When Sir Terence Conran opened his first Habitat shop in 1964 and inspired a nation to experience a more optimistic way of life, he was sharing his own way of life. For the next five years, the displays in the store’s catalogue were often photographed at the house he shared with his third wife, Caroline Herbert, off Regent’s Park in central London.
Sir Terence, who died September 12 at 88, gave us the duvet, the wok, the beanbag and the chicken brick. Then, after he had completed the “Conranisation” of the high street by the 1980s, he moved on to restaurants such as Quaglino’s and Pont de La Tour, chosen by Tony Blair to woo Bill Clinton in 1997 as New Labour tried to reinvent the country as Cool Britannia.
When Conran’s star began to wane he founded the Design Museum, prosaically he said “to encourage this country to become a workshop again” but perhaps also wishing to help the public make sense of it all. Along the way he married four times, including to Shirley Conran, author of the self-help book Superwoman and the racy bestseller, Lace.
Sir Terence gave us the duvet, the wok, the beanbag and the chicken brick.
His son, Sebastian, said this weekend that he had been there to kiss his father goodbye and was thankful that he had been able to spend a weekend with him in August. “I am sustained by wonderful memories of a rather amazing and inspirational father,” he said.
David Linley, the Earl of Snowdon, the designer and son of the late Princess Margaret, said: “An era has come to an end and it really was an era. A great era of pioneering, adventurous design and living that whole era was very exciting and fresh. He will be sorely missed.”
Conran’s genius was to convince us that we would become shinier and more fascinating by buying his products. But according to Deyan Sudjic, a friend and former director of the Design Museum, his influence in design and, later, in restaurants, was more profound than providing desirable and affordable items for an aspiring middle class: “He had an optimistic belief that you can make people’s lives better in simple ways. He was a democrat and probably called himself a socialist at one stage. But he wasn’t in the business of selling status symbols.”
Sudjic added: “He didn’t actually invent sunshine, or lemons, or garlic, but he actually made us appreciate that food could be something delicious. He opened our eyes to things that we hadn’t really looked at. To be a designer, you really have to be an optimist. It turns out that he was one of the greatest of optimists.”
Conran’s flair for design led him into the world of big business, when he took over not one but two of the biggest high street names of the 1980s, Mothercare and British Home Stores, to create the retail behemoth, Storehouse.
Conran’s genius was to convince us that we would become shinier and more fascinating by buying his products.
More acquisitions followed, with buy-ups of Heal’s, Jacardi and Blazer, before his empire crashed in the late 1980s and he lost control of his “precious baby” Habitat, which he described as his greatest regret. It was left to Ikea to take the next step and bring some of his ideas to a truly mass audience.
Terence Orby Conran was born in 1931 and like his friend, Elizabeth David, looked beyond the London suburbs to the light and food of Provence and northern Italy. He cited Elizabeth David Classics as his desert island cookbook and, later in life, loved the countryside around Arles, where he owned a property.
As a boarder at Bryanston, a private school in Dorset, he responded to the architecture of the palatial Richard Norman Shaw-designed country house.
Sudjic said: “He always talked about preferring the kitchens to the great rooms. The kitchens were where you had stone floors and stripped deal tables: that was one of the aesthetics he liked. School was important. He learnt how to pot, he made himself a lathe. He suffered an eye injury when he was turning metal on a lathe. Remarkably, for a man who was to build a career on his eye for design, the damage to his vision was serious enough to spare him National Service.”
“He was a democrat and probably called himself a socialist at one stage. But he wasn’t in the business of selling status symbols.”
At art college, Central St Martins, Conran absorbed the Bauhaus school and it was here that the Scottish sculptor and artist, Eduardo Paolozzi, became a friend and mentor. He joined the team that created the 1951 Festival of Britain.
With Habitat, Conran created a look that almost 60 years on remains a reference point for the way we live in our homes. He opened his first store in 1964 in an old pub on Fulham Road in southwest London.
For Linley, the memory of his first encounter with Conran’s vision remains vivid: “I remember going with my father in the early days of Habitat and it was just such a sort of captivating and exciting moment. You could just feel the energy and people rushing about — it was the first [idea] of not having a dining room but eating in the kitchen and much more relaxed. Suddenly the whole of life became so much more enjoyable, thinking about the food and your friends and how you entertain much more casually than the more stiff upright [ideas] that had come before.”
Conran’s longest-lived marriage was to Caroline Herbert, who remained with him for 30 years until 1993 when she became fed up with his indiscreet affairs. He was angered at having to pay out a $13.5 million divorce settlement, saying that she “only made a few meals”. Yet in 2016 he dedicated his autobiography to all four of his wives “all of whom have influenced my design career”.
He explained the disintegration of his marriages as “one of those things that happen. You start out a relationship and as it goes on you become a different person. And you think: well, it’s not working, start again.”
He was angered at having to pay out a $13.5 million divorce settlement, saying that she “only made a few meals.”
On another occasion he said: “I’ve never divorced or split from a wife acrimoniously.” Although when he was once asked what objects he could not bear to live with he had replied, “Shirley”, in an apparent reference to his second wife.
Tim Marlow, director at the Design Museum, said Conran was revered by generations of designers from Mary Quant, the fashion creator, and David Mellor, the cutlery craftsman, to Thomas Heatherwick, who created the cauldron that was the centerpiece of the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics. Marlow also cited Sir Jony Ive, who designed the iPhone and had been Apple’s design chief until last year.
For his family, Conran declared that he had prepared mementos by which to remember him and his life’s work: 10 pieces of furniture, each of which is a design classic.
Nicholas Hellen is a writer and columnist for The Times
Grant Tucker is an entertainment correspondent for The Times