Saturday 28 November 2020 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 28/11/2020

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday


Sofa, so good

London’s Tottenham Court Road starts in the West End with a theatrical flourish – the bright lights of the Dominion Theatre. But it quickly wipes off its stage make-up to become an uninspiring retail strip with just one or two remnants left from what, 20 years ago, were shoulder-to-shoulder camera, computer and discount technology stores. However, as you continue north, the shop selection changes again and you now find yourself in a soft-furnishings strip where couples come to bounce their bums on beds, stare at sofas as they wonder if they will fit through their front doors and disagree over what rug to buy. At least, in normal times, that is what you would see.

The reason that this street has a reputation for being such a plump-cushioned nirvana is because of the furniture shop Heal & Son – known to all as Heal’s – which has been trading on the street since 1818 and in the current site since 1840. It is no doubt also why a fresh-faced Terence Conran would have headed here in the 1960s to nab the shop next door to Heal’s for his fledgling Habitat brand.

Habitat in Tottenham Court Road opened its doors to customers in 1966 but this week the current owners of the brand, the supermarket group Sainsbury’s, announced that it will close the shop in the coming months – the press release had all the usual talk of challenging times, changing demand and so on. You’ll still be able to buy Habitat products online and even in the supermarket chain’s aisles, just not here.

Look, there’s no doubt the market has changed. If you wanted to make your home look modern and feel young, then in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, you would quite likely go to Habitat. White plates, bright duvet covers, good basic sofas: it was all there waiting for people anxious to move on from the aesthetics of their parents’ homes. Then came Ikea and Muji and design was democratised at a pace that left Habitat less special than before. Less sure of its self-worth. Still, there’s something sad about the closure of this shop that’s housed in one of those pieces of 1960s architecture that wears its modernity with the sharp-edged elegance of a Vidal Sassoon bob, thanks to architect Fitzroy Robinson & Partners.

The upper reaches of furniture retail are home to numerous great stores in cities across the world. But it’s striking how the middle remains often uninspiring and also free of any sensibility for a bland but hard-to-avoid word: “lifestyle”. Today, if you want to buy a bed, you can of course navigate to a website that will give you 67 pages of styles to choose from. But there’s no feeling, no sense that you are being pulled into a world that you want to be part of. And that’s what, at its prime, this Habitat store achieved. There was something about the building, the location and the stock that seemed to offer a break from the past and a confidence about the future. Perhaps that’s why it seemed to have such a dedicated young fan base: it was not about sticking with things as you found them.

Sir Terence Conran, who died in September, understood the desires and hopes that go into making a home (or, picking a sofa) and there’s a need for new retail visionaries in this nicely padded, comfy-to-sit-on, homewares space. People who love brands. People who know that a shop can be a beacon; a lesson in how to live your life in a better way. And if they are out there, I know a very nice shop space that will be free in the new year.


New wave

From the editors and bureaux of Monocle, our richly appointed new quarterly, Konfekt, launches in December. Edited between Zürich and London and printed in Germany, the elegant publication features a wealth of coverage on everything from chic style to the smartest new places to travel, as well as the most desirable spots to wine and dine. Click here to listen to Konfekt’s editor Sophie Grove in conversation with its style director Marcela Palek, discussing the publication’s launch and its good-humoured, worldly eye for the lesser-known stories, all with a Mitteleuropean sensibility.


Hair necessities

I felt sorry for Rudy Giuliani last week (writes Genevieve Bates). Not because there’s merit to his splenetic allegations that Donald Trump has been a victim of voter fraud but because the dark-tinted sweat dripping down Giuliani’s cheeks was treated as a sign of incipient madness instead of an understandable hair-colour malfunction – probably due to using temporary “hair mascara” or spray-on colour. Some 85 per cent of women, 11 per cent of men and a very much higher percentage of men who are political leaders dye their hair. We want our politicians to be both experienced and attractive. And by “attractive” we mean youthful. The contrivances required to maintain a fresh, camera-ready image are part of what we expect from women but male politicians risk appearing frivolous if their efforts are discernible.

Giuliani is not alone among male political animals. Trump’s bouffant – a comb-over taken to hyperbolic extremes – dates back to the 1980s and has run the colour gamut from burnt-cheddar auburn to cat-sick yellow. Bill Gates once accused former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi of spending more on his hair than on foreign aid. And it made headlines last year that China’s Xi Jinping is letting his greys go uncovered in a break from the tradition of Communist Party leaders sporting dense raven-black helmets as a sign of conformity to the vigorous image created by Mao Zedong. By going grey “Uncle Xi” is aiming for a relatable, man-of-the-people image but Western leaders in their fifties and sixties are vulnerable to suggestions that they look unwell, stressed or incapable if they show signs of looking their actual age. So they dye but very discreetly – Giuliani should have known to grey by the rules.

Image: Krzysztof Pacholak


Season’s greetings

Building a collection is a lovely, long-winded, never-ending affair (writes Clare Dowdy). Some more popular archivable items include vinyl records, classic cars and fine wine. But Jacek Friedrich, who is director of the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland, offers proof that even the unusual can be worthy of an archive. For him, it’s illustrated Polish Christmas cards. With some 3,000 postcards released between the late 1950s and early 1970s, he estimates that his collection encompasses nearly 70 per cent of the country’s designs, making his collection the largest in existence. “This was a really beautiful, heroic moment in Polish illustration,” he says.

For the past 15 years, Friedrich has been scouring antiquarian bookshops, specialist auctions and Allegro, Poland’s Ebay-style site, to build a collection that is now being immortalised in a 400-page book. Its title translates – somewhat clunkily – as “Merry Christmas! On postcards, Christmas and (a bit) on the Polish People’s Republic”. Content isn’t ordered by date or illustrator, or even aesthetic. Indeed, he hasn’t spotted a single school or movement – only “dozens of graphic artists with very strong and individual styles”.

The postcards are grouped by subject matter. So all the portly Father Christmases are together, as are the fish dishes (Poland’s traditional Christmas Eve meal). And, he says, “Even in communist Poland, it wasn’t impossible to include religious subjects.” Hence all the three wise men, angels and nativity scenes. For Friedrich, “They’re fascinating because they create a representation of the world on a small piece of card.” For the rest of us, they’re a reminder that even obscure items can make a collection worth sharing.

Image: Tarek Moukaddem


Eye of the storm

Beirut-based Nada Debs is perhaps best known for her fashion and furniture design, as well as large-scale installatons that draw on her international background – the Lebanese designer was raised in Japan and studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. Here she tells us the value of children’s books and why she’s looking to India for design inspiration.

What news source do you wake up to?
Since the pandemic and Beirut’s lockdown in the spring I have used social-media channels for news of what’s going on. Since last October there’s been a revolution, a financial crisis and a blast that destroyed half the city. So I usually go to Instagram stories and follow a lot of NGOs and those who are giving us updates on these matters.

Coffee, tea or something pressed to go with headlines?
I buy coffee beans from a cool coffee shop called Cortado on Beirut’s Gemmayze Street. It is on the street level of a 1930s building that also happens to be where my design studio is.

Five magazines for your weekend sofa-side stack?
Lately, especially because of the turbulence in our country, my concentration level for reading has dropped. But I love to go with design and lifestyle magazines. I love Monocle, Vogue, Elle Decor, AD (the European versions) and Tatler.

Favourite bookshop?
I love Papercup and Aaliya’s Books, which are in the old district of Beirut. But the cutest is the The Little Bookshop on a small street in Hamra. It often opens late at night and the owner is always there chatting about the books. I especially love children’s books as reading them as an adult gives me a different perspective on life.

Is that a podcast in your ear?
I listen to Monocle on Design, where I get updates on what’s happening in the design world. Meditative Story is a beautiful podcast where people tell their personal histories, with beautifully curated music and a small meditation at the end. Material Matters with Grant Gibson is amazing, especially in my field of design because I love to work with craft and material.

What’s your cultural obsession?
Right now it’s India. Between yoga, spirituality, contemporary Indian culture, fashion and the chaos – the extremes from very humble to arrogant – I just love it.

What’s your movie genre of choice?
I like independent films that have a twist to them and are a bit quirky, or any type of romance.


Digging deep

‘The Life Ahead’, Netflix. This emotional story of a Holocaust survivor who takes in a Senegalese street kid in the southern Italian city of Bari marks the return to film-making of screen legend Sophia Loren (pictured). Directed by Loren’s own son Edoardo Ponti, the film’s family connection is apparent in the tenderness of Loren's performance. To top things off emotionally, US songwriter Diane Warren has penned a beautiful ballad for the film: “Io sì”, performed by Italian popstar Laura Pausini.

‘Zan’, Liraz. Like a slash of pink lip gloss beneath a chador, a subtly transgressive stripe cuts through much of this second Farsi-language album from the Israeli-Iranian singer. “Woman”, says the title, not-so-simply: there is a keening for thwarted generations but also an irresistible folk memory of hot, sultry Persian nights, dancing till dawn.

‘The Best of Me’, David Sedaris. The perspicacious humourist’s latest book is no ordinary “greatest hits” compilation – mainly because Sedaris has selected his favourite bits from the archive himself. The result, sarcastically titled The Best of Me, turns into an occasion for Sedaris to reflect on his own 30-year career, and to reiterate once again his favourite topic: writing about family and its everyday absurdities. As usual, and as was amply predictable, it is irresistible, chortle-inducing stuff. The kind of dark, weird, insolent comedy we need right now.


Northern soul

The Lofoten islands curl off of Norway’s northern coastline, jutting into the Norwegian Sea, and its 24,000 or so souls are dispersed in small towns and villages. The newspaper Våganavisa covers news in Vågan which, with a population of just over 9,000, is Lofoten’s largest municipality by some distance. Established in 2006, served by a team of three editorial staff and with a circulation of 2,000, it is recognised as one of Norway’s best newspapers by the national body for regional media, Landslaget for Lokalaviser. The paper’s editor, Morten Moe, tells us what’s been making brisk news in these chilly climes.

What’s the big news this week?
We are not drawn to big news; there’s nothing too small for us. For our front-page article in the most recent issue we wrote about a headmaster who was leaving his post. He had been at the school for 46 years. We thought it would be a good time to reflect on his achievements.

Do you have a favourite image from a recent issue?
We have an article in the latest issue about a local musician who has recorded his debut record and had it pressed it on vinyl. There’s a photograph of him ready to head out in his car delivering them across Lofoten on its release. We’ll see how he manages.

Do you have a down-page treat?
We had a competition recently where shopkeepers decorated their windows with Christmas ornaments and people chose which one they liked best. The displays are the same as you see everywhere – Santa Claus, reindeer, snow and lights – but it looks so nice on this chilly island.

Image: British Airways


Up in the air

Jet-setters who have remained bereft of travel this year will be pleased to hear that they can get one step closer to recreating the aeroplane experience in the comfort of their own homes, thanks to a new sale of items from first-class cabins organised by British Airways. Buyers can pick up everything from bread baskets (set of six, £10; €11) to William Edwards dinner plates (set of six, £40; €45) whose bespoke barley weave design was created specifically for use on the airline. There’s even oven racks (£50; €56) and insulated storage boxes (£75; €84) from retired 747s for those looking to prepare food with an aviation twist.

A particularly quiet year means British Airways has found itself with a surplus of glassware and crockery and flogging it to airline-enthusiasts is a canny way of bringing in a bit of extra revenue in the midst of a financially catastrophic period. Hot towel (set of 10, £12; €13), anyone?


Is it OK to look in my neighbours’ windows?

Mr Etiquette likes to follow his afternoon cup of tea (milk, no sugar) with a stroll around the neighbourhood. It’s a delightful way to appreciate the regal townhouses in nearby streets and he sometimes stops to admire various gardens. But with the sun setting earlier and many of one’s neighbours a little slow to close their curtains, he’s found himself accidentally peering into their front rooms.

It’s an occurrence that Mr Etiquette has found to be quite illuminating and an excellent source of tidbits to tell Mr Tiddly later. To be clear, it’s an academic rather than salacious interest that he takes in why one neighbour has chosen to pair green velvet cushions with a burgundy suede couch and what dear Mrs McTavish has on the stove for dinner. On the few occasions that he’s made eye contact with someone inside their home, he’s felt a little awkward but surely this doesn’t make him a Peeping Tom? After all, he’s not standing right up close or staring for long. So is it OK to look in? It’s certainly not if you stop but a glance in as you’re walking past – without breaking stride – is a perfectly fine sight.


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