The saying that ‘the 60s actually started in the 50s’ is never more accurate than when describing Terence Conran and the later world of design that he introduced into British homes of that period. What’s more in a remarkable life and career he continued to forever move forward right up until his death late last year. Through outlets like Habitat, Heal’s, and The Conran Shop, design led fixtures, furniture and fittings have graced many homes around the UK and the indeed the world.
Terence Orby Conran was born in October 1931 on the Esher/ Kingston upon Thames borders, son of Mabel and Gerard. After a privileged early education which included a stint at Bryanston, where he left early ‘after something to do with girls’ he ended up in the Central School of Art and Design, now part of Central St. Martins, where he studied textiles, from 1948.
In 1949, he shared a studio space with artist Eduardo Paolozzi, a pioneer of Pop Art here in the UK.
He left his studies at St Martins early before graduating however. He worked on the Festival of Britain in 1951 and then continued his education ‘in the field’ as it were, at the architect offices headed by Dennis Lennon. As a sideline, Conran also designed window displays for Simpsons in Piccadilly of an evening.
By the early 50s, he had his own studio and business, Conran & Company, where he designed the Summa furniture range.
In 1953, he opened The Soup Kitchen a bistro on Chandos Place where he served simple and affordable French cuisine. Its coffee came from a Gaggia machine, only the second ever seen in London at the time.
He then opened the Orrery restaurant on the Kings Road in 1954 and then his Conran Design Group, designed Mary Quant’s shop Bazaar that was also on the Kings Road in 1955. Quant was married to Alexander Plunkett Greene, who was an old school chum of Conran’s. He also started Conran fabrics in the same year.
He opened his first Habitat store with his third wife Caroline, on Fulham Road in 1964. Its range of interestingly designed furniture and home wares from rural France and stylish Scandinavia became an overnight success, as customers looked to break free from the long lasting post war after effects. Mary Quant designed the staff uniforms and Vidal Sassoon coiffured their hair.
More stores were soon added including Tottenham Court Road in 1965, and in Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow in 1966 all signalling a mass desire for good design, really for the first time in many homes in the UK. As a result a ‘continental’ look began to be adopted and even the arrival of the duvet into our lives, is said to be down the influence of Conran.
In time, Habitat became part of the Storehouse group, which included Heals, British Home Stores and Mothercare.
He opened the first Conran Shop in 1973 and that name is known now the world over with shops in London, New York, Japan and South Korea.
Habitat – under the name of Conran – also opened in Manhattan in 1976.
In 1981, his Conran Foundation set up the Boilerhouse Project, opened at the Victorian and Albert museum. Over 26 exhibitions curated by Stephen Bayley highlighted the best in design from around the world. Upon closing in 1986, this all went on to form the basis of the Design Museum, which opened permanently from 1989 on a stretch of Butlers Wharf by Tower Bridge that Conran had earlier bought 11 acres of.
Terence Conran was also a passionate restaurateur and opened many establishments in his time, including Quaglinos, Mezzo Bibendium, Boundary, Le Pont de la Tour, Bluebird and Lutyens which took over the basement of 85 Fleet Street, which happens to be the very room I used to work in back in the 80s and 90s. I ate in there on a few occasions a few years back, introduced to it by my good friend David Shriver and it was a very odd experience for me, to say the least.
Conran also wrote over 50 books, which went on to sell over 25 million copies around the globe, mostly though his own publishing company Conran Octopus. Subjects included design, gardening, cookery and interiors.
He was knighted in 1983 for services to design. In 1987, he bought the beautifully adorned Michelin Building on Fulham Palace Road and this eventually became home to the Bibendum restaurant, which also housed a Conran shop.
2016 saw the Design Museum move to the old Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street, with Sir Terence in attendance to cut the ribbon and declaring it open.
Married four times, his children, Sebastian, Jasper, Tom, Sophie and Ned are all working either in the design or restaurant trade.
By way of researching this piece, I finally began to realise how much Conran fundamentally changed the way we as a nation shop and eat. He basically democratised design and good food.
The following quote sums it all up nicely…
‘He promoted the best of British design, culture and the arts around the world with a very simple belief that good design improves the quality of people’s lives.’
Amen to that.
Sir Terence Conran died on 12 September 2020, at the age of 88.
The Mumper of SE5
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