The way we live now
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.
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.
Terence in tweets
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