13 September 2020 10:32
Terence Conran, who has died aged 88, did more than anyone to enhance material life in Britain during the second half of the 20th century. Like John Lennon and David Bowie in their rather different ways, escape from suburban norms was his continuing inspiration. Terence had a big appetite for life and all its sensual pleasures. He created a succession of influential and interesting businesses which – for an impressive while – fused design, retail, publishing, restaurants and food into an attractive belief-system that became known as "lifestyle" (a term he disliked, perhaps because of its deadly accuracy). But, because of his prodigal efforts, as his friend the art dealer John Kasmin once put it, everyone in Britain who needed a better salad bowl could, by circa 1975, satisfy themselves from one of Terence's Habitat shops.
His father, Rupert Conran, was a businessman, to the loss of whose rubber importation firm during the blitz may be attributed Terence's own sometimes ruthless determination to make money of his own. Plunket-Greene later married Mary Quant, and Terence designed her second Bazaar boutique in Chelsea. At the Central School of Art and Design in London he found in Dora Batty ("the sensible Ms Batty") a tutor who encouraged him. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Clothes by the fashion designer Mary Quant and furniture by Terence Conran in the exhibition Mid-Century Modern: Art & Design from Conran to Quant, at the Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh, until January 2021. He left the textile design course before graduating, the Festival of Britain of 1951 becoming the stage for Terence's debut. Under Hugh Casson's cheerful direction, the festival created a sense of euphoria amongst designers. There Terence was employed by the architect Dennis Lennon to work on exhibition stands. The Soup Kitchen in Charing Cross had a style that was clever, gentle modernism, making ingenious use of inexpensive materials and copyright-free illustrations. As a philosophical principle, Terence insisted on making his own stock: he revelled in such demonstrations of practicality. Elizabeth David had already alerted the deprived English to the pleasures of French food, as well as to the availability of decent, chunky, vernacular French crockery in Madame Cadec's shop in Soho. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Terence Conran at the exhibition Terence Conran: The Way We Live Now, Design Museum, London, 2011. Polite, eclectic modern design, much influenced by urban Scandinavia and rural France: a fine knack with restaurants; brave business decisions; a keen sense of self-worth and a very beady eye for a good source and clever, dedicated workmates. In 1956, when the Institute of Contemporary Arts introduced Pop Art with its exhibition This Is Tomorrow, and John Osborne was an angry young man at the Royal Court theatre, the Conran Design Group was founded. Play Video 1:30 Terence Conran on his passion for intelligently designed products for everyone – video In the psycho-social art history of Britain, Terence will always be remembered and admired for the creation of this remarkable store. Significantly, Habitat sprang up at the same time as the new Sunday colour supplements, and Terence's early collaborators – and wives – included some savvy Sunday newspaper journalists. The very first Habitat catalogue – a sheet of folded brown paper – was produced by Caroline Conran, whose translations of Jean and Pierre Troisgros and of Michel Guérard later introduced Britain to nouvelle cuisine and confirmed a helpful connection between the Conran name and good food. Habitat Paris opened in 1973, New York in 1977 (although it had to be called Conran's for reasons of copyright). Facebook Twitter Pinterest Terence Conran in 1985, the year before Habitat Mothercare merged with British Home Stores. Four years later, with the help of the banker Roger Seelig, Habitat Mothercare conducted a bodged merger with the dour-but-decent British Home Stores. Not for the first time, Terence's vanity exceeded his common sense. Terence despised the City as much as the City distrusted him: the autocratic flair that energised his own middle-sized business did not work in a huge public company. Terence could cajole young designers, blag suppliers and stroke journalists, but the money men were less amenable to style and charm. On grounds of taste, Terence insisted that some tacky British Home Stores merchandise be removed from the racks, only to be told that they were in fact the best-selling line. Terence believed that most people wanted to sleep in river-washed linen sheets. The Storehouse misadventure cost Terence control of his beloved Habitat, ruined his reputation as a businessman and changed his personality. And in 1987 a masterly restoration of the Michelin Building (opposite the site of the original Habitat) had produced Bibendum, an hommage to all things French. Eventually, there were to be more than 50 Conran restaurants, but while the early ones, including Pont de la Tour at Butler's Wharf (1991), had true energy and style, the majority soon fell into formulaic complacency. There was tragedy here: Terence's restaurants provided exactly the sort of middle-class mediocrity he had earlier made it his purpose to eradicate. Facebook Twitter Pinterest The Conran Oyster Bar at the Bibendum restaurant, London. Still, Terence's achievement was to put middle Britain in touch with the pleasure principle. One man's inspiration is another man's plagiarism and many, including the distinguished furniture designer Vico Magistretti, believed Terence crossed that line. Equally, a large measure of what we recognise as the early Conran style (white-painted brick, quarry tiles, tongue-and-groove jointed wood, bright lights) was the work of Oliver Gregory. Nevertheless, Terence's accomplishment was to create an enviable personal way of life which was then commercialised in well-publicised shops and restaurants. I was amazed, after university life, to discover a world with Havana cigars, fresh flowers, scent in the loo, good towels and proper coffee. With generous funds from Habitat's flotation, we created the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The 26 exhibitions held there in the 1980s helped make design the popular subject it is today and turned the Boilerhouse Project into London's most successful gallery of the period. We then planned and created the Design Museum at Butler's Wharf which Thatcher opened in 1989, the most turbulent year in Terence's business life. He was a Stakhanovite: his Covent Garden offices circa 1980 served superb coffee free to all the staff, but this was to encourage early attendance; the kitchen closed at 8.30, not to re-open until 11. Facebook Twitter Pinterest Terence Conran at the opening of his restaurant Mezzo, in Soho, London, 1995. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images Looking back, there was something old-world about this modern man. New openings of shops and restaurants gave a sense of personal direction where, perhaps, no more profound spiritual motivation existed. Although family life was an important element of the Conran mythology, he was sometimes careless about the players in the drama. Caroline Herbert became the third Mrs Conran in 1963 and Lady Conran when he was knighted 20 years later; in 2018 he was made Companion of Honour. During the divorce trial, Terence had angered the judge by claiming Caroline offered him only "domestic help". Conran principles of design were directed to turn the charming and avuncular Carluccio into one of Britain's most popular Italian cooks. Terence is survived by Vicki, his children, 13 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and Priscilla. Realising from the beginning that he was not a designer of original genius, Terence instead became a unique editor of merchandise and entrepreneur of ideas (often other people's). His great memorial is the Design Museum, which has consumed a substantial amount of his fortune. Towards the end of his life, Terence's businesses were in a melancholy rallentando of decline. Prescott & Conran, his last major restaurant venture, went into administration in 2018. The old principles of simple French food derived from Elizabeth David and Richard Olney have now given way to what Terence used to dismiss expletively as frou frou. And I shall look across the road at the site of the first Habitat and wonder how very much poorer Britain might have been without the finger pointing interference of this enigmatic, difficult, but fascinating man. • Terence Orby Conran, designer, restaurateur and businessman, born 4 October 1931; died 12 September 2020