Terence Conran’s Habitat: changing lifestyles in 1960s Britain

by | 17 Feb 2012 | Culture

The current Terence Conran exhibition at the London Design Museum reminds us of the startling impact that Habitat had on the tastes and lifestyles of Britons in the 1960s.  As The Guardian’s video contribution to the current wave of Conran reportage says, ‘He transformed the high street!’ It’s true. Shopping for furniture and interior design in the UK was never the same again. But Conran changed more than the high street: by introducing the idea that everyday items could, and should, be both well-designed and affordable, he changed British people’s lives.

Suddenly, by means of a few, relatively inexpensive purchases: modern, streamlined furniture that was nothing like Edwardian bookshelves or Granny’s chintz-covered best sofa; some inexpensive but stylish kitchen accessories; a Japanese paper lampshade – we were modern! It was also, of course, obligatory to paint all of one’s walls white. Wallpaper of any kind quickly became a social embarrassment (woodchip or lining paper was marginally acceptable once it had been painted white, and was largely unavoidable since the plaster of most older British houses was in no condition to be exposed, and needed to be covered up with something more robust than paint; it was during the 1960s that Polyfilla became a household name, as the cellulose filler was used to fill the countless cracks and gaps in the typical British interior wall, once stripped of its forgiving covering of decorative wallpaper.)

A design revolution

In this way, with a few bits of typically British improvisation and ‘making do’, the UK seized on what Habitat offered and broke free from the 1950s, a decade that combined the elation of war’s end with the continuing realities of rationing (which was in force in the UK until 1954) and of national poverty, and emerged into the elegant and uncluttered modernism of the 1960s. In fact, most of us didn’t actually emerge into the bright white modernism of the 1960s until the rather more stylistically-confused 1970s, a decade that was already nostalgic for the magical ‘swinging’ sixties, but during which the majority of the UK began to catch up with the design revolution that Conran has started in 1964. As is the case with many decades which seem to define an era, ‘the sixties’ lasted for more than a decade.

What is fascinating, with hindsight, is the way in which consumers’ perceptions of ‘design’ changed so fundamentally between the previous and the current centuries: a change for which Conran can accept a great deal of the credit. Or, as some design purists would have it, the blame.

In the twenty-first century, ‘design’ is a good word. We expect things to be designed; we pay a hefty price premium for ‘designer’ goods; we restlessly seek out the most modern design. Having ‘designed’ stuff marks us out as being cutting edge and cool.

It wasn’t always like this.

Consumption engineering: ‘We must use up the goods we now merely use’

An unease with the idea of ‘design’ probably began when American marketers began to realise that they needed consumers to keep on consuming: that buying one car, or one kitchen range, or one fridge in a lifetime was not enough to keep the economy running at full speed. Consumers would have to be persuaded that their major purchases needed to be upgraded on a regular basis: that it did not matter if something was still functioning perfectly well, for example; what mattered was whether it was the right colour, or in the most modern styling.

An American adman called Earnest Calkins, co-founder in 1902 of what has been called the first modern advertising agency, Calkins and Holden, (‘modern’, because of its single-minded focus on graphic design), Calkins was a remarkably prescient marketing thinker. In the 1930s, he came to believe (as did the economist John Maynard Keynes) that America needed to consume its way out of the Depression and that, as an obvious corollary, it was the essential business of manufacturing and marketing industries to create more and more products that got ‘used up’ in the way that what we now call fast moving consumer goods (groceries, soft drinks, toiletries) get used up; that things which used to be ‘once in a lifetime’ purchases must now be replaced on a regular basis, not because they were no longer functional, but because they were no longer ‘cool’ (to use a modern term).

‘Consumption engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use,’ wrote Calkin. ‘Consumption engineering does not stop until we can consume all that we can make.’[1] The terms that Calkins used to describe this process – ‘artificial obsolescence’; ‘consumption engineering’ – have become terms of abuse to which we all still pay unthinking lip service. ‘Artificial obsolescence’ is a terrible thing, we say to ourselves. Why design something that could last for fifty years (like a car) in such a way that it will only last ten years (or less)? What a terrible waste of limited resources!  Worse still, do people really design things with the sole purpose of tempting us to buy them? Surely design should be about functionality; about creating things that fulfil their function better?

Britain’s Council of Industrial Design

We still say (or think) this kind of thing, despite the demonstrable fact that we like to change our car every few years because the old one seems a bit dated, and that we rush out to buy the latest coffee-making machine, not because it makes better coffee , but  because it is absolutely the latest thing in coffee-making machine design, which impresses our friends and makes us happy. Welcome to the supposedly dubious world of consumption engineering.

Britain’s Design Council – a state-run body set up with the explicit aim of raising the status of good design in the national consciousness – got itself into a bit of a lather about this kind of ‘consumption engineering’ in the 1960s – perhaps not surprisingly so, since we all still seem to be a bit ambivalent about the concept.

The Design Council had been brought into being in wartime Britain, in 1944, as The Council of Industrial Design. It had a clearly proclaimed aim, as pronounced by its house magazine, Design, which was launched in 1949: ‘To help industry in its task of raising standards in design.’[2] There was an unashamedly commercial aspect to this arguably high-minded vision: it was fervently hoped that, if Britain produced better-designed goods, it would be able to export more of them. This does not seem to be a foolish hope; the post-war economy of Germany flourished on the basis of enviable level of exports driven by great design and top-class engineering.

Nevertheless, along with our lingering concerns that ‘consumption engineering’ was a bad thing, so we continued (in the UK, at least) to fret that ‘design’ was being used to sell us things that we didn’t really need.  Good design, in the early days of the Council, was seen as something like good art:  something that it might be hard to define but that was, nevertheless, an objective quality; something that could be agreed upon by well-educated and cultured folk. The Design Council’s job was to try to improve the tastes of the general public, so that they would acquire an understanding of ‘good design’; manufacturers who made use of ‘good design’ would then be rewarded by the custom of these new consumers, with their improved sensitivities and newly-elevated levels of good taste. An article in the Oxford Art Journal, published in 1987, Good Design in the Market Place: The Rise of Habitat Man, said this, ‘For the Council of Industrial Design, the appearance of an object, its designed form, had to reflect the fundamental structure  of the object and thus be the product of the creative aesthetic power of the designer […] As for the consumer, he/she […] was to be educated and later to have his/her real needs served not merely pandered too. His/her taste was to be improved rather than his/her appetite merely sated.’[3]

As the author of the article notes, the Design Council was set up at a time when Britons were used to having their lives overseen and regulated by the state – there was, after all, a war on. The Council’s aims were paternalistic and didactic: the general public was to have its taste improved, which would encourage the production of ‘well-designed’ goods. It was a well-meaning, if slightly Big Brother-ish, government strategy.

A British version of Bauhaus

The problem faced by this rather Victorian world view was that neither manufacturers, designers or the general public were behaving quite in the way that they were supposed to. They weren’t really following the rules of Good Design. Manufacturers and designers were worrying about what might sell, and consumers were buying whatever caught their fancy – some of which happened to have been really well designed, which is why we bought it. It was all so confusing.

You will notice the reference in the description of the  Design Counicil’s aims  to ‘(good) design reflecting the fundamental structure of the object’ –the quintessentially modernist view of good design which we associate mainly with Germany’s state-sponsored Bauhaus academy, founded in 1919 by the German architect Walter Gropius. The most memorable founding principles of the developing school of modernism were to become

Ornament is a Crime

Form follows Function

Truth to Materials

The Council like most design bodies of the time, seemed to believe that these principles were rules: that design that did not follow these rules could not be good design.

Conran, naughty (and immensely successful) marketer that he was, offered us a range of ‘Bauhaus style’ furnishing – suitably stern and functional, true to its materials (typically steel, black leather, pale woods and modern surfacings) and without any criminally decadent ornamentation. But he also – unashamedly! – offered us simple but seductive elements of a continental lifestyle that was overwhelmingly appealing to a nation tired of the drab utilitarianism of wartime Britain.

The article on Sir Terence Conran at the website of London’s Design Museum (of which Conran was a founder and is still a trustee) highlights the way in which Conran mixed and matched the styles that he felt would appeal to the British public.

‘It was a very particular version of modernism, based on simple forms, natural materials, and a fresh colour palette. It was a humanised, British version of Bauhaus. […] Habitat sold not only Conran’s own furniture designs, but products sourced from Europe and inspired by “triggers” of traditional domestic utility and continental sensuality: “the markets, the roadside cafes, the simple, unpretentious but abundant displays, the delicious food washed down with carafes of rough red wine”. By offering small, casual purchases alongside large furniture items Conran aimed at “that irresistible feeling of plenty you find on market stalls” and set in motion a revolution in home styling whose effects are still felt. By naming “essential” items and tools for the kitchen and home Conran celebrated the aesthetics of utility and connected the home to the exciting post-war tenor of industry and progress.’[4]

But it was not just the general public’s tendency to like items that were rather less austere and rather more sensual than the extreme vision of modernism would allow that was driving us away from the Council’s original vision of what ‘good design’ might be. It was that manufacturers were not following the strict and objective principles of ‘good design’ (putting to one side the fact that nobody has, to the best of my knowledge, succeeded in setting out exactly what those principles would be). In fact, it was even worse than that. Manufacturers were designing things that they thought people would want to buy!

The Persuading Image

As an article published in Design magazine in 1960, ‘The Persuading Image’, made clear, the pressure was now on to persuade consumers to consume: the principle that Earnest Calkin had set out so clearly thirty years earlier.  The author, Richard Hamilton, echoing Arthur Drexler, curator and director of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York wrote this: ‘there is no ideal in design, no pre-determined consumer, only a market in a constant state of flux’.[5]

On this basis, good design is dictated by the vagaries of the market. We like what is good, and it is good because we like it.

I think that today we are all fairly relaxed with this notion of deign: design, we now believe, is not absolute but relative. What seemed like good design last year seems dated this year. This flies in the face, of course of the notion that there were (or are) a set of principles that could define ‘good design’ but then – to stray into an area which we really don’t have time to explore in this blog – the idea that there was a definitive idea of what was ‘good (or great) art’ has relatively recently entered similarly difficult waters.

The Design Council, as I hinted at earlier, got into a particular lather about a product shown at the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition of 1962. It was (you will be shocked to hear) a new Tricity electric cooker with a built-in radio to entertain the housewife as she cooked! What could be a more extreme example of unnecessary ornamentation and of ‘pandering’ to consumers’ wants? Design magazine made a series of laboured jokes on the subject to show how strongly it disapproved.  If you think that’s acceptable, they wrote, then what about these side-splitting examples of obviously pointless and unnecessary innovations? What about (writers collapse in fits of giggles) a ‘foculpoynte’: a TV screen built into an electric fire or a coal fireplace?  What about (snort!) a ’toast-a-phone’? A toaster that was also a telephone?? (No, stop it – you’re killing me!) What about (wait for it!) a ‘Rockmaster’: a baby’s cradle with a record player attached that plays music to the baby? (No really, it’s too much – wipes tears from eyes.)[6]

Good industrial design: good because we like it?

TVs and other entertainment systems are now seen as essential features of a kitchen, so the we can, indeed, be entertained while we cook. We tend to like to have ‘Foculpoyntes’ in our houses: many modern homes have a giant flatscreen TV on the wall above a fireplace. As for cots that play music to babies – well, that’s obvious nonsense, isn’t it? (I will admit that the toast-a-phone seems not to have caught on.)

We have, I would suggest, come not merely to accept that good industrial design is guided by what we want; I think we would now agree, almost without second thoughts, with the supposedly extreme version of the argument: that good industrial design is, by definition, what we want. It is good because we want to buy it.

[1] Earnest Elmo Calkins, ‘Consumptionism’, Printers Ink, May 22 1930, 52, quoted in Mark Crispin Miller’s introduction o Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, Ig Publsihing, New York, 2007.

[2] Design, January 1949, p.1

[3] John Hewitt, Good Design in the Market Place: The Rise of Habitat Man, Oxford Art Journal, Vol 10 no 2 The 60s (1987) pp 28-42.


[5] John Hewitt, op cit., p 30

[6] John Hewitt, op.cit., p 31

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