One of the world's bestknown designers, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, Sir Terence Conran, turned 80 in October. To mark the occasion, the Design Museum is hosting a major retrospective exhibition exploring his unique impact on contemporary life in Britain. Here, Conran looks back over his career and tells Stacey Sheppard about his inspiration, his secret to success and his biggest achievements.
With a career spanning some 60 years, Sir Terence Conran has left an indelible mark on the British way of life. Born in 1931, he studied textile design at London's Central School of Art. But in 1948 he abandoned his studies to seek fulltime employment and set up a workshop with his tutor, the artist and printmaker Eduardo Paolozzi, where he concentrated his skills on furniture design, ceramics and fabrics.
But it was when travelling in mainland Europe that Conran started to question the British way of life before concluding that there was a more appealing lifestyle to be had. "What you have to remember is how grim things were in postwar Britain," he says. "I remember taking wonderful trips to France, Spain and later Italy and wondering why we couldn't enjoy a life like that back in England."
Years later Conran was credited with bringing that European lifestyle to the UK by introducing the British to flatpacked furniture, the duvet, woks, garlic crushers and even espresso machines. He says: "It's a pretty simple philosophy, but I have always said that unless people are offered something, then they can neither like it nor buy it and those products, by and large were not available in the UK. I suppose I just had a fierce conviction in my beliefs that there was a better style of life for people to live out there and that people would embrace it." And, when Conran opened his own design studio in 1956 followed by the Habitat chain of home furnishing stores in 1964, embrace it they did.
Through Habitat, Conran introduced European aesthetics, modernity and affordable design. The simple forms, natural materials and fresh colour palette created aspirational interiors that helped to propel Conran into the retail mainstream. With Habitat, he shattered the mould of existing furniture stores and created an entirely new retail experience that appealed to a younger generation that now had money to spend.
"The secret of Habitat's early success was that it sold quite a lot of affordable but iconic products alongside the furniture everything from paper lanterns to chopping boards and people quickly realised that by buying a few of them you could completely refresh your home," explains Conran.
In the coming years, Conran continued to expand his empire. The 1980s saw him establish The Storehouse Group, which acquired Heals furniture store, and he also oversaw British Home Stores and Mothercare as well as setting up the high street fashion chain Next.
For years, the Conran Design Group demonstrated the best of design in Britain and when Conran partnered with Fred Lloyd Roche to create the architectural practice, Conran Roche (which later become Conran and Partners) Conran further extended his reach by entering the realms of urban design, architecture and interiors. Meanwhile his restaurant empire, which started with the opening of the Soup Kitchen in London in 1953, continued to grow, both in the UK and abroad.
However, it certainly wasn't by chance that Conran became known as one of the UK's most successful entrepreneurs. Very early on he recognized that design skills alone were not enough to bring affordable, useful design to the masses.
"I think one of the most important lessons I have absorbed over the years is that design and business are completely interlinked one cannot succeed without the other," says Conran. "I've always thought that design was ninety-eight per cent common sense and two per cent aesthetics. It is the same with business except the magic ingredient is vision. More than ever now as the Chairman of a company working on hundreds of projects around the world I realise that positive leadership conveys a clear message and vision to your staff, which is utterly crucial. Enthusing your staff with passion and dedication to your business goes a long way to achieving success."
Looking back over his career, Conran considers the success that he has had with his many different ventures. "Making a success of Habitat was perhaps my biggest achievement and I can honestly say the day I opened Michelin House was the happiest day of my life," he says. "However, founding the Design Museum was perhaps my favourite project and the one that has given me most satisfaction. I 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."
One of Conran's most recent projects is a collaboration with British retail giant Marks & Spencer for whom he has designed a new home ware collection. By working with such a company, Conran believes he is finally able to bring good design to a wider audience. He says: "To work with M&S on this project is the opportunity of a lifetime – the design project I have waited for my entire career. It gives us the chance to produce a truly democratic and British collection, something that I have been aiming to achieve all my working life. Everything that William Morris and the Bauhaus, both great inspirations to me, hoped to achieve. This is our chance at last."
Having landed the design project of a lifetime, it seems quite fitting that we now stop and take stock of the impact that Conran has had as one of Britain's most celebrated designers and entrepreneurs. The exhibition that is currently taking place at the Design Museum is entitled 'The Way We Live Now' and traces his career from postwar austerity through to the new sensibility of the Festival of Britain in the 1950s, the birth of the Independent Group with its flare for the avantgarde and the Pop Culture of the 1960s, to the design boom of the 1980s on to the present day.
But for Conran, seeing his life's work laid out in an exhibition hall was not the easiest thing to swallow. "I felt pretty uncomfortable at first it is something I had always shied away from as it felt slightly egotistical and perhaps not quite appropriate," he says. "But the excellent Deyan Sudjic is a quietly persuasive man and I felt comfortable leaving it in his very capable hands, alongside my dear friend Stafford Cliff and the excellent design team from Conran & Partners. I'm delighted with what they have produced and I must be very clear, it is the team that has done all the work and it has been a very pleasing and emotional journey through my career, producing many surprises that I had completely forgotten about."
Having recently turned 80, Conran undoubtedly has an illustrious career behind him, but how does the Grandfather of British design wish to be remembered? "I'm a plain, simple and practical sort of fellow. What I've done all my life, and continue to do, is design and promote affordable, useful products. The belief that my generation had, is that design can improve the quality of life for everybody because good design gives you pleasure and improves the quality of life through products or buildings that work well, are affordable and look beautiful. I hope that is how I will be remembered as a designer of simple, useful and beautiful things.
Conran + Partners
*The Way We Live Now is on show at the Design Museum until the 4th March 2012*