THE CONRAN STORY
Sir Terence Conran has had a huge impact on British style. Here, design critic Stephen Bayley takes an intimate look at the design icon’s eventful career
To a certain generation, the name Conran evokes very
specific images and ideas. Domestic liberation through the emergence of modular shelving, a fresh utopia of beanbags and director’s chairs, a paradisiac world of perpetual lunch under spotlights or in bright sunshine. A glass of French country wine in a Paris goblet. Terence understood the word ‘design’ to mean pleasant objects used in pursuit of pleasure. And who would argue with that? For 20 years after Conran’s Habitat opened in 1964, its catalogue revealed a world as lost to us now as the Incas: men in flares, plumcoloured Shetland wool polo necks and aviator shades look longingly at girls in miniskirts on sofas. Perhaps the girl is holding salad servers and grinning. Habitat offered a kind of redemption for people who had to buy their own furniture.
Another generation thinks of Terence Conran as the serial restaurateur of the 1990s who assumed the character of Michelin’s own Monsieur Bibendum: a jovial, inflated figure with a cigar to hand and a glass of something delicious not too far away. Chelsea’s eponymous Bibendum restaurant, a heroic restoration of the neglected Michelin Building, began the transformation of British dining in 1987, but Quaglino’s in St James was the true marker here: a spirited revival of a neglected establishment that turned a restaurant into theatrical spectacle.
Never mind that its roots were in the great brasseries of Montparnasse or Alexander Girard’s Manhattan restaurants of the 1960s, Quaglino’s was a local revolution. Still, cultural historian Fiona Maccarthy acidly described it as a ‘deprived child’s vision of glamour’. Maybe, but it changed London’s expectations of eating out: a lot of deprived children who had become prosperous needed definitions of glamour and Terence was able to satisfy them.
Now, yet another generation thinks of Terence as patron of the Design Museum, perhaps his greatest monument and one in which I had a hand [Bayley was the first director of the Design Museum from 1979 to 1989]. Here was a shopkeeper and restaurateur accessing ‘culture’. Terence realised that he was never going to be a great designer, so, with genius, he shifted paradigms. He turned design from being an activity into a commodity. No longer being something people do, such as whittle a stick, it became something you could buy in his shops or experience in his restaurants. With the creation of a Design Museum, he acquired, at least for a while, intellectual ownership of design as well.
The slow ingestion of European values has defined British material culture since 1945. In France, a young Terence found the combination of sensualism and earthy practicality that define him. It is not true that Terence invented the baguette, but he did sell the first duvets in Britain. However, it was not enough to pioneer continental quilts: Terence had to claim he changed the nation’s sex life, too.
For Terence, the connection between food and design is essential and blurred into a lovely douceur de vivre. British cookery writer Elizabeth David was not his sole influence: in 1950s London,
Other influences on Habitat came from time spent on 1950s photoshoots for Robert Harling’s House & Garden. Here Terence had seen the way photographers lit their subjects and how stylists assembled meaningful objects in meaningful ways. As a magazine editor, Harling had an eclectic eye, juxtaposing old and new while emphasising the importance of colour and simplicity; this was revolutionary at the time. Like Sir Jack Cohen’s Tesco, which opened its first supermarket in Essex in 1956, Terence learnt how to pile it high, if not sell it especially cheap. Impressive stacks of goods had ‘that irresistible feeling of plenty you find on market stalls’.
Italy was also an influence. Terence had admired Giò Ponti’s work at the Triennales in Milan. Here he also saw the work of Franco Albini, whose interiors were boldly austere. Albini would, for example, display a Baroque painting out of its frame and attach it to a simple grey wall. In a similar way, Habitat turned products into celebrities. At Habitat, as in an exhibition or a gallery, special attention was paid to the lighting.
The Design Museum, though, may be Terence’s greatest legacy. It opened in August 1989 when his business empire was starting to face difficulties [this included Habitat, Mothercare and BHS]. Thus there is a haunting paradox: Terence Conran paid for a museum about creativity at just the time when his own was called into question. But he remains a true hero to everyone who cares about the nature of things. Students and young designers still become inspired by his example and enthralled by personal contact.
We hear a little less about him nowadays, not surprising for a man who will be turning 85 in October. Terence never designed a masterpiece chair, nor a widget. Instead, he had a larger vision of his subject. The Italian word disegno not only means drawing, but also intention. Terence intended to make design a matter of daily routine, not of privilege. Department stores now sell Modernist classics that were once recondite museum pieces: that’s his influence. If your local pub is serving pâté and not pickled eggs, that’s his influence too. Every Briton who can remember grey food and brown furniture should be very grateful for Terence’s cheerful intentions and colourful interventions.
HE UNDERSTOOD THE WORD ‘DESIGN’ TO MEAN PLEASANT OBJECTS USED IN PURSUIT OF PLEASURE