It was poignant to read this morning of the death of Terence Conran. It made me reflect on how much he shaped the way I look at design. (Read The Guardian obituary here)
In the early 1970s, living in South Wales, we would occasionally go shopping in Bristol. We would always go to Habitat. It was such a stylish place, light and glassy, and filled with things I simply adored. It smelled of wood and sisal and there was plenty of pine and chunky pottery. There were also things that I’d never seen before, like modular seating (there was a range of curvy foam seats covered in a stretchy jersey fabric called Mozzarella) and bean bags (they called them Sag Bags) and weird lighting shaped like triffids. They played pop music and I distinctly remember hearing a song I’d begun to really like and thinking this place was bliss. (The song, incidentally, was ‘Your Song’ by newcomer Elton John.)
My parents bought a few things there but my friend Robin’s family bought loads. They had a set of crockery called Old Colonial which looked hand-painted, cutlery with knobbly bamboo handles, and wire chairs by Harry Bertoia. While there were designs from noted designers, Habitat in those days was like Ikea today – everyone had something in their home from Habitat, even if it was only a butter dish. After we moved to Yorkshire, I continued to drop into Habitat in York and saved up for a bright yellow Crayonne mirror and waste bin for my bedroom, which I still treasure. I treasured each catalogue, too. Later, in 1987, I bought the china for my first flat in Habitat in the King’s Road and I still use it – the basic white porcelain has never dated.
I used the Conran Shop a lot when I worked at Designers Guild in the 1980s. When I was decorating a furnished rental or a showflat, I could usually find there all the things that I couldn’t source in-house, like bentwood chairs and simple oak tables. The Conran Shop occupied a shop on the corner of Walton Street, with a ground floor that was crammed with sofas and rugs, and the basement packed with all the accessories. Across the road sat the extraordinary hulk of the old Michelin building, all grimy and forlorn. So it was a revelation when Conran breathed new life into it, giving the Conran Shop oodles of space, and adding a restaurant, a café and a lovely flower stall that operated out of an old Citroën van (of course).
I started going to the Conran restaurants quite a lot, too. Bibendum in the Michelin building was meant to be the best but I loved Quaglinos, in St James, an old restaurant reinvented by Conran and turned into a buzzing brasserie, with a glamorous staircase curving down into the restaurant proper. It was a place to make an entrance and the food was signature Conran – I always had rabbit in mustard sauce and colcannon, comfort food done beautifully. Another favourite was Le Pont de la Tour close to Tower Bridge, where you could dine outside on the quay and feel, on a summer’s evening, as though you were in Paris.
Anything touched by Conran had a feeling of integrity, from the types of tile on the floor to the door handles. It totally accorded with my love of simplicity and not hiding what things were. It was Bauhaus and Dieter Rams flooded with Mediterranean warmth and Scandinavian honesty.
That take on design was perfectly expressed when Conran opened the Boilerhouse Project at the V&A in 1982. It was in the basement and felt tucked away and a bit cramped, a secret to uncover. More importantly, it was all about celebrating contemporary design and no one else was doing that. The V&A is always astonishing and this, for me, was the icing. I would drop by to see the latest exhibition then nip upstairs to stroll through the William Morris rooms or flick through the Arts and Crafts fabrics, and it was as good as eating a great meal, something I’d think about long after I’d left. (I never felt the same kind of warmth towards it when it evolved into the Design Museum near Tower Bridge, which felt more polished and less fervent. I’ve yet to visit the Design Museum’s latest incarnation but I’ve long admired the building it’s in, the old Commonwealth Building on Kensington High Street.)
So. Farewell then, Terence Conran, as E J Thribb might write. You brought terracotta chicken bricks and scrubbed pine into our homes. You also clarified how I felt about home and showed how comfort and good design are not exclusive. Thank you.
What are your Conran memories?