With the opening of Conran’s Skylon restaurant at the Royal Festival Hall in 2007, a taster for this year’s sixtieth anniversary of the Festival of Britain, Terence Conran’s career came full circle. Skylon, the iconic metal sculpture designed by Powell and Moya symbolised the futuristic, sky-high thinking behind the festival, while the event itself gave Conran his first job as a designer. Writing in the recently published celebration of the Festival of Britain, Beacon For Change, Barry Turner notes: ‘Habitat and Heal’s were pure Festival, so too were Ercol and G-Plan’. It’s been said that 1951 was the year that the British home began to leave behind brown paint and porridge wallpaper. Terence Conran would take a leading role within the modernist vanguard that brought about this change. It was a slow train coming. Conran himself has said that Britain has taken more than half a century to embrace modernity. In that time he has amassed the kind of fortune that would enable him to buy the South Bank, maybe London itself. In the past, he settled for snapping up a hefty piece of dockland’s in the shape of Shad Thames beneath Tower Bridge, making this little corner of England forever Conran with his fleet of restaurants and the Design Museum. In this his 80th year, he has handed the latter £7.5 million towards its move from the current site to a new home at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington in time for its 25th anniversary in 2014. This month the museum launches an exhibition celebrating Conran’s impact on contemporary living entitled ‘The Way We Live’. Marks & Spencer has launched a timely capsule collection of household wares designed by Conran. Yet it’s his role as a retailer and restauranteur that has come to define Terence Conran in recent years. His original ambition was to bring good design to the wider community rather than a paternalistic elite
His effort to continue to teach the world about intelligent design is apparent in the work of the Conran Foundation, which now manages the museum. But has he actually succeeded in bringing good design to the masses? More significantly, did the masses want what he had to offer?
Cast an eye over Conran’s early history and you see what inspired this ambition. Born in Kingston on Thames, he was part of the ‘make and mend’ generation of the 1930s and 1940s, where the emphasis was firmly on the functional. At Central School of Design (later St Martin’s) he fell under the spell of the modernism that had been championed in Europe but would struggle to form part of the orthodoxy in Britain. To highlight his commitment to the cause Conran later used the sphere, cube and cone of the Bauhaus for the company logo. His would be a particular brand of modernism that used simple forms and natural materials. According to author and broadcaster Peter York ‘the Conran style has not been so much about Europeanism as Anglo-Europeanism. It was always unmistakably British at its heart. If he brought Bauhaus to the high street it was a Bauhaus with the corners and edges removed’.
The two themes that captured Conran’s imagination and similar designers of his generation were previously uncharacteristic of the British: the foreign and the future. Unlike the rising generation in the aftermath of the great war, those that emerged from the debris of World War II had no desire to return to the past as it meant depression and poverty; their eyes were set firmly on tomorrow. The manifesto that took the Labour party to a landslide victory in 1945 was entitled ‘Let Us Face The Future’. The Festival of Britain - opened during the party’s last year in power - was a state showcase for a future in which health, education and housing would be available to all. Conran’s approach to design shared in the democratic mood that was in the air. He believed that great design had the potential to change lives. His skill as a Zelig figure anticipating the zeitgeist was evident in the 1950s, and something he has nurtured throughout the decades. Conran’s first venture into designing and selling his own Summa furniture came in 1956, in partnership with artist Eduardo Paolozzi of The Independent Group. This coterie of moderns exhibited the east end photographs of Nigel Henderson that influenced the streets-in-the-sky housing theories of architects, and fellow groupies, the Smithsons. Central to the group’s debut show ‘This Is Tomorrow’ that year, was Richard Hamilton’s iconic montage of American consumerism: What is about today’s homes that makes them so different...... so appealing?
Conran set about making the homes of tomorrow more appealing, capitalising on the burgeoning consumerism that was putting colour back into a Britain punch drunk from war, austerity and rationing. He moved from the fringes of pop art society to the heart of the high street. If Bauhaus and Scandinavian design had been his early foreign influences, it was the sensual continentalism of European cafe culture that inspired his foray into food in 1953, with his very first eaterie the Soup Kitchen. The chef and restauranteur Chris Galvin, owner of La Chapelle, suggests there is now barely any collective memory of life before Conran. ‘A younger generation can’t imagine an England where Olive Oil was something you bought at a chemist and put in your ear’.
Conran’s cafe, off the Strand, was pitched perfectly to that pedigreed breed that were lapping up Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean recipes. But exotica did not chime with a majority of Britons, whether it was affordable or not. The travel writer Nicholas Wollaston wrote at the time of a British working class that had an ‘obsession with the bogus’ when it came to foreign food and foreign holidays. Whether it was a lack of funds, fear or prejudice, it opted for ersatz exotica. In an age before the continental package tour took hold, the masses settled for the bogusness of the miniature Krakatoa and Beachcomber bar at Butlin’s. Similar was true of the first Habitat shop which Conran opened in 1964. That modern design of simple shapes and earthy materials was too reminiscent of life during wartime for the working classes. During the high season of relative ‘affluence’ they chose the modern gadgety and luxury plastic of mass production. For Conran, intelligent design was paramount, but there was an underlying ambition to make an aesthetic of utility.
Habitat however, was a very Sixties moment, arriving the season that Harold Wilson talked up ‘the white heat of technology’, and that famous Time article officially made London the capital of a 1960s that had started to swing. Mary Quant designed the uniforms for the staff; Vidal Sassoon styled their hair. Perfect.
Habitat was a winner with the Chelsea set keen to buy up storage jars to house the dried pasta that was taking hold on these shores. The shop was an introduction to Conran’s furniture and products imported from abroad. The approach was street market chic, with perusers encouraged to get touchy feely with the items sold,
As Habitat expanded into a national and international chain, its clientele continued to be culled from the middle class and rising, the graduate and creative class. Writing in the 1980s Peter York claimed that Habitat ‘expressed the way thousands of people with ostensibly different backgrounds wanted to see the future. They shared the aesthetic of the Simple’. The brand became synonymous with a ‘taste’ that was above a rabble drawn to the gaudy, opulent and superfluous. Habitat was for shoppers that saw themselves as superior to consumerism.
As the Conran brand became a fixture on the high street whether front of store or behind the scenes ‘it brought design to a wider middle class public in the south’, says Peter York now. Habitat courted success in suburbs like Bromley, but seemed misplaced in Romford. Although this was where Chris Galvin discovered the store, and it proved something of a revelation. ‘I was born in Romford. I remember seeing Habitat for the first time. I can remember the smell of Cedar and the raffia matting. It was there I came across the book Gourmand Chef, translated by Conran’s second wife.‘ Years later Chris Galvin helped Conran launch Mezzo and the Great Eastern Hotel. ‘Even now I apply the Terence Conran’s principles of design to my own restaurants’.
It would be as a restauranteur and a design consultant that Conran would fulfil that original ambition of reaching the whole community rather than the chosen few. For those that never visit a Conran shop, or a Habitat - he sold this on in 1990 - his influence has been felt when the company he founded acquired Heal’s, set up Next, and ran Mothercare and British Home Stores. Even the founders of Muji acknowledge a debt to Terence Conran. ‘His was part of a family of design consultants that attached themselves to shops and mass environments’, says Peter York. ‘It was through these that his influence could be felt among a wider public that visited these places’.
His restaurants, meanwhile, would eventually capture a working class that been emancipated by the consumerism and lifestyle culture of recent decades. For these, Conran eateries became affordable swank. For those that aspire to the the lives of the characters in The Only Way Is Essex, for a generation that harboured fantasies of being footballers or footballer’s wives, the Conran restaurant has became a window to another world. Back in the 1990s, in the wake of Black Wednesday, it was parliamentary ministers that favoured Quaglino’s and Pont de la Tour where the three-week waiting lists proved to dining politicians that here were the first green shoots of recovery. Conran’s career has weathered many an economic downturn. He has used the recent one as a chance to snap up premises on London’s gentrified hotspot Shoreditch and open The Boundary restaurant, a cafe and a food store. When the thirty year boom that ran parallel with Conran’s early career, went bang in the 1970s ushered in by an oil crisis and the stock market crash, he produced his first Home book in the midst of it and watched it become a million-seller. If we look to the Conran empire to seek the seeds of recovery from the current recession chances are you won’t find Terence Conran himself. The various Conran holdings, groups and consultancies seem to be increasingly absorbed into bigger companies. In a bid to anticipate the mood of the 21st century, he capitalised on the multi-million pound green industry early on. Once again the champion of make and mend, he celebrated the resurgence of knitting, and put his weight behind the eco home. With the patter of the salesman rebranding his product for the times, he declared that intelligent design and green design were one and the same. Oddly for a businessman that has built a career on the back of consumerism, and whose competitiveness in business had got him in deep water in the past, he believes that reducing consumption is the key to sustainable living. His mantra for the current age of austerity is equally relevant to the make and mend generation from which he sprang: buy less but buy well.