement I felt the first time I went into Habitat and realised that with some judicious saving and planning we would be able to afford to furnish our newly married life with some of these beautiful stylish objects. My tribute ends with a photograph of the last thing I bought in the Conran shop in South Kensington several years ago. It’s a toilet brush designed by Philippe Starck and epitomises everything Conran stood for. It is a bog-standard (sorry) and extremely utilitarian object. And at the same time, it is simple, stylish, sleek and beautiful to behold and gives me pleasure whenever I need to clean my loo - which is not a sentence I ever expected to write in one of my blogs! So - Thank you, Terence Conran.