It’s a sunny-looking room. The lemon-yellow L-shaped sofa and armchair and the two huge sash windows make it warm, light and optimistic. In the foreground is a chrome-and-glass tubular table and four white plastic chairs. There is a landscape of Modernist products on show, from a spherical space-helmet lamp to a stacked set of simple white crockery.

In the background, those two tall windows make it clear this is not a modern house but perhaps one of those big Chelsea numbers near the Habitat store on the Fulham Road, early Victorian, possibly split up into bedsits after the war and now being regentrified by wealthy bohemians.

And just to the left is a willowy-looking girl, a wistful folk singer robed in . . . a nightdress? A peasant smock? More Jenny Agutter than Twiggy, she has moved on from the 1960s miniskirt and now looks like a boho muse, fondling her geranium.

The cover of the 1972 Habitat catalogue still looks pretty seductive. Who wouldn’t want to live in an interior like that? At the bottom right corner, it says “20p”. This was the year after decimalisation in the UK, and 20p was the price of a pint or a pack of cigarettes.

This wasn’t Ikea or Argos, the catalogue wasn’t free — it cost serious money. And, as the philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. The catalogue was a tool of aspiration.

Habitat’s seductive 1972 cover, with ‘boho muse’
Habitat’s seductive 1972 cover, with ‘boho muse’

While writing an obituary for Terence Conran last month, I came across this cover and a stack of other irresistible images from old Habitat catalogues which induced an enjoyable spiral into bohemian domesticity. Habitat’s was the best but there were plenty of others. Old catalogues, it seems, are not only a window into the desires of the past but also utterly addictive.

It all started with Sears. At the end of the 19th century, Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck & Co’s catalogue was a monster, a doorstop manifesto of capitalism geared to homesteaders and smallholders.

It featured everything from guns and chastity belts to whole houses, with its distribution facilitated by the postal Rural Free Delivery, which kicked in about 1896.

The Sears catalogue (1957) was ‘a doorstop manifesto of capitalism’
The Sears catalogue (1957) was ‘a doorstop manifesto of capitalism’

In England, by contrast, Liberty’s catalogue offered an exotic mix of furniture and eastern artefacts, a more eclectic cocktail of peacock feathers and Japonisme. These were the extremes.

By the 1950s, catalogues were showing fully fitted kitchens, landscapes of consumer machines, streamlined mixers and chrome-piped fridges, product-filled interiors that were more about technology than domesticity.

The Habitat catalogue, which started off as a fold-out sheet of brown paper with line drawings in 1966, morphed into an aspirational artefact.

“Conran was important to the development of the idea of ‘lifestyle,’” says design historian Penny Sparke. “The crockery, the kitchen, the way you live your life with taste. There was a shift from a range of products to an idea of the interior as self expression.”

Take a look through the pages of French design catalogue Prisunic in the mid-1960s and you see a world of brightly coloured plastics, nylon minidresses and Op Art paintings. This was interior as space station, defiantly forward-looking, utopian.

Now take a look at a Habitat catalogue from the early 1970s. The shift in style is clear. There are country kitchens and Indian fabrics, copper pans and stripped-pine sideboards. Within five years everything has changed, from pop astronaut to urban peasant. 

A 1970s Habitat catalogue, selling the idea of lifestyle and the interior as self-expression
A 1970s Habitat catalogue, selling the idea of lifestyle and the interior as self-expression © The Advertising Archives

Design historian Deborah Sugg Ryan suggests Conran’s influence might have been a little overestimated. “In my family,” she says, “it was more about the Kays Catalogue, where you could pay weekly.” Kays was not the chic London luxury of Habitat but a more mixed bag of fast fashion, appliances and furniture.

“People forget,” she says, “that everything existed side by side. It wasn’t just about Scandinavian Modernism.” Indeed, flicking through the 1976-77 Kays Catalogue is quite a journey.

There are the brown-and-white laminate-clad shelving units but also Rococo-Modernist hybrid drinks trolleys in sparkling brass and fake wood veneer. There are plastic spaceship side tables in white and orange beside brass coal scuttles with embossed Victorian coach scenes and Womble lamps. It is wild.

“Alongside the modern furniture there was this continuing idea of the antique,” says Sugg Ryan, “even if it wasn’t authentic.” The catalogue was for the kind of person who, as Alan Clark once described Michael Heseltine, “buys their own furniture”. Through their choices they built their identity.

“The Liberty’s catalogue [c1900] was a bit like Habitat, selling a lifestyle,” says Zoe Hendon, the head of collections at the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) in London. “It said something about you.” What did it say about you? “Well, it said: ‘I’m the kind of person who buys from Liberty’s’.”

The Liberty’s catalogue (1922) offered ‘an exotic mix of furniture and eastern artefacts’
The Liberty’s catalogue (1922) offered ‘an exotic mix of furniture and eastern artefacts’

The catalogue itself became a marker of taste, status and aspiration. But if, as Sugg Ryan suggests, Conran didn’t so much make design accessible as make it desirable, the next big name in catalogues did. “Ikea really did democratise design,” she says.

Hendon makes the point that Ikea shows room sets, “a tabula rasa”, while Conran’s aesthetic had never really suggested that you would furnish your whole home from Habitat. Rather it was a carefully curated collection of things that would highlight, complement and define a lifestyle. Ikea was more background.

Habitat, like Heal’s and Prisunic, and Liberty’s before them, illustrated a kind of fantasy life — that Chelsea townhouse with the lemon settee.

“Ikea is what the Habitat people grew into, it’s all about solutions,” says writer and historian Grace Lees-Maffei. “With the other catalogues there was a sense of didacticism, of educating about good design. Ikea is not that, it’s more about how to accommodate people with different needs under one roof.” 

A Habitat catalogue (1973)
A Habitat catalogue (1973)
‘Bed Lifestyle’, Habitat, 1980s
‘Bed Lifestyle’, Habitat, 1980s

The Ikea catalogue is, of course, free. That already tells you a lot. No one will be impressed that you have an Ikea catalogue lying around. It is less aspirational than utilitarian.

But that, in its own way, is a kind of lifestyle too. With younger people finding buying a home more difficult, they appear destined to move from one rental property to another, collapsing and attempting to reassemble their Ikea things.

And when people do finally find a place, they often start again from scratch, buying all the furniture from a single supplier — and Ikea has, by now, become ingrained as the default option.

Ikea is credited with democratising design. It is still many people’s default option
Ikea is credited with democratising design. It is still many people’s default option

The announcement this summer that Argos was to stop producing its catalogue seemed like the end of an era. That cornucopia of affordable consumables was a staple of my childhood, a seemingly endless array of toys, tools, furniture and video games that I wasn’t allowed to have because they might ruin the telly (which was rented). It seemed to have something of everything, a department store in print.

Looking back at old issues, I can’t help noticing how no opportunity to shoehorn in an underdressed female body was missed: shower screens, baths, tummy toners, garden furniture, sunbeds.

Along with the Littlewoods catalogues — with their extensive lingerie sections — catalogues became a kind of acceptable suburbanised eroticism, doing for teenagers what Habitat’s fur throws and mirrored headboards were doing for affluent adults in Chelsea.

Typewriters from Argos (1985), that ‘cornucopia of affordable consumables’
Typewriters from Argos (1985), that ‘cornucopia of affordable consumables’ © Alamy
Record players from Argos, 1976
Record players from Argos (1976) © Alamy

Architect Charles Holland has a collection of old Habitat catalogues and its didactic companion, the Conran House Book. “It was all surprisingly randy, to use a rather 1970s word,” he says. “Those bedrooms and bathrooms suggesting key parties and multiple occupants of a bath or a Jacuzzi. They suggested the buyer might be a bit of playboy.

“I suppose it’s all moved online,” he laments. “That’s where you go to now: the Pinterest board has completely supplanted the catalogue.” 

In fact, you might argue that it was another catalogue that sowed the seeds of its own destruction. “You have to mention the Whole Earth Catalog,” says Lees-Maffei.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs suggested that this remarkable publication, set up by Stewart Brand during the high point of catalogue culture from 1968 to 1972, was the precursor of Google. But you might compare it to the whole internet itself.

Its subtitle — “Access to Tools” — relates it back to the old Sears catalogue, a manual for a pioneering generation, but this time for countercultural hippies and dropouts, for self-builders and geeks in garages selling everything from survival equipment to computer components, between reviews of books on Buckminster Fuller and environmental art.

The spring/summer 2020 Argos catalogue, the final edition
The spring/summer 2020 Argos catalogue, the final edition © Alamy

“We are”, its portentous and tongue-in-cheek intro began, “as gods and we might as well get used to it.” This was catalogue as bible for a new age. And we are now in that age. Everything at the touch of a keypad delivered to the door.

The catalogue had a remarkable run. For something so ephemeral, so seasonal, something that went out of date so fast, it proved capable of defining whole eras, influencing interiors, lifestyles and aspirations. The background to our fantasies of a life lived in style.

The catalogues still drop on to my doormat — Lakeland, the White Company, Cox & Cox, the Cotswold Company — but now they seem more geared to comfortable, unambitious early old age. More end-of-life than lifestyle. The action has moved online.

The internet predicted by the Whole Earth Catalog has become, itself, one enormous, endless catalogue packed with pop-ups. The catalogue of the whole earth.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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