THE LIFE OF A LEGEND
Celebrating Sir Terence Conran – the genius who democratised design
Sir Terence Conran
He’s the man who changed the face of design in this country, and it was with great sadness we heard the news that Sir Terence Conran died on 12 September, aged 88. It was Sir Terence who introduced the duvet to the UK from France, who brought us the chicken brick (a staple of 1980s dinner parties) and helped make innovative and forward-thinking homeware more affordable and less esoteric for so many British people. Visionary, creative, energetic, optimistic – these are the words written and spoken by design commentators in recent eulogies and obituaries. But the last time I was in touch with him, early last year, he used a different word to describe his outlook as a young designer confronting post-war austerity. That word was hungry. He described being hungry for success and frustrated by the indifference to design in furniture shops. ‘I couldn’t let go of the idea that it had to be possible to sell intelligent design in a home furnishings shop,’ he said. Inspired by market stalls in France, Conran opened his first Habitat store in London in 1964. Elizabeth David’s books on cooking refined his attitude further. ‘I thought, why not sell our furniture alongside beautiful and practical things related to it.’ The pleasure he found in pieces that serve food and equip the kitchen never left him and he was first to signal the idea that the kitchen is the heart of the home. When Habitat stores opened across the country with mail order in tow, design availability had at last arrived in Britain.
Conran’s success with Habitat funded a staggering business expansion. Restaurants were opened and he purchased the Michelin building in Kensington where he established The Conran Shop and Bibendum restaurant. He continued marketing design ideas in his first book, The House Book in 1974, and a decade later set up a publishing company to disseminate design ideas through more than 50 titles. Commercial interests never sent Conran’s design instincts undercover; he founded Benchmark Furniture with Sean Sutcliffe in 1984 and his own designs remain part of the company’s current collection.
For many in the design world, Conran’s lasting legacy will be the Design Museum, dedicated to contemporary industrial design, technology, furniture, fashion, transport and more. It began in 1983 as the Boilerhouse Project in the basement of the V&A Museum, then in 1989 Conran took it to Butler’s Wharf on the Thames. In 2016 it relocated to Kensington in a magnificent new building to hold more exhibitions and showcase the world-class collection.
Sir Terence was always a kind supporter of Livingetc and we feel honoured to have been given his stamp of approval. Our mission, when we launched, was not dissimilar to his – to talk about design in a new way, to a new and wider audience who were excitedly folding it into their real homes and lives. He encouraged our early team and often looked out for new starters. The designer Sebastian Cox says, ‘I hadn’t previously appreciated how many careers he influenced at an early stage, from designers to writers to chefs. He frequently gave talented people a job, commission or order which helped to kick-start or shape their careers. It’s only because of his determination to work well into his 80s that I, too, was able to experience this, getting to know him during a commission for London Design Festival 2016, and subsequently designing products with him. I’m fortunate to have worked with this titan of British culture. Will there be anyone who has the same impact? Perhaps only if they share Terence’s determination to nurture and guide the generations that follow.’