Sir Terence Conran – Master of Design

04 May 2018

In our current world of constant comparison, mind-numbing levels of social media feeds, and a near 24/7 level of connectedness, it’s hard to keep your eyes on your own prize. Occasionally the comparative can be inspirational, as was the case last week, when one such social media feed reminded me of the eternal genius and success of British Designer and Entrepreneur, Sir Terence Conran.


For the unfamiliar among you, Sir Terence Conran brought us the likes of flat-pack furniture and duvets. When he opened the first Habitat store on the Fulham Road in 1964, he brought Bauhaus-style modular furniture, woks, bean bags, garlic presses and espresso machines to the attention of British consumers for the first time.

But his impact was and is far more wide-reaching.  Sir Terence Conran has been influencing the design preferences and culinary palates of the nation for more than 60 years. He was driven by a vision for what design could and should be. When he found it didn’t exist in post-war Britain, he created it, which is why he embodies the spirit of The Boutique Chalet Company - neither looking to reinvent an industry. Nor to repackage it. But to ask Why. Why should we continue to do things in this way?


Early influences

My mother, from a very early age, showed me that simple things can make a big difference to the quality of people’s lives. The light in a room, the use of colour, the objects you have around you – she shaped the way I look at the world. She also provided me with the tools and space to set up a decent workshop at our home in the country, so from a very early age I was making furniture, throwing pots, welding bits of metal. It is terrifically important to be involved in the design process; unless you know how things are made, how can you be a successful designer.


Defining moments


One of the most transformative moments happened when I was a small boy.  I had become frustrated while making a bookcase so hurled it down the stairs where it completely disintegrated, sending my mother into a fury. “Pick up all the pieces and go back upstairs and don’t come down until it’s finished,” she said. That is exactly what I did and the joy of actually finishing this bloody bookcase made me feel ecstatic. It was the start of me as a designer. Seeing a finished product on the shop floor, or a new restaurant opening still gives me an almost childish delight. This incident also sewed the earliest seeds of my bloody minded tenacity that has served me pretty well throughout my career.


One of the great turning points in my life was a trip to France in 1953. I drove south in a friend’s old Lagonda through the Dordogne and it was the first time I had been abroad. Coming from a very grey, post war London I was amazed by the quality of everyday French life - the delicious food in roadside cafes that was washed down with carafes of rough red wine, generously thrown in for free, and the simple, unpretentious but abundant displays on market stalls and shops. I thought, “Why couldn’t we enjoy a life like that back in England?” I suppose I have been trying to capture something of those qualities ever since, although I’ve yet to open a restaurant or bar where we can throw in the red wine for free!


I was also inspired by the cookery writer Elizabeth David and feverishly read through her wonderful books and began to understand how she had created a revolution in people’s minds and was awakening the appetite for food and cooking. But you couldn’t buy any of the equipment she talked about that was used in French kitchens, so I thought well, why not open this shop and sell our furniture in a proper way too?


Post War Britain

It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was in post-war Britain. It really was the era of Spam fritters.  But I’d seen the Sunday Times launching the first colour supplement, and the booming success Mary Quant had had with her Bazaar, and I felt that people would want to express their personalities in their homes just as much as through their clothes. Young people were emerging from the dreary, austere years immediately after the war and they had their own ideas of how the world might look, and most importantly they had a bit of money in their pockets.  
“If it’s not already been done, do it yourself.”

The Challenges - The Birth of Habitat

In the early sixties I had had a modicum of success selling contract furniture to commercial users but what I hadn’t realised at that time was that the product itself was not enough. I produced a range of modern flat pack furniture called Summa and we needed staff and retailers to demonstrate our enthusiasm for the designs but they didn’t. Our products looked out of place in their quite dreary shops and showrooms. We were young and hungry for success but the retailers could not see the world was changing and were too lazy and complacent to seize the opportunity – our products didn’t stand a chance of selling in that environment. I felt there was an opportunity for a revolution in the way things were sold, to create something that was more than just a shop selling furniture. And so began my Habitat experiment – partly out of frustration, but also out of a conviction that a better style of life should be more widely available. Habitat captured the mood of the time. It changed people's lives. It was an opportunity to acquire products that allowed you to lead a contemporary lifestyle, sold at prices that people could afford.



professional timeline

Terence Conran sitting in his Cone Chair in the 1950s. Photograph by Ray Williams/Design Museum

What is good design?

The question I have been asked more than any other is ‘what is good design?’ but I always end up tying myself in knots trying to answer it. I prefer to call it ‘intelligent design’ because good design can mean different things to different people. Creativity and innovation are certainly the defining characteristics of a good designer, whose role is to create inspired solutions to the problems of contemporary life. The most accurate definition I have ever heard came from a ten-year-old boy who told me simply that “design makes us think about problems and solve them with our own ideas.” Why hadn’t I thought of that?

3 Loves

GlasswearI treasure my collection of glass pieces that includes industrial glass, laboratory glass, 18th century drinking glasses and agricultural pieces. I love its transparency, lightness and the traditional shapes the craftsmen have formed.

Tools  – As a small child, I remember my favorite present was a bag of wooden off cuts, nails, and a pretty basic tool kit. There is no doubt this was the point where I first began to develop the curious mind of a designer. Fast forward 70 years or so to a recent birthday and, among the many wonderful presents I received—I was left speechless by the most exquisite tool cabinet made just for me by the skilled workers at my furniture making company, Benchmark. Such a thoughtful present, filled with the very best tools imaginable and everything a passionate craftsman could possibly need. It truly is a thing of beauty and I can feel the same tingle in my fingers I got as a young boy—itching to get in the workshop and make things.

BridgesI have always found bridges inspiring—the Golden Gate, the Roman aqueduct in Segovia, the Forth Rail Bridge—but the Millau Viaduct is on another level.. Created by Sir Norman Foster and the French structural engineer Michel Virlogeux it is a spectacular combination of sublime architecture and engineering. It spans the Tarn Gorge in France at a height of nearly 250-metres and Norman described it as a “bridge that would march across a valley in the most elegant, economical light, modular fashion” and it certainly does that. When I first drove across it I felt like I was on the world’s biggest, most elegant liner.

3 Highs

1. Making a success of Habitat was perhaps my biggest achievement.

2. I can honestly say the day I opened Michelin House (now Bibendum) was the happiest day of my life. The site of the first Habitat store was just over the road from the building and over the years I had fallen in love with the quirky Art Deco architecture of the Michelin Building. I dreamt about transforming it into a wonderful shop and – of course – a first class restaurant and to this day we still have The Conran Shop and Bibendum there.

3. Founding the Design Museum. I have always been a great supporter of education in design and passionately believe that good design is of fundamental importance to our quality of everyday life.

Design in four words

Simplicity, beauty, functionality and surprise.



Author: Claire Garber

< Previous article Next article >