The Conran effect

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.)

Habitat bag,1970s (Flickr/ Shelf Appeal

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).

Michelin Building with the glass windows of the old Conran Shop behind. Thanks to Flickr/ Phil Beard

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?

That Crayonne mirror

Categories: Architecture, Design, memoirTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Oh that’s sad, end of an era. Some lovely design. I’ve still got the Quaglino’s cookbook!

  2. I remember falling in love with Habitat in the late 80s…it was Ikea but so much better, true design for the masses. When we first moved to France I went a little crazy but It went downhill after Ikea bought it out. Very fond memories of those shops, especially the tableware as you mention. To be fair, though, I can’t name a single item that survived the test of time. Sad to hear of Conran’s passing!

    • It was seen as rather smart in Britain that Habitat was popular in Paris. I think by the mid1980s, though, there were others that were trying to emulate its success and the company began to lose its zing, although it still had some really good stuff. But it was downhill from thereon. I think the very last time I was in a Habitat it was in Montparnasse and I remember seeing red director’s chairs and thinking how banal…

  3. I love that mirror. How fantastic to still be using lots of the things you bought there. I enjoyed the shops but don’t think I ever bought anything there other than the odd mug or maybe that was Heal’s!

  4. As soon as I heard the news I thought of you. It is impossible to imagine our youth without Conran. I love your use of the word integrity to describe his vision. For me it was always a mixture of clean, innovative, fun and colour. And the buildings!
    And, of course, wedding lists! I still remember going round the Conran shop deciding what to put on our wedding list. A lot of colour, needless to say. And I think you were kind enough to purchase some of that colour for us.
    And chicken bricks! I had completely forgotten about them!

    • So much colour, you’re right. And yes, your wedding list was there! It was such a feel-good space to walk into, as were the old Habitat shops – you just sensed a better life being there…. Now, did you ever actually use a chicken brick? I was tempted to buy one just because it looked so interesting.

  5. I used to work for British Airways. The HQ is still my favourite office building ever, with a covered cobbled street and ‘houses’ all around. Here and there we had small “open air” alcoves where to have your impromptu meeting (or basically pretend to be working). One of them, at some point, was modified with old Concorde seats. The thought that these seats, where my butt rested in 1:1s or while working away at my laptop, had flown supersonically was amazing but, best of all, they were great for comfort and had all sorts of teeny tiny details that you discovered time and again. I believe they were designed by Terence. BTW the place I’m talking about is in the left hand corner of this photo although the picture shows some old tatty chairs.

    • I remember when that building opened, and the wow of its internal street. How great that they used old Concorde seats. I had a friend who flew to New York on it once and was so excited he kept wanting to clap with joy when it reached supersonic speed but had to rein himself in as everyone else was trying to be cool and looked suitably unmoved… Incidentally, Fabrizio, I really enjoyed your book. Congrats – and hope it goes supersonic!

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