The brand, which once defined British interior design, is now trying to shake up Hong Kong’s design scene.
They say the road to success is bumpy – something Habitat knows all about. Over the past half century, the furniture chain has had more than one near-death experience; one was during the 1990s recession, the other was in 2011 when the indebted retailer was put into administration with three UK stores sold.
With the arrival of IKEA, its sales remained in the doldrums and it changed owners several times, and not even the brilliant Tom Dixon, who from 1998 to 2008 was Habitat’s design head, could turn the tide.
So when Pierre Favresse, creative director at Habitat International (head of design), joined to revitalise the brand in 2012, he had some big shoes to fill and some big challenges to crack.
“I was connected to Habitat the first day I arrived at the company five years ago. This place makes me feel like home,”
says the French designer.
Indeed, Habitat is a household name throughout Europe that revolutionised the way people lived a half century ago.
The first ever Habitat shop was set up by design legend Terence Conran on Fulham Road in London in 1964. Integrating modernism and fashionable taste with furniture, his venture was a roaring success in its first two decades at a time when a generation was casting off the shackles of the devastating war in favour of something contemporary and fresh. Conran himself even equalled the brand with fashion icon Mary Quant.
Determined to provide modern chic designs at affordable prices, Habitat quickly emerged as a game changer to modern British interior design, most remembered for bringing duvet and the wok to every British home. It peaked in the 1980s with some 47 branches globally, but not for long.
By 1987, the arrival of IKEA gave Habitat its first sticky patch, and it has not really recovered since. After years in a shrunken shape, Conran abandoned the sinking ship in 1990, which was snapped up by its rival in 1992.
But numbers aside, Habitat did make history in Britain’s furniture and homeware realms, thanks to the help of Dixon and his prolific design teams who continued the brand’s vision to create utilitarian, masterful, yet affordable homeware design, with a contemporary edge.
Having survived the tumultuous half-century, this heritage has passed into the hands of Favresse today, whose mission is to reprise the brand’s lost glory of its heyday.
While it has withdrawn from its birthplace of the UK, Habitat now owns 27 stores in France, eight in Spain and five in Germany under the French group Cafom.
Flagging the “come from Europe” label, last year saw the brand re-entering Hong Kong 20 years after its first arrival. This time, it has a more distinctive character to single itself out in the household retailer crowd – putting stylish design under the spotlight.
Tucked away on the 15th floor at Windsor House in Causeway Bay, the 20,000 square foot Hong Kong shop has a raft of household products on display – from kitchenware, home decor, bedding to home accessories.
The store has inherited Habitat’s tradition of retail space curation to display its furniture in showroom layouts, equipped with a serene cafeteria serving French classics from breakfast to dinner, designed to create a “joyful retail experience” to lure visitors to stay longer at the store, he says.
“We offer international products in a European style, a style that many people from Hong Kong would fall in love for.”
Graduating as a cabinet designer, he has developed a kind of simplicity and curvy rhythm to his design under the influence of the Bauhaus movement.
“I like to create something sensitive. You can see a lot of curves in my work; I think it’s less aggressive to users.”
This preference is mirrored in his latest spring/summer collection, “Heliotropism”, a project that took two years to develop.
“It celebrates summertime, highlighting lemon, the fruit of South France, to breathe life into our products. The use of the vivid yellow and blue palettes portrays a happy family summer brunch picnic, and also brings joy and playful to the shop.”
Indeed, walking into the store you can almost feel a warm spring breeze caressing your face; even the cafeteria is adorned with sun umbrellas to intone the summer theme.
Everything is brimmed with taste here, just like 52 years ago, but to a modern standard, what they sell is not entirely affordable, not when a couch is priced at HK$60,000 or a cupboard at HK$30,000.
“We do not target only the rich,” he says in defence, “but those who really care about design”.
With this refined targeting to the middle-class, he no longer sees its perennial rival IKEA as a threat as the Sweden retail giant sells furniture at lower prices.
One thing is apparent and admirable – while IKEA’s products change at light speed, Habitat never stops emphasising or paying tribute to its legacy.
Some of Habitat’s top selling items back in its peak, such as the 1960s favourite Robin Day Forum sofa, the steel tubing deck chair designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens, the Chicken Brick, or the timeless Japanese-inspired paper lantern, are still on the shelves with a modern spin today.
The company may have lost its power to define style today, but its impact on the retail experience and household modernism still lingers. Its shadow can be found in how the likes of IKEA and Francfranc curate their store layouts these days, and the prevalence of clay pot, or “le creuset” – inspired by one of the most memorable Habitat hits – the Chicken Brick. It seems Habitat is ready to make a resounding return; the question now is how to make its intriguing brand story and legacy more transparent to locals, as “creating buzz” has become the name of the game these days, especially for a lesser-known label to Hong Kong people.
All it needs is a little aggressiveness.