Monday, 9 July 2012

design heroes - Terence Conran

This week I was lucky enough to see two of my interior design heroes, when design legend Sir Terence Conran was in conversation with LivingEtc editor Suzanne Imre at the V&A. To say I was excited was a bit of an understatement, it's hard to underestimate the impact that Conrans vision has had on both British design and our own homes, not to mention the shape of home ware retailing.

They enter the lecture theatre to rapturous applause, Suzanne looking effortlessly chic in a floaty summer dress and sandals and Sir Terence, slightly frail and bent over, in his trademark suit and 'Conran blue' shirt. It comes as a bit of a shock to see him in real life actually, speaking slowly and in measured tones. It's easy to forget that this design powerhouse, who only last year designed a range for M&S, is 80 years old. As the audience applause dies down, he grins and offers a cheery wave and a "hello" to everyone, coming across as instantly likeable. 

Photograph: Neil Wilder/ John Parkinson Agency

His good humour shows through in almost all of his anecdotes, when asked by Suzanne why he started out on his first restaurant for example (The Soup Kitchen in 1953) he replies "I needed to pay the gas bill". He proudly points out that it housed only the second Gaggia coffee machine in London, which combined with the soup, attracted a lot of tramps to his door. They go on to discuss his early years, which spent starting his own businesses because as he said, as a newly qualified designer in the austere times of post World War II, there was no one to give him a job. From the very start his work ethic embodied the DIY spirit that is again upon us, in these austere times of the early 21st century.

He used to share a studio with Eduardo Polazzi in his early days of furniture making. 'I hear a gentleman called Picasso bought some of your early work' Suzanne inquires... "Well I'm not sure he was a gentleman" comes the quick reply, accompanied by a wry smile and laughter from the audience.

Conran goes on to explain how Habitat came about, as a response to retailers not displaying or selling his furniture to his satisfaction, he thought he could do a better job. Turns out he was right. He goes on to explain that because people don't need to buy pieces of furniture very often, he bought in a range of cookware too, inspired by Elizabeth David, to entice people to visit more often.  Later on he brought foreign household basics to Britain for the first time, where would we be now without the 'continental quilt'?

His enthusiasm and passion goes way beyond his own retail and restauranting ventures though. In 1981 he set up the Boiler Yard Project at the V&A, showcasing design in the heart of the world famous decorative arts museum. Having made money, he bought a "dark dank" plot of land near the then unfashionable Shad Thames, in 1989 that plot became the home of The Design Museum, where the Boiler Yard Project moved when it outgrew the space at the V&A. 

He goes on to speak briefly about his involvement with the RCA (he was made Provost in 2003) and his mission to support the next generation of designers, as well as trying to show the government how putting creative students together with engineering students and entrepreneurs will sustain Britain's creative industries.

Last year, Conran launched a stunning range of furniture and accessories for M&S and it was recently announced that he'll be flying the flag for British design overseas, by producing a range for US based retail giant JC Penney. Not content with that, his other major project is in enabling the Design Museum to move to a new location, back in South Kensington, to the Commonwealth Institute. The John Pawson redesigned building opens in 2014.

The evening draws to a close with some quick fire questions from Suzanne:

What's your favourite gadget? - "The corkscrew" (smiles)
And least favourite? - "Mobile phones"
Best hour of the day? - "About 6.30 with a whiskey & soda"
Pen or pencil? - "Pencil"
What's your second favourite colour? - "Pillar box red" (laughs and points to his striking socks of the same shade)
What's your favourite chair? - "An Eames plywood chair"
Have you got a good work/life balance? - "Yes"
Jazz or classical? - "Both"
Roses or chocolates? - "Roses"
What keeps you awake at night? - "Absolutely nothing!"
Thriller or biography? - "Biography"
Who's your best friend? - "My wife" (cue 'ahhhs' from the audience) "I think..." (cue laughter...)

When asked what his favourite swear word is, he gets bashful and says he couldn't possibly say, not in the V&A... after some encouragement from Suzanne though, he declares loudly in his clipped British accent, "Fuck orf the lot of you!" which delights the audience no end.

Finally, he takes a few questions from the audience, touching again on his friendship with Paolozzi, his admiration for Anthony Caro and a confession that if you wash your Conran Chicken Brick in Fairy Liquid the next Chicken will taste like Fairy Liquid. When asked if design was more exciting in the 50's his ephatic reply that it's more exciting now, "the world is full of opportunities" he declares and names Thomas Heatherwick as a genius. The last question comes from a lady wanting to know what his own house is like and if he has any say in it, to which he replies "I've lived there for 35 years and it's developed a lot over that time, and through two wives... they've had quite an influence on it! It's a proper  home, overrun with children and dogs..."

He thanks the audience in response to the warm applause and blows Suzanne kisses across the coffee table that separates them. A true gentleman, legend and an absolute delight to hear speak.

I think Conran's designs are timeless, well designed, good quality pieces that manage to be both understated, yet really stand out. While many of his larger pieces may be impractical for renters, especially if you have a furnished or part furnished home, he's designed some great accessories that will help elevate any white cube/beige box beyond the ordinary. All of these items are effortlessly simple, easy to live with and most importantly, will adapt to both plain or more highly decorated schemes, meaning that when you move, they will sit happily in your new home too. Here's my pick of his most stylish and useful designs.

1. Tall Tonal Candlestick (also available in a short version) both £19.50 Conran for M&S - Singly or grouped together, this sculptural form will look great even when not in use.
2. Pavilion Side Table £152 exclusively for The Conran Shop - Absolutely timeless and brilliantly versatile, use as a side table, bedside table or plant stand.
3. Etched Tumbler in smoked grey (other colours & patterns available) £7.50 Conran for M&S - Buy a set or mix and match, these jewel like glasses are an affordable treat!
4. Hadleigh 16 piece Cutlery Set £49.50 Conran for M&S - A design classic at a reasonable price, take pleasure in the small things, like eating with a well crafted spoon.
5. Essential Storage £9.09 from Amazon - A must for every renter or shoebox dweller, how to make the most of your space, stylishly.
6. Woven Rope Rug £59-£129 (available in small, medium or as a runner) Conran for M&S - Soften a hardwood floor or cover up plain or tired carpet with this beautiful rug. A striking design in a neutral palette makes it very adaptable to different rooms as needed.
7. Wirework Table Lamp £120 Conran for M&S - At the more expensive end, but if you like it, it will last for years. Another great sculptural piece that will literally brighten any room.
8. Balance Side Table £169.50 Terence Conran for Content By Conran - Slim enough to slot into an awkward space next to the sofa, it could also be used as a bedside table, perfect for stashing all your bedtime reading.
9. Nice Bowl £69 Conran For Alessi at The Conran Shop - It's name says it all, yes, it's a bit frivolous but you do get TWO designer names for your money and it looks good even when it's empty. I'd use it as a fruit bowl.

Both M&S and the Conran Shop have sales on right now, so if you visit the shops or buy on line, you could really get a Conran bargain! The pieces I've highlighted above are non sale items, so they'll be in store for a while yet.

To see the Conran collection for M&S click here.

For the online Conran Shop, click here.

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