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September 12, 2020 9 min read
Sir Terence Conran – A Colourful Life
“I have spent a colourful lifetime in design – printing textiles, making furniture, retailing home furnishings, clothes, baby and children’s products, designing, opening and running restaurants cafés, bars and hotels. Our design group has designed everything from skyscrapers to cottages and interiors for anything from airport terminals and department stores to small shops and cafes.” Sir Terence Conran
Let’s try an experiment. Go down the average high street today and tell me if you can find a local store where you are able to buy good quality furniture, textiles, wall art, kitchen wares and lighting that actually makes you sigh, in a good way. The type of store where you want to buy everything; where it’s cool, funky, modern, different (!) and just about affordable.
Despite the abundance of homeware choices in today's world, we still struggle to find such a store, so imagine what it was like 70 years ago.
With internet shopping becoming the norm and high streets losing retailers, it’s easy to forget what a pleasure it was to discover something new and distinctive on your doorstep. For Habitat alone we say a hearty thank you to Sir Terence but the man is so much more than a designer of products. Very much inspired by Sir Gordon Russell, Conran created a lifestyle to aspire to and enjoy via the power of democratic design.
The Early Years
Born in 1931, Terence Conran studied textiles and other materials at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (now part of Central St Martin’s College), London between 1948 and 1950.
During this period, he studied textiles under the influential artist and designer Eduardo Paolozzi, of whom Conran said had been a profound influence on his approach to art, design and, ‘most importantly’, life. Conran and Paolozzi also shared a workshop in London’s East End, where Conran opened his furniture making business using reclaimed materials, textiles from Petticoat Lane market and basic tools. Paolozzi shared his approach to textiles, pattern and art and Conran shared his practical furniture making skills.
Between 1949 and 1951 Conran also worked for architect Dennis Lennon & Associates on projects, which included the Festival of Britain.
The 1950s - Food & Design
Having barely left his studies behind, Conran set himself up as an independent furniture and textiles designer under the name Conran & Co (1952), producing designs for Edinburgh Weavers, the John Lewis Partnership, David Whitehead and Simpsons of Piccadilly.
Conran wasn’t even halfway through the decade before opening his first series of London eateries in 1953. The Soup Kitchen, just off The Strand, was a budget restaurant that must have been a breath of fresh air for those who could afford it during the post war years. Taking inspiration from a visit to France, with its rustic homewares and food, the interiors were modern and the food included French bread and cheeses at a time when the British were just coming out of food rationing and many had never eaten Continental food before. In 1954, the Orrery Coffee Shop, a French style brasserie, also opened on the Kings Road.
(1956 image) The Design Council Slide Collection / University of Brighton Design Archives
Bear in mind that at this point Terence Conran was still only in his early twenties. He seems to have been incredibly driven from a very young age and has stayed true to his passions for design, business and hospitality ever since.
In the mid 1950s, Conran Fabrics was born. Britain’s textiles industry had been declining for several years but companies like David Whitehead encouraged new designers and talented young creatives like Conran helped to reinvigorate it.
Textiles made by Haworth's Fabrics Ltd. in 1954: (left) screen-printed cotton fabric designed by Dennis Lennon and (right) screen-printed rayon fabric designed by Terence Conran. Image: The Design Council Slide Collection.
Conran had a solid head for business and he went on to achieve large contracts, including British Airways. He had arrived. His success continued with the launch of the Conran Design Group in 1956. The group was at the heart of cutting edge design, famous for designing the iconic Mary Quant store in Knightsbridge and designing contemporary furniture for a new generation. In line with other designers at the time Conran was paving the way to make simple, well-designed furniture accessible to all.
Background fabric: Tibor's ‘Mantua' with ‘Lurex' thread. Prototype pottery designed by Tibor Reich for Joseph Bourne & Sons Ltd. Table designed by Terence Conran for Conran Furniture Ltd (originally available from Peter Jones) using ‘Bana' pattern tiles by Colourcraft Studios (Shipston) Ltd, 1957. Image supplied from: The Design Council Slide Collection / University of Brighton Design Archives
The Swinging Sixties
By 1962, Terence Conran had gained a reputation as the one of Britain's most influential designers. He had successfully become part of the swinging London scene with his modern approach, designing everything from textiles to furniture for commercial and domestic interiors.
The Summa range was his first mass produced furniture range, designed to be sold through retailers. A radical new approach to affordable, self-assembly ‘knock down’ (flat pack), design-led furniture. But he struggled to get it into stores, and it wouldn’t be until he launched his own retail outlet a few years later that the range would truly take off.
Summa was very much of the Scandinavian style, with clean lines and natural materials. Conran’s designs from this era shared a similar design philosophy to other European designers such as Kaare Klint and Gio Ponti. Such influences are apparent in the Klint inspired Safari chair, currently instore.
The similarity between the simple, light wood, geometric box frame and the PU/A armchair accompanying the Summa range is evident.
The leather strap armrests and the light box frame are not dissimilar to Ponti's Superleggera chair. What is interesting with this particular chair is the experimentation of these influences within one piece, with upholstered seat and back pad similar to Ebbe and Karen Clemmesen designs but not usually associated with the leather sling pads of the Safari chair.
Designed by Conran for Dancer and Hearne, one of Britain's largest chair manufacturers in the early 20th Century, the chair was part of a range that Dancer and Hearne produced in the early 1960s in an attempt to compete in the burgeoning mass manufacturing market. In 1970, Dancer and Hearne was bought out by Parker Knoll and the factory closed soon after. This is one of the few examples on the market today of a Modernist design by a traditional bastion of UK manufacturing.
Conran opened the first Habitat shop on London’s Fulham Road in 1964, with his then wife Caroline Herbert. Habitat aimed to sell household goods and furniture in contemporary styles and was so successful that a chain of stores opened across the UK in towns which had never had access to such designs before.
With its youthful vibes, Habitat was a delight, bringing with it new ways to shop and products that would revolutionise many aspects of the way we live.
Continental quilts, aka duvets, from Sweden inspired the British to ditch their blankets and you could buy curtains to match, bean bags encouraged a laid back approach to living rooms, woks helped to introduce a new way of cooking as did Le Creuset pots and pans. French wine carafes started to show up in dining rooms, and yes, the rustic terracotta chicken brick would become a best seller for many years to come. And who still owns a Japanese inspired Habitat paper lightshade? That very affordable, circular paper and wire disc that unfolded to reveal the transparent globe that would grace many student digs for years after.
The infamous Chicken Brick, designed by David Queensbury and Martin Hunt and launched in 1968. You can still buy them from Habitat today.
Mary Quant designed the staff uniforms and Vidal Sassoon did their hair. It was a happening time to be working in retail and a new window opening up to a world of hip and exciting style.
Habitat pushed many boundaries, including magazine style product catalogues featuring young hipsters. In 1966 Habitat by Post enabled those who didn't have a shop nearby to shop by mail order.
1972 Habitat Catalogue
From the 1974 Habitat Catalogue
1977 Habitat Catalogue
In 1973 an advert for a duvet caused complaints to come flooding in for reasons indicative of some of the negative social attitudes of the time, it had featured a young interracial couple cuddling up together. Ironically, the bed set they were helping to promote is said to have become a bestselling item.
1973 also saw the original Habitat store move to new premises, whilst Conran’s new addition to the family opened its doors in the original spot on Fulham Road.
The Conran Shop
This was a more grown up affair, with sophisticated and more expensive items for sale. The shop was super stylish, and Conran sourced the finest products and furniture from around the world. Still selling Conran’s original designs, the store also stocked renowned designers. To this day you can still find pieces by Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Mies van der Rohe and other esteemed Mid Century furniture designers in store.
Terence Conran had by this time founded several home furnishing businesses, which made good design available to various income groups. He not only created the products found in British households, he also encouraged homeowners to reproduce the Conran style in their own living rooms. In 1974 the first edition of ‘The House Book’ was published. Conran was showing how to take his own design principles and apply them at home using his handy guides and glossy images. In effect, he was selling a lifestyle via the power of design.
(1980 image) The Design Council Slide Collection / Manchester Metropolitan University Special Collections.
By now Habitat was a household name, the only modern comparison would be Ikea if it was available on high streets. You could probably find at least one Habitat item in most homes throughout Britain. Student bedrooms featured fun, primary coloured chairs and easy to assemble desks designed for young people. Although Habitat attracted all age groups to its premises, Conran was always adept at tapping into youth scenes and helped to pioneer the eighties’ trends for bold graphic prints and colour blocking everything.
Habitat had its finger on the pulse of the cooler side of popular culture
For those on a tight budget or of a particularly creative bent, the Habitat Campus range included simple unfinished designs customers could assemble and paint.
As we mentioned earlier, Terence Conran was a great admirer of Gordon Russell and in a similar vein to Russell he was a design ambassador. In 1981 the Conran Foundation was set up, dedicated to educating the public and British industry on the values of industrial design. This preceded the Design Museum by eight years, of which he became the founding father in 1989 - the museum now stands in Kensington.
The Design Museum / image by Tom Eversley on Shutterstock
The 1980s were the age of big business, privatisation of public services, shoulder pads, power suits, early brick-like mobile phones, Yuppies, Sloane Rangers, Miners’ strikes, high interest rates, mass unemployment and the polarisation of the haves and have nots. Always the businessman, Conran expanded Habitat into the Storehouse Group, which included Heals, BHS, Mothercare. Photographed in his braces, Terence Conran epitomised the look of the age.
This wasn’t the full story though. Conran’s eighties also saw him establish architecture and planning consultancy Conran Roche with Fred Roche in 1980. Having moved The Conran Shop into Michelin House (François Espinasse’s Art Nouveau building in Chelsea) during the seventies, in the eighties Conran Roche designed the restaurant Bibendum on the same site.
Image of The Conran Shop: Ron Ellis on Shutterstock
He also co-founded Benchmark Furniture with Sean Sutcliffe, which produced handmade, environmentally designed products and still has workshops today supporting and encouraging new designers onto the market.
1990s to the Present Day
Conran lost control of the Storehouse Group in the early nineties but he was always juggling multiple projects and businesses. The decade also saw The Conran Shop go international, with stores in countries including France, Japan and the US. 2003 witnessed the launch of Content by Terence Conran, Conran Collections and so many more projects across the design spectrum.
Habitat store Bangkok, Thailand
Conran was also instrumental in the regeneration of London’s Shad Thames / Butler’s Wharf on the south bank. This area became the home of the original Design Museum and his restaurants: Butlers Wharf Chop House, Le Pont de la Tour and the Blueprint Café – all of which are still there now.
If you find yourself in this part of London, take a look around. You will pass through an area that includes White Cube Gallery, the Fashion and Textile Museum, The Shard, Borough Market, Tate Modern, The Haywood Gallery, National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall (the Southbank Centre, original home of the 1951 Festival of Britain). This is one of our favourite city walks and a great place to stay if you’re overnighting as it also has amazing Thames’ views plus London tourist spots like Shakespeare’s Globe and the London Eye.
Sir Terence Conran will be remembered for rejuvenating London’s riverside, his grand scale internationally acclaimed architectural projects and for bringing us the Design Museum. But his impact on the way we live cannot be underestimated. He successfully brought contemporary design trends directly into people’s homes via his Habitat and Conran stores, he showed us how to decorate and style our homes and shared his design aesthetics throughout the fifty or so books he has had published. In our view, Conran achieved his aim of making design democratic.
Do you have any early Conran Shop or Habitat memories? We’d love to hear them in the comments below.
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