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

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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,

rev­o­lu­tion was in the kitchen air, and food was fast be­com­ing rad­i­calised. In their 1957 book Plats du Jour Pa­tience Gray and Prim­rose Boyd gave ad­vice be­yond a re­li­able recipe for boeuf bour­guignon or co­tri­ade which ex­tended into what we would nowa­days call ‘de­sign’. Seven years be­fore Habi­tat opened, they com­ment on a Dan­ish casse­role: ‘This de­sign ex­presses clearly, in terms of use, the abo­li­tion of the bar­rier be­tween kitchen and din­ing room in the open- plan­ning of a mod­ern house or flat.’ This was be­cause ‘one can­not sep­a­rate the plat du jour from the ves­sel it is cooked in’. That was a con­nec­tion Ter­ence clev­erly ex­ploited: it was a short step from want­ing to cook the per­fect ratatouille to want­ing a Provençal kitchen to cook it in.

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.

ED

HE UN­DER­STOOD THE WORD ‘DE­SIGN’ TO MEAN PLEAS­ANT OB­JECTS USED IN PUR­SUIT OF PLEA­SURE

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