Derren Gilhooley On How Habitat Healed Him

After my partner Simon passed away two summers ago, it seemed important to preserve as much of the life we had lived together as possible. Not just memories and ways of doing things, but the remaining material traces of our more than three decades together.

The secateurs Simon had used to prune his roses, and that had lain unused for the years of his illness, became a precious relic. Likewise, his Montblanc pen, dinner suit from Gieves, favourite Bodum glass teapot. Each acquired poignancy and were positioned in the house with intention and reverence. These efforts brought comfort. Then, looking through old photographs, a new longing emerged. A longing to be reacquainted with objects that we had prized but had gradually been replaced along the way. In particular, there was a chair. A Habitat chair.

Cover of the 1972 Habitat catalogue

For anyone putting together a home in the late 20th century, as we had done, Habitat offered everything needed to make it look stylish, informed and urbane. Founded in 1964 by designer and entrepreneur Sir Terence Conran, Habitat embodied a hip, outward-looking, politely hedonistic way of living. Habitat was open-plan, lounging on bean bags, dining alfresco, sleeping under Swedish-style duvets. Habitat was stripped pine, holidaying in Provence, taking showers, cooking everything with olive oil and garlic. It was optimistic and upwardly mobile. It telegraphed “This life thing? I’ve got this!” You may work as an accountant, but shop at Habitat and you have the soul of a globe-trotting starchitect. Habitat’s Chester store was where I had my first proper job, fresh from school, in the late 1980s. I was working as a display assistant, helping to style the look of the store. It’s also where I first met Simon, on a February afternoon, when he came in to buy a matte black and chrome ink blotter for his office.

Grieving for him, 30 years later, I needed to find that chair. Its name escaped me, but its form was unforgettable. It was low slung and serpentine, wrought in a neat herringbone rattan, with swollen arm rests that tapered into pinched, poised feet. The design was escapist, with hints of elegant travel and warmer climes.

We bought a set of it in the Nineties: two sofas and two armchairs. They had been loved, but when we remodelled the house it seemed time for a change. I promptly sold them to a woman in Stratford-upon-Avon. I even hired a large van and drove them all the way down to her. Now, I longed to have them back. Even just a chair.

Capri chair in the 1992 catalogue

The search begins with all the usual online outlets. Facebook Marketplace, eBay, Vinterior and so on. But my keywords didn’t bring results – just a deluge of generic wicker conservatory furniture. Switching into detective mode, I decide that the best thing to do is look to the catalogue. Surprisingly, for such a culturally significant store, there is scant online archive material. There are a few well-documented pieces that have become icons of today’s fashionable interiors, such as the sought-after Vico Magistretti Carimate chairs or Strata cutlery, while the trend for vintage Habitat is growing on Instagram. But on the whole, most of the pieces I remember and lived with are unknown to search engines. The chairs were bought in 1991, so I find a 1992 catalogue on eBay and wait for it to arrive.

When it does, I am struck by how well most of the furnishings and styling have aged. They are early Nineties for sure. Coir matting, scrubbed pine and wrought iron abound, all set against soft white interiors with sun-bleached floorboards. But they are simple, timeless pieces, too, ones that signal a comfortable and healthful way of life. The design team were clearly on a mission to eliminate the fussy and extraneous to create furniture that was honest and functional. In a moment of overwhelming nostalgia, I decide that what I really want is to live in the Habitat 1992 catalogue. And so, my task is defined. To trace, track down and acquire as many pieces from this hallowed document as possible.

Oona antique brass lamp base with coolie shade in the 1993 catalogue

The chair is called ‘Capri’ and soon reveals itself on eBay for a buy-it-now price of £175 (it was originally £249 back in 1992, plus an extra £59 for the cushions). Eerily, it lives near  Stratford-upon-Avon, not far from where I offloaded our originals some 20 years ago. It was bought in the Cheltenham branch in 1993 and the owner still has the paperwork. The chair is much loved and surprisingly immaculate for a rattan piece that has dwelled for 30 years in a house with children and cats. A move is forcing the sale. The whole family is present to wave off the chair, as it is loaded into the boot of my Nissan Qashqai. I am made to swear an oath that, if I am ever to want rid of the beloved Capri chair, I will let them know and offer first refusal.

Once I get home, it takes pride of place in a corner of my garden room and I place the panama hat Simon wore for gardening on it.

I spend hours gloating over the 1992 catalogue. I show it to friends. “Look!” I exclaim, “There is nothing here that you wouldn’t want today.” Politely, they agree. I compose a mental wishlist of the pieces I want. A set of Corfu chairs in pumpkin to replace those swiped from us in a horrible burglary in 2003. A ‘music holder’ candlestick that was a best selling statement piece back in the early Nineties. I’d thoughtlessly flogged ours at a car boot sale. A ‘Taj Durry’, a flat, lightweight, patterned South Asian-style of rug that was signature at the time. Any of the lamps in beaten copper. Ambitiously, I set a goal of finding a pilgrim table – a quintessentially Habitat take on a country refectory table, boldly geometric and stout, in lightly oiled Canadian pine.

When not poring over the catalogue and committing its contents to memory, I’m scrolling through an Everest of items for sale online. I eventually develop RSI between my thumb and index finger. I’m exhausting the thesaurus for search terms. How many ways are there to describe a linen basket? Away from home for a week, I come across a lamp on Facebook Marketplace late at night. It’s in County Durham, a four-hour drive from my home. It looks a lot like an Ophelia Wrought Iron Floor Light, but I’m unable to cross-check with the catalogue. And they only want £5. In a panic, I call the friend who is looking after my house. “What’s the matter?” they croak, “It’s late.” I send them a screen shot and stammer out instructions to check if the lamp is indeed in the catalogue. Please. After what seems an eternity, he comes back to me. “No, I can’t find it.” I implore him to check again. On a second inspection it is discovered, lurking on page 48 in the corner of a room set, behind a linen hamper used fetchingly as a side table. It has an unbleached linen coolie shade on top. Of course.

I happily drive the eight-hour round trip. It’s a good excuse to visit the cathedral. The mint condition Ophelia lamp takes its place next to the Capri chair. The search for Corfu chairs in pumpkin is trickier. There is a vast ocean of decoys and lookalikes to be combed through. Habitat themselves tweaked the design in 1995 – after Ikea bought the brand – and not for the better. In the end, I gather 24 of the chairs from places as distant as Aylesbury, Telford and Bath, and weed them out until I have eight satisfactory originals and a garage groaning with surplus wicker.

Danish Blue dinner service in the 1972 catalogue

After months of searching I am staggered when a Pilgrim table appears for sale in Frome, Somerset. It’s a rare piece and I’m so feverishly keen to secure it that I arouse the vendor’s suspicion. Facebook Marketplace is apparently rife with scammers and there are various ruses doing the rounds. Am I money-laundering? No. Just desperate for their table. They bought it in 1992. Their children grew up eating breakfast and completing their homework at it. Now empty nesters, it had been stashed in the basement of their grand 17th-century townhouse. They bid it an emotional farewell as it slides into the back of my van. It brings life to my home as a sturdy place to eat, write and make plans.

Inevitably, my growing obsession means I have started to hunt down catalogues from other years. Soon I can claim a complete archive from 1971 to 1995, covering 24 years of hip home stylings. This broadens the search to other keynote pieces from Habitat’s oeuvre. Their take on the two-seat Chesterfield, launched in 1972 and offered in a range of William Morris prints, joins the hit list. As does the Strasse dining table and chairs. These dated to the time I worked in Habitat in the late Eighties and their Rennie Mackintosh like lines in black ash had seemed to me the last word in metropolitan sophistication. I obsess over an ‘Edward’ armchair from 1987, which features an articulated, black, lacquered beech frame, and pray that the eBay gods will deliver me an uplighter in chrome and frosted glass.

Stylish living in the 1986/87 catalogue

There are two Chesterfields lurking online. One is in Wolverhampton, covered in faded but original Rosscarbery fabric by Collier Campbell. The other is in Great Yarmouth, stripped of its original print and approximately re-covered by a woman with a staple gun and seemingly endless shiny white damask. They were stars of 1980s British textile design and retain their compact lines and sturdy bun feet. Both are advertised for just £10 each. The Great Yarmouth one comes easily enough. In a day’s long drive, I also scoop up a music stand candlestick from Norwich and a Toti lamp in Lowestoft (I will find a partner for it in Bradford a month later).

The Wolverhampton Chesterfield is trickier and takes months of intermittent communication with the distracted owners. Finally, I am manhandling it into the back of my vehicle in the middle of a council estate. It had belonged to their late aunt, who had been a fashionista of sorts and was the manager of the local Wallis clothes shop. She liked to buy things with a bit of style. “Send me a picture of it when you’ve fixed it up,” pleads the vendor, “I love a transformation.” Both sofas are packed off to an upholsterer to be recovered. One in a William Morris print to match the picture in the 1972 catalogue. The other is finished with a 12-metre bolt of fabric originally purchased by a lady in Habitat Cardiff in 1986, then promptly stashed in her airing cupboard in Caerphilly. It emerges 36 years later in pristine condition.

Restauranteur Mr Chow in his London office in 1973, the OKM furniture in chrome and black leather was designed by Rodney Kinsman for Habitat

In the following year the pieces accumulate. I feel like Howard Carter opening Tutankhamun’s tomb when recovering a complete Strasse table and chairs set from an untouched and intact 1987 dining room in Pontypridd. A pair of modernist Werner lamps are assembled – one from Ely, one from Birkenhead. A man in Clapham refuses to sell me his immaculate Mr Toad tables, only to relent months later. A woman in Wrexham sheds a tear as I haul away the rush laundry hamper her son used until he left for university.

My already rather full house is endlessly shuffled to accommodate these new arrivals: the black ash bureau from 1984; the geometric Osaka coffee table from 1995; the Forge shelving that was bought on Tottenham Court Road at the peak of Cool Britannia and now offers itself up in a placid St Albans cul-de-sac; the Bloomsbury rug; the Karina gateleg table. My car is quite clapped out from criss-crossing the country. And my garage, frankly, is rammed. Yet, even if it is becoming a bit of a jam, having these Habitat pieces around is uplifting and comforting, which I suppose is the intention they were originally designed and crafted with. Although I think their house style would require more breathing space than I can afford. But Simon enjoyed having “everything on display”, as he would have put our compendious decorating style, and I’m at peace with having to shimmy sideways around the furniture just to move around my home.

Taken from Issue 59 of 10 Men – PRECISION, CRAFT, LUXURY – is out NOW. Order your copy here.


Black ash room set from the 1989/90 catalogue

Shopping cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping