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?
IN HIS OWN WORDS...
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.
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.