Sir Terence Conran

Sir Terence Conran

In memory of the design pioneer who passed away yesterday, we revisit our conversation with him, full of lessons from his inspiring life. This conversation initially appeared in our September/October 2011 issue and is a part of our extensive archive.

His eponymous design house has been instrumental in not only adding creativity and grandeur to spaces but also bettering peoples’ lives. As he approaches his 80th birthday, and while on holiday in Sicily Sir Conran very kindly hand writes the answers to our questions and shares past moments, inspirations and life lessons that have made him who he is today.
 
How would you summarize your journey as your 80th birthday is approaching? 
It has been the most fantastic journey I could have ever imagined because everything | have ever done in business has never felt like a job and gives me immense pleasure. | began my career as a textile designer with aspirations to become a product designer in a very grey and austere Britain in the 1950s and now I am the Chairman of a design group operating hotels, restaurants and shops and working on architecture and design projects all over the world. Throughout this time I have designed and printed textiles, made furniture, retailed home furnishings, clothes, baby and children’s products, designed, and run restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs and hotels. Obviously, as with any designer, | have been affected by events surrounding me, but I hope I have remained true to my fundamental aim throughout my life — to produce useful things at a price that most people can afford. My philosophy is best summed up by the phrase ‘Plain, Simple and Useful’. Such things may not win many design prizes but neither do they go out of fashion. 
 
Our design group has designed everything from skyscrapers to cottages. We have done interiors for anything from airport terminals and department stores to small shops and cafes. We have designed cars and teaspoons, ipod docks, lights, furniture, homewares, lighting, aircraft and boats. I have been closely involved with the design of practically every project over the years as either the conceptual or lead designer although it is the quality of the team around me that must take a large part of the praise for our success over many years. I have always believed that if products or buildings or interiors are intelligently designed they will help improve the quality of life of the users. | also believe that most people don’t know what they want until it is offered to them and that is what | have been trying to do for most of my life. | hope this doesn’t sound too pompous!
 
What have been the three most rewarding milestones of your career?
Making a success of Habitat was perhaps my biggest achievement and | can honestly say the day | 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 | had fallen in love with the quirky Art Deco architecture of the Michelin Building. | dreamt about transforming it into a wonderful shop and ofcourse, 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. | 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.
 
If we journey back how did the romance with design begin?
| don't think there was one particular moment where | suddenly saw my future direction, rather lots of little triggers. Even as a very small child | always enjoyed making things and my favourite present was a bag of wooden off cuts, some nails and a set of basic tools. That kept me happy for hours on end. As a student, the work of West Coast American artists and designers and architects that were illustrated in a magazine called Arts and Architecture, visits to country houses in Dorset and seeing the kitchens and dairies — the areas where all the practical things were done, sharing a workshop with Eduardo Paolozzi, the Britain Can Make ft exhibition at the V&A and the Milan Triennales of the early 1950s, all greatly inspired me. Working on the Festival of Britain was a huge turning point. You have to remember what a grey and austere place London {and Britain) was in those days, nothing like it is today. It demonstrated an enormous appetite for change, even if it took another decade for the changes to take place in the sixties. People who visited had never seen modern contemporary design before but they loved it.
 
Within two years of your leaving school in 1952 you started your own company. How did a 21-year-old boy then manage a start up and expand in such a short time?
| suppose | just had a fierce conviction in my beliefs — that there was a better style of life for people to live out there. As a student the teachings of the Bauhaus and William Morris had a significant impact on my approach to design and about making modern design available to a wide audience. After working on the Festival of Britain, | spent the next decade trying to get my designs in the public eye but found it an infuriating process. By the early sixties, | had had a modicum of success selling contract furniture to commercial users but what | hadn’t realized at that time was that the product itself was not enough. | 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 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. | 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.
 
Who were your mentors during the early stages of your career?
There are almost too many to mention but here are just a few, in no particular order. Brunel, Norman Foster, Elizabeth David, Charles and Ray Eames, Elizabeth David, William Morris, the teachings of the Bauhaus and of course, my dear friends Michael Wickham and Eduardo Paolozzi. | owe so much to Eduardo Paolozzi and remember very vividly the influence he had on my early life —- both on my approach to art and design but even more importantly to life itself. He came to teach at the Central School, he had just returned from Paris and | remember he was very interested in primitive African art. As well as sculpture, for which he was best known, he made collages and printed textiles, all of which seemed to me to be bursting with colour and originality. | have to admit that a lot of my early work, particularly my textile designs, showed a heavy Paolozzi influence. He was a wonderfully rugged man who oozed creativity and became a great inspiration in everything | did. He was not only a teacher but also a lifelong friend.
 
| can also remember very clearly how Eduardo sparked my interest in food. At that time we were all very poor students and constantly hungry. There was still rationing in place in Britain and we pretty much survived on Spam sandwiches which is no way to live. But Eduardo used to invite me to his flat as he got these wonderful parcels of food sent over from Italy. One night he cooked me a squid risotto with black ink. He told me to chop the onions — which he had to teach me as | didn’t know how in those days — and he opened a tin of squid which he mixed with rice and onions and lots and lots of garlic. It was absolutely delicious, like nothing | had ever tasted. Eduardo saw my interest and would often invite me round to cook incredible pasta dishes.
 
What was your vision then and after being in the business for more than 50 years what is your vision now? 
| remember taking a trip with my dear friend, the photographer Michael Wickham. | was very young, perhaps in my late teens and | had never been abroad before. We drove south in his old Lagonda through the Dordogne and | was amazed by the quality of everyday French country life — the delicious food in roadside cafes, washed down with carafes of rough red wine which were generously thrown in for free. The simple, unpretentious but abundant displays on market stalls and shops had a strong impact on me and demonstrated how useful, everyday products could be both beautiful and practical. | suppose | have always tried to capture something of those qualities in my work and have been ever since. Although I’ve yet to open a restaurant or bar where we can throw in the red wine for free! But | just remember thinking — this is how life should be, simple, relaxed, comfortable — happy. Perhaps that was my vision then, but to do that | had to get my products and ideas in front of people.
 
| don’t think my vision has ever changed too dramatically, but as you gain maturity and experience you come to understand what works and what doesn't, the things that have been successful and the things that haven’t quite achieved what you set out to do. Maturity and the lessons you leam along the way are vital to success. When | was younger | was pretty selective about what | liked but | was constantly absorbing things which as | got older allowed me to see the beauty in many things.
 
What responsibilities come with being a creative mogul?
| don't think many responsibilities come from being creative, but as a businessman working on projects all over the world - that comes with a huge measure of responsibility. You employ a great number of people and you have to make sure they always have work to do, projects that are interested and keep them stimulated. With experience, you also learn that the work you do has an impact on a large amount of people and the way they live their lives. It's a tremendous, but pleasurable, responsibility to make sure your work constantly excites people and still gives them pleasure. If it doesn’t, then however creative you are you will not be in business for long.
 
Has their been anything you haven’t done in the last 50 years that you wish you could do now and is their any project you would have loved to be a part of?
| have tried to live my life without regrets, and without sounding too arrogant | do feel | have achieved enough in my life to do so. I've always thought that Battersea Power Station is a wonderful building and could be something truly special, certainly more than being a beautiful, but derelict building. We've tried a few things down the years with it, but they never came off. It looks like things may be happening on that front at the moment, but sadly we won't be part of it.
 
| have also always wanted to make a film showing the importance of design. We would set the film in two parts and in the first half we would follow a relatively average day of an ordinary person and show how bad design disrupts their pleasure and comfort — how difficult it makes life. In the second half, we would follow the same person living a similar day but surrounded by good design and demonstrate just how much good design can improve all our experiences. | think it would be a very significant film; | just don’t have time to get it made!
 
You have designed and given a facelift to The Park Hotels in India. What are your views on the design coming out of India? 
I think India is one of the most exciting countries in the world with a terrific, exciting design scene — and | don’t just say that to gain favour with your Indian readership | promise. I’ve been travelling there pretty regularly since the early days of Habitat and | am always invigorated by the people, the energy, the positivity and the ambition — in many ways it is like London but with more colour and less cynicism! | have always felt that Indian designers, craftsmen and artists have been less constrained by colour, texture and pattern and that has been one of the pleasures of working with Priya Paul (Chairperson of The Park Hotel )— right from our very first project we have worked with local craftsmen and artists and been able to work with a greater degree of freedom and expression. | have always found that India is proud of its culture, craft and traditions and increasingly this is being expressed through design. One of our senior interior designers has recently returned from a trip to India and he spoke excitedly of the way Indian designers are pushing creative and technological boundaries. We discussed hotels that wouldn't look out of place in Hong Kong, New York or Miami with design and service that is parallel to anywhere in the world.
 
Recently you donated a generous amount to The Design Museum of London for their development - what is your vision for the museum and how would you like to see it progress?
Our current location in Butlers Wharf has been a fantastic and very happy home for the last twenty years or so but unfortunately it is just too small. Moving to the old Commonwealth institute in West London will give us approximately three times the space and allow all our dreams and ambitions to come true. We want to create the world’s leading museum of design, a world-class space with the scale for serious promotion, celebration and promotion of architecture and design in the UK. It’s ambitious, but the truly great projects almost always are. Throughout my life | have been passionate about the importance of education surrounding design, whether that has been as the Provost of the Royal College of Art or founding The Design Museum. This would truly be the culmination of my lifelong hopes and ambitions for design in this country.
 
Where do we see Sir Terence Conran go from here?
| may be approaching my 80" birthday but | feel young, fit and with much | still want to achieve. | enjoy working so much | never want to stop, it keeps me feeling alive. Designing furniture and homewares for Marks & Spencer in the UK is a huge job for us, perhaps the design job | have been waiting for all my life, and has given me a tremendous amount of creative energy. Our work will continue to expand at home and overseas and | do very much hope that our plans to open a design and architecture office in India will come to fruition. | also have a very exciting plan for central London, to create a design supermarket bringing together design, fashion, food and homewares. It’s in the early stages of development at the moment and we're still looking for the right location but what we have in mind is an entirely new way of shopping and tremendously exciting.

Text Shruti Kapur Malhotra