“Good design is probably 98% common sense. Above all, an object must function well and efficiently-and getting that part right requires a good deal of time and attention.”
~ Terence Conran
Him in Brief
S ir Terence Conran, for those who don’t know who he is, is one of the world’s leading and best known designers. He is certainly one of Britain’s greatest. Proof of which, can be seen in the quality and breadth of his work, ranging from Furniture, to Product design, Restaurants, Architecture, Fabric, Fashion, Retail and Literature.
W ell, born in 1937, he has had a long career. In 1947, Conran began making his own furniture in a shared workshop with Eduardo Paolozzi, his former mentor while he was studying Textile design. He began by making pieces for his own home: a new bed; chairs; a bookshelf; and some cushions. The post-war scarcity was not an issue for Conran, as he made do with whatever materials he could find from old reinforced bars to old doors found in alleyways. He began to create, and design, cushions using his textile skills – broadening his skills as a designer.
In 1949, after graduating from the now University of the Arts, London, he was offered a job in the declining textile industry. With so few jobs available, he jumped at the chance and so, began work at the Rayon Centre. After a brief stint as a coffee boy, he was given the opportunity to become Art-Director of their in-house magazine, ‘Rayon and Design’. During that time, he entered in a few of his designs, with one man calling them ‘hideous and repellent’.
Toby Jellinek, whom Conran had known from school, sent his girlfriend, who was modelling for Picasso, a chair that Conran had just completed. Picasso is reported to have liked the chair so much that he contacted Conran and ordered two to be sent to the south of France!
In the 1950’s Conran began freelancing at David Whitehead in Lancashire. The textile industry had been in decline for some years, yet his contact at the firm, John Murray, was an enterprising man whom Conran admired very much.
They both agreed that young designers and artists were the keys to the revival of the textile industry. It worked! The two had the young designers create distinct and unique designs that Conran was able to put into production.
In the mid-1950s, he started Conran Fabrics, which gained notoriety and sold large contracts to the likes of British Airways, as well as selling fabrics to his furniture business.
One of my favourite designs is his 1957 work “Leaf”, a direct copy of a leaf he found and drawn in excruciating detail. From afar, the leaf resembles a simplistic drawing, but as you move closer, layers and layers of detail are revealed. And this is exactly the case when you observe a leaf in its detail in real life. You always observe the surface of any object before delving and peeling back each layer of detail at a time, until you can see everything, even the most minute details, imperfections, differences in shape or colour. You never see something as a whole unless you have methodically investigated it. What amazes me even to this day is although you know that the leaf is a repeat, you still see detail in one, that you missed in another.
Interestingly, just after the war, production of denim from David Whitehead had slipped, prompting John Murray to commission Conran and his friend Raymond Elston to create a line of fashion items from denim. At the time, denim was not used in any fashion clothing, it was produced as a hard wearing, thick fabric for workwear in factories. Some of the workers wearing it in the David whitehead factory even laughed off the idea that it could be fashionable. Within six weeks, the duo had created hundreds of designs and, from these, chose seventy to bring to a photoshoot.
The collection was, undoubtedly, a flop. It never moved past the photoshoot and, although promising, they never returned to the denim project. It is however, interesting to think what could have happened.
In 1953, Conran opened his first restaurant, ‘The Soup Kitchen’, which was a huge hit with the British public, most of whom were still on rations. To the post-war British public, what was available to them at The Soup Kitchen was a breath of fresh air and, to some, something they had never seen before. Espresso’s were a mainstay; with wine, cheese, fresh bread from Europe, it was small delicacies like these that had been sorely missed. A year later, ‘The Orrery’ was opened, taking the model of The Soup Kitchen even further.
In 1956 he founded his first design group. ‘The Conran Design Group’, worked mainly on exhibition design, shop fitting and furniture design. His early clients included Ford and Smith-Kline, as well as Mary Quant’s second branch of ‘Bazaar’. Based in the East End of London and using his welding skills learnt from school (not university), he created and showed his ‘Summa’ range of furniture. ‘Summa’ was one of the first, high-quality, design orientated, functional and affordable ranges of flat pack furniture, or as it was called then, ‘Knock-down’.
After moving from east London to the West, Conran Design Group grew into one of the UK’s largest design firms. Inspired by Raymond Loewy (blog post impending), the design group was one of the first British firms to adopt the American multi-disciplinary system; with work ranging from graphic, furniture, interior, exhibition, and product design. As well as packaging and corporate identities.
A fter the 1962 Furniture show where they displayed ‘Summa’ with over 80 people purchasing items and signing contracts with them, Terence and John Stephenson took a trip to see how their recently sold units were being shown by different retailers. They were looking into how they were displayed, what they stood next to and in what areas of the shop they were placed. It was to prove pivotal as, after a series of extremely disappointing trips, they had seen it all. Some retailers had not built the product, there were some who didn’t know they had purchased it, and even one who had to be shown how to use an Allen key. It was here that they realised a serious change was in order.
They realised that even though some of the furniture had been built, it was still being displayed incorrectly. Conran and Stephenson were sure people would like it, but knew it all came down to presentation. Terence had the inkling that he could put his faith in the youth of the day, those who felt the winds changing, wanted more freedom, a more independent lifestyle, and importantly had a bit of money to spend.
It was at that moment they decided to start their own shop, supplying the youth of the day with affordable, high quality, contemporary furnishings. It was an opportunity to display their furniture next to objects that related to it and that complimented it. They went through stacks of old designs of theirs, famous British products that had been forgotten, as well as contacting retailers for state of the art homeware and cookware.
“ house, home, habitat……that’s it!!” Something everybody could relate too.
Habitat was born and its first store opened in 1964, two years after moving the furniture business to Norfolk, with the help of his then wife, Caroline Herbert, and Phillip Pollock. The Habitat store was a huge success, selling unique, affordable, well designed and functional objects to a growingly trendy British public. Even the Beatles attended, although I can’t find out what they bought!
“The bright young chicks have got to have a red Magistretti chair, the way they have to have a Tuffin and Foale dress”
It was a sign of the times, hip, newly wealthy Londoners, “needing” a Habitat product. Furniture and products were beginning to be as cool, trendy and relevant as fashion was. The Magistretti Chair (pictured below) was designed by Vico Magistretti and made from Beechwood and paper cord. It was available in different colours, to suit different interiors, it was affordable, reliable and a perfect example of early Habitat.
After a brief merger with U.S stationary firm Rymans, Conran bought Habitat out of ‘Ryman Conran’ in 1970, creating ‘Conran Associates’, his second design group. Conran Associates was to focus heavily on developing the ever-growing Habitat, with demand constantly increasing.
With the success of the first store, he acquired the two flagship stores of Heals. His restaurant empire grew, and he founded the ‘Conran Shop’, a more exclusive and high-end version of his Habitat stores.
In the early 1980’s, Conran Associates was asked to help revamp the outdated Milton Keynes shopping centre. It was here that he met Fred Roche, an architect and, at the time, the chief executive in charge of the Milton Keynes development project. They immediately realised they had a shared passion for design in all areas and, a few weeks later, Fred offered Conran the opportunity to establish an architectural practice with him and his team from Milton Keynes. Conran Roche was born, his second design group.
In 1981, the Conran Foundation was established. It was a project that was inspired by the lack of design education in Britain, with the idea of giving back, educating, and housing the world’s leading design. Stephen Bayley and Conran went to meet with the then V&A director Roy Strong, to inquire about available space. They were told that if they were interested, and they stumped up the cash to convert it, the basement was available. The old boileroom soon become a perfect environment for what Stephen and Terence wanted to create. The Boileroom was to house exhibitions educating the public on contemporary design, but in all facets, not just furniture or product, but from industries all over the world in various fields.
Their last exhibition at the V&A was on Coca-Cola: the making of a brand, which was a major success, but proved to be too successful for its own good in the eyes of some; this combined with the opinion of many that such a corporate exhibition was not in keeping with the V&As values, they left the premises. In the same year, Conran had bought 11 acres in Butlers Wharf in Southwark to redevelop under Conran Associates. It was a perfect place to move to, so they found an old, undeveloped warehouse on the Thames and started work. It was that year,1989 that he opened the Design Museum, housing ‘key designs which have shaped the modern world’.
It has since moved, but it remains, in many people’s opinions, the greatest museum dedicated to design in the world. It has consistently approached the leading designers, design groups, and companies to exhibit, as well as nurturing Britain’s, and the world’s, young designers. Indeed, the Conran Foundation has supported a vast network of up and coming artists and designers to achieve their goal.
“Britain is one of the most creative nations in the world, and design is implicated in practically everything that is made here. We need to put design at the heart of that creativity, by educating and enthusing young people. If we can show them that something that is thoughtful designed will improve the quality of their lives, then we have done an important job. “
In 1982, as chairman of Hepworth’s, Conran forms NEXT, based on designs produced by Conran Associates. It was the chance Conran had been waiting for, to enter the women’s fashion market. He had already entered the men’s fashion industry in Hepworth’s and had decided to buy a chain of failing fashion shops called Kendall’s, which had over 80 high-street shops, to launch the women’s sector.
The interiors of the shops were done by his design groups, providing affordable and spacious interiors for shoppers to purchase their clothing. It was a rare sight on British streets, as most shops were crammed into corners of buildings, basements, or buildings which needed desperate conversion. They were airy, less cluttered, with natural light pouring in on a small collection of contemporary clothing.
I n 1986, Coran co-founded Benchmark with Sean Sutcliffe, focusing on high-quality, handmade and environmentally-friendly products. Today, Benchmark has workshops in Dorset and Berkshire, employing 70 people making their own collection, as well as some of the world’s best architects and designers projects. That same year, he was knighted for his services to design, becoming Sir Terence Conran.
In 1986, ‘Storehouse’ was created with a merger between Conran stores Habitat, Mothercare, Richard Shops, Blazer and Heals with British Home Stores. It was an opportunity to use their vantage point on every high street, to get intelligent, affordable designs into every home. Unfortunately, it was hard for BHS to adapt to the Conran way of thinking, and it fell on hard times, with Mothercare and British Home Stores the worst affected. This saw the end of Conran’s reign, and he was ousted as CEO in 1988 and resigned as chairman in 1990, thus losing his control of his “baby”, Habitat.
Habitat was then sold in 1992 to the Ikano group, having been pushed out of the market by the giant it is today, IKEA. It was then sold again to Hilco in an attempt to restructure the business to get it back on its feet. Unfortunately, having been restructured, it never quite made a comeback to its former glory and was placed into liquidation in 2011 before its saving grace in 2016, when Sainsbury’s bought Home Retail Group, which encompassed both Habitat and Argos.
After refusing to be defeated, Conran decided to leave Conran Associates and set up a new firm focusing on Interior Design and Architecture, his third design group, Conran and Partners. They moved into a building, then recently re-developed at Butlers Wharf, London by him and his friends at Conran Associates. His now independent and very accomplished son, Sebastian, joined the firm forming a large product design core to the business before moving on to his own exploits. It didn’t take long before orders from all disciplines started pouring in, and Conran and Partners soon became multi-disciplinary.
Conran and Partners have worked on everything from social housing, shops, restaurants, bars and luxury apartments, using its process of treating any project with its own 360 approach to all aspects that it undergoes.
In 2016, The Design Museum moved to its current location in Kensington, in the listed old Commonwealth Institute. The Design Museum will always be one of Conran’s greatest and favourite achievements, home to his own inspiring designs, as well as a host of others. The museum displays the crowning achievements of his life which, luckily for us, keeps expanding.
There will surely be much to come from this giant of the design world; his companies will last long after we are all gone – his legacy surviving. He is an enormous inspiration to myself and many people I know, shining a light on what is possible for us all.
Thank you to Gabriella and Mat from the Conran shops Press Department for supplying amazing images of Sir Conran.
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