Plain, Simple and Useful: A Chat with Sir Terence Conran
[RS Gallery] • Terence Conran started his own design practice in 1956 with the Summa furniture range and designing a shop for Mary Quant. In 1964 he opened the first Habitat shop in London's Chelsea with his third wife Caroline Herbert, which grew into a large chain selling household goods and furniture in contemporary designs. In the mid-1980s Conran expanded Habitat into the Storehouse group of companies that included Mothercare and Heals, but in 1990 he lost control of the company. His later retail companies include the Conran Shop.
He has also been involved in architecture and interior design, including London's Michelin House (which he turned into the restaurant Bibendum) and the Bluebird Garage both in Chelsea. Conran had a major role in the regeneration in the early 1990s of the Shad Thames area of London next to Tower Bridge that includes the Design Museum which is managed by the Conran Foundation.
Conran has also created various other London restaurants including the Soup Kitchen, Orrery, Quaglino's, Mezzo (restaurant), Pont de la Tour, Blueprint Cafe, Butler's Wharf Chop House, together with restaurants in various other countries. In 2005 he was named the most influential restaurateur in the UK by CatererSearch, the website of Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine. In 2007, 49% of the entire Conran restaurant business was sold to D&D, a company run by two former Conran employees, Des Gunewardena and David Loewi. He has written and published various books, particularly on interior design.
MR: What's your personal mantra?
TC: My design philosophy could best be described by the phrase "plain, simple and useful." I have never set out to make anything that would be considered "iconic" but try to design products that make people's lives easier and gain a pleasant patina with careful use over time. For me, timeless design is the most appealing quality.
What does the role of Artist mean to you?
No designer could work in a world devoid of Art. It provides the aesthetic element of any good design. It is the essential ingredient to inspire creativity.
What is the driving force behind your creativity?
I have always believed that design, innovation and creativity are absolutely vital to the quality and enjoyment of our lives. I also believe that design and business are completely interlinked, one cannot succeed without the other. Because good design gives you pleasure and improves the quality of all our lives through products that work well, are affordable and look beautiful.
What transformative experiences have influenced your life and how has that manifested in your work?
My trips to France as a young man and visits to the rural markets had a profound influence on me. They were always packed to the gunnels with all manner of useful and practical products that simply were not available in a rather austere Britain at the time. And I thought that people might like them, so this was the early beginning of my Habitat experiment, which went on to be rather successful. Those early influences have had a profound influence on my taste and designs ever since.
How long does it take you on average to complete a piece of work/idea and do you ever do several pieces/ideas simultaneously?
There really is no definitive answer to this one. Every product or design has its own time frame. With my company Benchmark Furniture, I can have an idea in the evening, take the sketches to our factory the next morning and have a working prototype ready by the afternoon. But a large element of design is about problem solving and some things require more extensive work.
And as we are working on a large range of projects, from designing home-ware collections to buildings and interiors, we work on many pieces and ideas at any one time. Which is terrific fun and part of the challenge.
Why should people check out your work?
Hopefully because they like it and it appeals to them. But I believe our products are well designed, robustly made and look great in your home and will do for many years to come. They also come with a lifetime's worth of design experience put in to them.