Sir Terence Conran: Pioneer of British Design

Sir Terence Conran, who died last week at the age of 88, was a visionary designer and entrepreneur whose business acumen transformed post-war British living. A “Bauhaus-educated chap” (as he described himself in an interview with Vanity Fair), Conran’s modernist principles and desire to democratise design have had a lasting impact on contemporary Britain.

Image: Sir Terence Conran smiles with an image of his younger self at the opening of Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution | Terence Conran – Mary Quant. Fashion and Textile Museum, 7 February 2019.

Born in Kingston-upon-Thames on 4 October 1931, Terence Orby Conran, showed artistic promise from a young age. He briefly studied textile design at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts before leaving to work on a project for the 1951 Festival of Britain, under the architect Dennis Lennon. A year later, operating from a basement in Notting Hill, he founded Conran & Company. Prior to this he had shared a studio with his mentor and former tutor, the sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi. 

Image: homeware and textiles by Sir Terence Conran’s mentor, Eduardo Paolozzi.

Inspired by French brasseries and the cookery writer Elizabeth David, he opened his first restaurant, Soup Kitchen, in 1953. Situated in Charing Cross, it had the second Gaggia coffee machine in London. Conran would continue to revolutionise London’s eateries throughout his career, spearheading more than 50 restaurants, including the Orrery Coffee Bar, Neal Street Restaurant, Bibendum, Quagliano’s and the original Blueprint Café.

Image: room set inspired by Soup Kitchen; interiors by Terence Conran and cookbooks by Elizabeth David.

 

The Conran Design Group was founded in 1956, with the aim of designing furniture and interiors for the home, in addition to hotels and restaurants. One of their most influential commissions was designing Mary Quant’s second Bazaar boutique, situated on Brompton Road in Knightsbridge. Conran was heavily influenced by the Italian designers Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti; leading to an informal, but continental feel to the store. 

The first Habitat shop opened on London’s Fulham Road in 1964, with staff wearing uniforms designed by Mary Quant and hair styled by Vidal Sassoon. Conran’s philosophy was that goods and furnishings were to be “economic, plain, simple and useful”. In its review of the store, The Sunday Times ran the headline: ‘What the smart chicks are buying’. Its first printed catalogue was published in 1966, with Conran’s very own living room being featured – the Managing Director’s cat can be seen in later editions.  

Image: room set inspired by Habitat; interiors by Terence Conran, textiles by Conran Fabrics, garments by Mary Quant.

Decades before the arrival of IKEA, Habitat brought flat-pack (also known as knock-down) furniture to the masses, along with woks, chicken bricks, duvets, and paper lanterns. Products were aimed at “someone on a teacher’s salary”. Pieces such as glassware, lighting and carpets were not just designed in-house, but also sourced from Italy, France and Scandinavia. Tord Boontje, former head of the Royal College of Art’s Design Products programme, describes its impact on consumers: “Habitat brought well-designed items into people’s homes before they knew what design was”. The store soon expanded to a second branch on Tottenham Court Road, with further outlets opening in Brighton, Manchester and Glasgow. It was not long before Habitat could be found in Paris, New York and across Japan.

Image: garments by Mary Quant, interiors by Terence Conran, including an example of the S.1 cabinet, c.1952, as far as is known, the first piece of case furniture from Conran’s first independent range of furniture to be commercially available. At this early period, Conran was still making the furniture himself.

In 1973, the first branch of the Conran Shop opened on the site of the original Habitat store. The following year, Conran published The House Book; a guide for how to curate and design a modern home. As Conran’s retail empire expanded, Habitat would eventually be joined by Mothercare, Heals, Richards Shops, and BHS, as well as the newly established Next. Known as Storehouse, Conran was chairman and chief executive of the group until 1990. In recognition of this success, he received a knighthood in 1983.

His support of and dedication to British design led Conran to help set up the Design Museum (then based in Shad Thames), which opened its doors in 1989. “No one has done more to create modern Britain than Terence Conran,” said its former director Deyan Sudjic. “He spent his whole career looking for ways to make life better for everyone.” He may not have seen himself as a businessman, but as the current Design Museum director Tim Marlow puts it: “He changed the way we lived and shopped and ate.”

Conran’s pioneering vision during the 1950s and 60s was celebrated in our 2019 exhibition, Swinging London: A Lifestyle Revolution | Terence Conran – Mary Quant. The exhibition featured some of Conran’s earliest pieces, including the S.1 cabinet, T.1 table and the iconic C.8 ‘Cone’ chair. The exhibition continues to pay tribute to the designer’s enduring legacy at Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, where it is on show until Saturday 9 January 2021.

Image: an example of the iconic C.8 ‘Cone’ chair c.1953, accompanied by garments by Mary Quant.

In announcing his passing, his family described him; “a proud patriot, Sir Terence promoted the best of British design, culture and the arts around the world and at the heart of everything he did was the very simple belief that good design improves the quality of people’s lives.”


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