Terence Conran is a name I knew quite a few years before I had formulated an understanding of the word ‘design’. I grew up in a home interior that Terence would’ve approved of – old brown furniture mixed with the super modern. I could never understand why my friends used to exclaim at the fittings in our bathroom – to me, bright red Vola taps were normal. A weekend visit to Habitat or The Conran Shop was eye-opening for my family and left an impression on me from a young age. As his restaurant empire grew in London, a family birthday would often be celebrated in one of them. I particularly remember the excitement of appearing at the top of the stairs at Quaglino’s, followed by the fear of falling down them for fellow diners to see.
Fast forward a few years and it looked like design writing was to become my profession. By the late 90s, Terence had helped to fuel a wider understanding of ‘design’ and coverage had reached the newspapers. Timing was right for my first book, DESIGN UK, which was being published by Conran Octopus. As a precocious 21-year-old, I was incredibly proud to be endorsed by the gravitas of Conran’s imprint and, thankfully, the book sold well. I didn’t get to meet the man until a couple of years later when the publishing director approached me to co-author a book with Terence to mark the company’s 21st year in publishing. The grandfather of design, 48 years my senior, wanted to write a book with me – with ME!
The thrill hadn’t subsided by the time I reached Conran HQ in London’s Butler’s Wharf. Positioned above the offices were his penthouse and his private office with views across the River Thames. There the man was sitting in a sun-infused haze of cigar smoke as he greeted me, wearing his signature deep blue shirt. Was this really happening? I was on high alert – I had heard he could be tricky – but he was the height of charm and knowledge. He generously listened to me as I repositioned his original book concept. He embraced it, bolstering my enthusiasm with astute comments and observations whilst maintaining his signature glint of humour.
Our book, DESIGNERS ON DESIGN, involved interviewing the world’s best designers. If anyone could make that happen, it was Terence. He unlocked for me an audience with Philippe Starck, Norman Foster, James Dyson, Jonathan Ive and Thomas Heatherwick, to name but a few. His reputation boosted mine as I rode on his coat-tails to book launches in Tokyo, New York and London. In true Japanese style, there were queues of people wanting a signed copy at the launch in The Conran Shop in Tokyo. Throughout, he led me to believe that they were there for my signature, even though I knew that wasn’t true!
Once the fanfare was over, Terence and I didn’t see each other all that much except at the occasional event. Little did he know that our act of collaboration opened many new doors for me. And the reason I share my personal story here is because I know that there are many others who could also recall similar experiences, their careers buoyed by Terence’s desire to guide, encourage and endorse.
Terence was an opportunist with an appreciation of the good life, however simple or enriched that may be. His definition of ‘good design’ wasn’t determined by luxury or exclusivity, but rather by the premise that function and quality can marry in a timeless way to enhance our lives. He had an excellent ability to identify those criteria in the items that already existed, produced far and wide, and could repackage them to fit Western ideals – such as duvets, chicken bricks and Duralex glasses that rose to fame through Habitat.
He understood how to merge classic food with ambiance and theatre, hence the success of his restaurants. He understood the need to communicate the importance of his design philosophy and that of others with the founding of London’s Design Museum and through his publishing imprint, Conran Octopus. He knew he could embed strong design sensibilities into the products, interiors and buildings of external clients through his design studio, Conran and Partners. The examples could go on but whichever direction his vision was facing, he would surround himself with those to enable it. He was as hands-on as his time would allow. Despite the profile he built for himself, he was uncomfortable with the culture of celebrity that rose during his lifetime and was vocally against the excesses that our world now fuels.
I do wonder what opportunities a young Terence Conran would find in the turbulent world of today. If his life was anything to go by, a young Terence would surely apply himself with energy and gusto, taking others along on his journey. As I reflect on the life of Terence, I consider him lucky to have lived through the golden days of the latter 20th century and he would surely acknowledge the good fortune that it brought him. I thank you, Terence, for inviting me into your world and, without perhaps realising it, sharing some of that good fortune with me and many, many others.
From Max Fraser