Sir Terence Conran has had more impact than any other designer of his generation on everyday life in contemporary Britain though a series of parallel careers. Conran describes the private boarding school he attended as an ‘inspired’ choice by his mother, because it particularly encouraged creativity in its pupils and balanced academic study with practical, physical activities like digging the vegetable garden and rudimentary plumbing. Later, at the Central School of Art and Design in London, Conran absorbed the Bauhaus and Arts & Crafts influenced beliefs that ‘a good design should be available to the whole community, not just to a few.’ After Central he set up as an independent designer at the age of 21. Through his friendship with the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi he was on the fringes of the Independent Group, the artistic avant garde of the 1950s that brought Pop Art to Britain and worked on the Festival of Britain. But he was driven to establish his own shop, as he once said, to prove to people that his designs could find a market even if nobody else wanted to sell them.
He was the founder of Habitat, the furniture company that he grew from a single, very high profile outlet in London, to a national and then international chain. Habitat took Britain out of the gloom of post war austerity into a vision of what the domestic world could be like. 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. Indeed at one time the Conran Design Group used the platonic sphere, cube and cone of the Bauhaus as its logo. But after the post war equation in the British mind of modernism with war time utility designs and deprivation, it was an important commercial success, and showed that design could be glamorous. 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.
Habitat was the springboard for Conran’s expansion into the retail mainstream. As the founder of the Storehouse Group he acquired the Heals furniture business, set up Next, the high street fashion chain, and ran British Home Stores and Mothercare. This business ambition came to an end after several years of management and shareholder acrimony but the dream of introducing intelligently-designed products to the mass market had a brief, palpable effect on the high street. Terence continues to be involved in retail with The Conran Shop, with eight stores located in London, Paris, New York and across Japan.
At the same time the Conran design consultancy was in the vanguard of the professionalisation of design in Britain, specialising in interiors, product design and graphics, and even establishing an architectural practice with Fred Lloyd Roche. Conran then embarked on an entirely new career in the restaurant business, with an impact as profound on what Britain’s ever-expanding middle classes ate, as Habitat had on what they sat on and the utensils they used. His first restaurant, with Ivan Storey, The Soup Kitchen, opened in London in 1953 and his most recent, Skylon, opened at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2007; and the restaurant empire extends to Guastavino’s in New York, Custom House in Copenhagen and Botanic in Tokyo. Alcazar, which opened in Paris in 1998, represents a resolution of Conran’s admiration and passion for French food and style. In 2006, D&D London acquired a 49% stake in the restaurant business, but Conran continues to be involved with it. In late 2008 he opened the Boundary in Shoreditch – a restaurant, rooftop bar and grill, café, bakery and foodstore with 17 individually designed bedrooms.
Conran showed how design could become an organised businesslike activity, and one that could earn its place at the centre of national debate. He broke the mold of the ‘paternalistic, elitist’ character of British design before and after the War, and was reproached by the Society of Industrial Artists in the mid-1950s for promotional activities which were regarded as unacceptably competitive. The success of his enterprises have hugely influenced the British government’s ability to recognise the economic value of design.
In spite of the international flush of Modernism after the War, Conran calculates that ‘it has taken a good half-century for Britain to begin to accept modernity.’ Fuelled by his own passion for the modern movement and its benefit to society, Conran was instrumental in establishing the Design Museum in London. With the advice of Sir Paul Reilly, the long serving director of the Council of Industrial Design, he negotiated an agreement with the Victoria and Albert Museum to establish the Boilerhouse project in the museum’s basement in 1982. Under its inaugural Director, Stephen Bayley, the Boilerhouse put design on the cultural landscape in Britain in a way that it had not been for many years. When the Boilerhouse outgrew the V&A’s basement, it was Conran’s support that permitted its metamorphosis into the Design Museum in its present Shad Thames site.
How has design shaped the many varied avenues of your career?
I’ve spent a colourful lifetime working in design and everything related to it, because design is where all the things I have worked on meet. The restaurants, hotels and bars we have designed or operated, the shops, the interiors, the buildings, the products and furniture or the books I have written – design is the one thing that connects them all and they add up to what I call a style of life. I also realise how lucky I have been in that everything I have ever done for work or business I would have done simply for pleasure.
When did your passion for design begin?
My mother was a terrific influence on Priscilla and I from a very early age. She always encouraged us to express ourselves and provided us with the means to do so. Even as a small child I enjoyed making things and my favourite present was a bag of wooden off cuts and a box of tools. I also had an entrepreneurial spirit from an early age – I remember exchanging a wooden battleship I had made for a potters lathe and being extremely proud of myself with my side of the deal.
Would you say that growing up during the Second World War has underpinned your design style and work philosophy?
I think growing up in the Second World War had a profound effect on every child growing up on that time. I wouldn’t say the war underpinned my design philosophy but it certainly instilled a sense of “make do and mend.” As children we were thrown onto our own resources very early and I think that gave me the fierce determination to succeed and to make the most of having very little. Leaving London to escape the Blitz also meant that I grew up in a very beautiful part of the countryside, a setting that first inspired my very first passions for native wild flowers, butterflies and moths – perhaps you could call them the first seeds of my creativity.
What other experiences have influenced your style and philosophy?
One of the great turning points in my life was a trip to France in 1953 I took with Michael Wickham. We drove south in his old Lagonda through the Dordogne and it was the first time I had been abroad. Coming from a very grey, post war London I was amazed by the quality of everyday French life - the delicious food in roadside cafes that was washed down with carafes of rough red wine, generously thrown in for free, and the simple, unpretentious but abundant displays on market stalls and shops. I thought, “Why couldn’t we enjoy a life like that back in England?” I suppose I have been trying to capture something of those qualities ever since, although I’ve yet to open a restaurant or bar where we can throw in the red wine for free!
What led you to work in furniture design and manufacture?
I’d discussed my options with my parents and tutor at school – with my interest in organic chemistry, colour and pattern making, a course in textile design and printing seemed a very natural choice to make. But I was always interested in making all kinds of things from an early age and my tutor at the Central School was quick to grasp that I perhaps had more interest in furniture design. It seems to me that the foundation year at any design school is an ideal way of allowing students to experiment with different disciplines and it is no surprise just how many change direction during this year, rather like I did. As it turns out, before finishing the course I was offered a job, which I was encouraged to take as they were so rare in those days.
You once said in an interview that you opened your own shop because nobody could sell your furniture better than you. Do you think that the way your products were sold, were as important as the actual designs?
In the early sixties I had had a modicum of success selling contract furniture to commercial users but what I hadn’t realised at that time was that the product itself was not enough. I produced a range of modern flat pack furniture called Summa and we needed staff and retailers to demonstrate our enthusiasm for the designs but they didn’t. Our products looked out of place in their quite dreary shops and showrooms. We were young and hungry for success but the retailers could not see the world was changing and were too lazy and complacent to seize the opportunity – our products didn’t stand a chance of selling in that environment. I felt there was an opportunity for a revolution in the way things were sold, to create something that was more than just a shop selling furniture. And so began my Habitat experiment – partly out of frustration, but also out of a conviction that a better style of life should be more widely available.
It has been said that you ‘democratised luxury’ - making it readily available on the High Street. Did you see Habitat as a shop on a mission?
People like Mary Quant, myself and other young designers were just incredibly frustrated that our ideas – ideas that we passionately believed would work – were not being taken up by the “powers that be.” So we opened our own shops and did our own thing. It is amazing how Mary’s one little shop made such an inspiring difference. The secret of Habitat’s early success was that it sold quite a lot of affordable but iconic products alongside the furniture – everything from paper lanterns to chopping boards. People quickly realized that by buying a few of them you could completely refresh your home.
Having worked in businesses over a long period, what would you say are the differences between starting a business in the 1950’s, 80’s and the present day?
There are tremendous differences – when I first started out in the 1950s we lived in a grey and damaged land and had to literally fight for our belief that there was a better way of life available to people. Nowadays, we live in a world of opportunities and in a technological age that allows instant communication with practically any country in the world. The market is certainly more competitive too, but any entrepreneur or businessman who backs themselves to be successful would welcome that. Despite the many differences, the qualities for success in business have always remained the same - intelligence, imagination, creativity, common sense, perseverance, market awareness, determination, sensitivity and above all, a thick skin of self confidence are as important now as they were when I was first starting out, although I do have the benefit of a large dollop of hindsight.
What have been the most memorable achievements of your career?
Making a success of Habitat was perhaps my biggest achievement and I can honestly say the day I opened Michelin House was the happiest day of my life. The site of the first Habitat store was just over the road from the building and over the years I had fallen in love with the quirky Art Deco architecture of the Michelin Building. I dreamt about transforming it into a wonderful shop and – of course – a first class restaurant and to this day we still have The Conran Shop and Bibendum there. However, founding the Design Museum was perhaps my favourite project and the one that has given me most satisfaction. I have always been a great supporter of education in design and passionately believe that good design is of fundamental importance to our quality of everyday life.
What events led to you founding the Design Museum?
As a student I spent a great deal of time in museums and always felt that while the history of design in the decorative arts and in all types of scientific engineering was extremely well covered, there was a pressing need to create something more contemporary. I felt we were a country that only cared about its glorious past but uninterested in our present and future. So when I first had some serious money in my pocket, I began to dream of creating something special. We may be celebrated all over the world for our creativity and innovation but our future will always be inextricably tied in to the quality of education. Now, more than ever before, creativity and innovation is vital to the world and we need our young talent to paint, draw, design and write a better future.
The Way We Live Now was an exhibition at the Design Museum to celebrate your 80th birthday and traces your career from the Festival of Britain to modern times. How do you feel about it and has anything come as a surprise?
I was slightly unsure about the exhibition at first. I felt it sounded a bit egotistical and I certainly don’t want to shout from the rooftops about turning 80 – especially as I don’t really feel that old and have so much left I want to do. So I do hope the exhibition comes across as forward looking and ambitious about the future. That said, some of the early furniture I designed that the team have managed to find has has been personally very emotional for me, especially as much of it has been so well looked after. I haven’t really kept much of an archive and as a young, impoverished designer if somebody wanted to buy something from me I would snap their hands off. Paying the gas bill at the end of the month was my first objective and the idea of keeping something to display in future years was not something I contemplated. So I haven’t seen much of my work from this time for over fifty years and I hope people find them as interesting as I do.
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions or plans for the future?
Oh yes, plenty – and I hope I always will have unfulfilled ambitions and plans for the future until the day I die. Unfinished business is what keeps me feeling young, alive, creative and determined.
In just three or four words: What would you say are the hallmarks of good design?
Simplicity, beauty, functionality and surprise.
Born in Kingston upon Thames
Enrolled in Central School of Arts & Crafts
Started workshop in Eastend with Eduardo Paolozzi making furniture
On the advice of his tutor leaves course at Central to work for architect Dennis Lennon. In the evenings he works on a window display in Simpsons, Piccadilly
Opens Conran & Company from a basement in Notting Hill, selling furniture from a basement showroom in Piccadilly Arcade
Opens Soup Kitchen in Chandos Place, inspired by the elegant simplicity of affordable restaurants in France at the time. It housed the second Gaggia machine in London
Opens Orrery on Kings Road
Started Conran Fabrics
Set up Conran Design Group, designing among other things a store design for Mary Quant in Knightsbridge
Moved his operations to 40,000 square foot factory in Thetford, Norfolk, taking 80 families with him
Habitat retail store opens in Chelsea with staff in uniforms by Mary Quant and hair styled by Vidal Sassoon
Habitat opens second branch on Tottenham Court Road
Habitat opens further branches in Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow
Merges company to form Ryman Conran
Neal Street Restaurant opens, which until it’s recent closure was run by Terence’s sister Priscilla and her husband, Antonio Carluccio. Conran Associates replaces Conran Design Group
Habitat’s largest branch opens on Kings’ Road and first branch of Conran shop opens on site of original Habitat store
Publication of House Book by Mitchell Beazley, the forerunner to Habitat Catalogue
Opens Habitat shop in Citicorp building in Manhattan under the name Conran
Conran Foundation set up, dedicated to educating the public and British industry on the values of industrial design. Habitat becomes a public company.
Boilerhouse (the initial incarnation of the Design Museum) opens at the V&A. As Chairman of Hepworths, uses his position on the board of a menswear chain to develop Next. Buys 11 acre site at Butlers wharf for redevelopment
Purchased Mothercare; launch of Habitat Basics so popular in Japan that Seibu (the department store that franchised the line) developed the ‘no brand’ formula to create Muji.
Receives his knighthood from Buckingham Palace to become Sir Terence Conran
Conran Octopus created with Paul Hamlyn to produce educational but inspiring books about interiors, gardening and cookery
Boilerhouse closes at V&A to begin renovation of Southbank site; Habitat-Mothercare merges with British Home Stores and rebranding begins to become BhS. Benchmark furniture-making company set up in the grounds of his home in Berkshire.
Buys the Michelin Building in Fulham Road and refurbishes it to become home for the Conran Shop, Octopus publishing and Bibendum restaurant
Design Museum opens at Butlers Wharf
Retires from Storehouse, sets up Conran Holdings from an apartment in Shad Thames, Butlers Wharf
Conran Restaurants set up. Design company Conran Roche becomes CD partnership.
Conran Shop opens in Shinjuku Park Tower in Tokyo
Conran Shop opens in New York underneath the 59th Street Bridge, along with the restaurant Guastavino’s. Merges CD Partnership with Sebastian Conran Associates to form Conran & Partners, or C&P
Opening, in partnership with Wyndham International, of London’s Great Eastern Hotel which became one of London’s most successful hotels
Named Provost for the Royal College of Art. Starts developing the Conran Collections, a series of brand licensed products that reflect his lifelong philosophy to bring good quality, contemporary homewares to a wider audience. Ranges now include Bed by Conran, Light by Conran, Terence Conran by Royal Doulton, Content by Conran and Vision by Conran
Awarded Prince Philip Designer of the Year award for services to design. Conran & Partners complete work on Roppongi Hills, a new urban quarter in the heart of Tokyo, created by the Mori Building Company.
Conran restaurants renamed D&D London but Conran Holdings maintains a 51% stake in the business. Sells Great Eastern Hotel to Hyatt Hotels
Launches range of cookware for Royal Doulton. Becomes an honourary Doctor of Science at Southbank University. Releases book Design: Intelligence Made Visible, with Stephen Bayley
Design Museum Exhibition: Terence Conran - The Way We Live Now from 16 November 2011 - 4 March 2012. Awarded The Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy which celebrates the impact of givers to the arts.
Design Museum Exhibition (2011)
The Way We Live Now
Image credit: Luke Hayes
Plain Simple Useful: The Essence of Conran Style
Author: Sir Terance Conran
Publisher: Conran (2014)
Terence Conran: Design and the Quality of Life (The Cutting Edge)
Author: Elizabeth Wilhide
Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd (1999)
more designers for you
Chipperfield today heads a substantial international practice. He is building or has built in China, America, Japan, Italy, Spain and Germany, though comparatively little in Britain. And so, Chipperfield, who is in so many ways quintessentially English, has become the most European of British architects.