ACHICA Living is delighted to share this exclusive interview with Godfather of Design – Sir Terence Conran. We take a look inside the design legend’s home, find out what his alternative career would have been, chat artists and inspiration and discover how to ease the torment of ‘designer’s block’…
What’s the best thing about being a designer?
That it’s never felt like a job – everything I do that is connected to my work I would do for pleasure and design is my passion. Whether it’s creating interiors for homes or restaurants, writing or designing homewares – to a certain extent even smoking my cigars, they are all connected in some way to the work I do – it has been about creating a style of life that people can afford and enjoy. It doesn’t seem like a job.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what career would you have liked to pursue?
Something simple – perhaps a farmer or a gardener combining livestock, market gardening and architectural landscaping. I don’t think I could ever get rid of the entrepreneur in me, so I may have set up a farm shop or restaurant too selling my produce directly. I also thought seriously about becoming a gunsmith when I was younger. Not because I liked shooting things, because I certainly didn’t, but because I was fascinated by the craftsmanship that goes into making guns. However, when I saw the length of the apprenticeship I soon changed my mind – I was far too impatient to get on with my career and went to study textiles instead!
Content by Conran:
Your work includes establishing design institutions such as Habitat, The Conran Shop and Benchmark Furniture as well as regenerating the Shad Thames area of London, which includes the Design Museum. For you, what has been THE most exciting project you’ve worked on and why?
Buying Michelin House and setting up Bibendum and The Conran Shop there. I can honestly say that the day I opened Michelin House was the happiest 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 delightfully quirky Art Deco architecture of the Michelin Building. I dreamt about transforming it into a wonderful shop and – of course – a first class restaurant.
I wrote endless letters to the Michelin headquarters in France asking them what they intended to do with the building as it appeared to be unused. One glorious day in 1985, I discovered that they were prepared to sell, so I immediately rushed to see their managing director – I promised him that I would restore the building to its former glory and that Michelin would be proud of the building when it was finished. After agreeing to repair all the original features, including the stained-glass windows, the Bibendum-esque light fittings and the damaged faience tiling on the façade, Michelin finally agreed to sell. Our enthusiasm had won the day and Michelin House was to be converted into a huge Conran Shop and a restaurant and oyster bar. The building celebrates its 100th anniversary this January and we have some incredibly exciting events surrounding it along with the excellent team from Michelin.
You’ve created a portfolio of gorgeous restaurants, but which do you think serves the best food and do you enjoy visiting the most and why?
I don’t think it’s fair to the hundreds of excellent chefs, managers, waiting staff and designers who have worked for me down the years to pick favourites – all of them have given me great pleasure down the years. We have always worked very carefully to ensure each restaurant has its own character, style of food and mood. Bibendum has made me a very happy man for over twenty years and continues to do so, Boundary gives me a thrill every time I descend the stairs to the restaurant, and the rooftop there on a warm sunny day is one of the most special places in London.
I also feel that our latest opening, Lutyens, doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves – perhaps because it’s more subtle than the dramatic restaurant in Boundary, but the food and service is absolutely top notch and the space is incredibly elegant.
What’s your favourite city?
Paris – after fifty years of fairly regular visits I still get a thrill from the place. The restaurants, the bars, the shops, the beautiful buildings and the atmosphere, which somehow seems to encapsulate the idea of relaxed, intelligent, easy living.
Who’s your favourite artist?
There are lots of artists who I admire and collect, especially Royal College of Art students work at their degree shows – partly because I am Provost there, but largely because you can find such imaginative and brilliant new work. But art has always played quite a large part in my life. I love Richard Smith and Patrick Caulfield and have a large collection of both their work, but for me Eduardo Paolozzi stands head and shoulders above them all. He was a dear friend and I have lots of his pieces at home and in my restaurants. His work crosses so many boundaries – sculpture, painting, textiles – and is full of imagination, colour, inventiveness and humour.
What trends should we be coveting this next season?
I think people are increasingly looking for products that have a certain integrity and will last for generations – something they can pass on to their children that will hold its value and stand the test of time and wavering fashions. In these quite demented times, timeless, enduring design is more relevant than ever.
Who or what has been your main source of inspiration?
As I have mentioned, Eduardo Paolozzi was a dear friend who taught me so many things and his work crosses so many boundaries – sculpture, painting, textiles – and is full of imagination, colour, inventiveness and humour.
An era that stands out for me is the time after the Second World War when anything seemed possible. I was a student in the late forties and the work of Charles Eames and his contemporaries on the West Coast was a great inspiration. I’d add Florence Knoll, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Mies van der Rohe and the perfect simplicity of Shaker furniture to the list. We learned about their work through a magazine called Arts and Architecture, which was our design bible at the time but they had a huge impact on the European design world.
It was a time of serious optimism, exploring revolutionary techniques in furniture making and design. There work demonstrated an insatiable curiosity about the world and showed a style of life that was attainable – a blueprint of how to live a better life with huge doses of wit and charm thrown in.
Eames in particular inspired me – his intense interest in things that would appear trivial to most, such as ordinary factory components, has always been a great influence on me. It always seemed a great pity that for a long time the work of these brilliant designers almost disappeared from view, but all the more thrilling that it is now getting the recognition it deserves and once again exerting influence on the design community.
Content by Conran Matador Armchair:
Benchmark Camberwell Desktop with Stand:
Do you ever wake up on a rainy day and feel uninspired with ‘designers block’? And if so, what do you do to get over it?!
Solutions often come at the strangest of times. I get ideas at 3am, strange small details that often don’t get resolved until I’m half awake and half asleep. I also to like to walk around the garden or sit in my greenhouse smoking a cigar. I prefer to design from my office in the country, where my style of life is much less complicated and free from the busy schedule that usually faces me in London. A nice bottle of burgundy, a cigar and the peace and quiet of the countryside are excellent ways of easing the torment of “designer’s block”.
What do you think makes a house a home?
It may seem obvious but without doubt it is how your home reflects your own personality and character. I would never want to go into somebody’s home and find it to be entirely furnished by Conran or Habitat furniture and products. Your home should reflect your own personality and not mine, or somebody else’s from a television make over programme. Because what is airy and uplifting to one person is sparse and cold to another; what one person may consider cosy may give somebody else indigestion.
Following fashions, trends and the latest styles will not necessarily bring you happiness in your home – fashions in interior design fluctuate like hemlines but notions of comfort and intimacy are timeless. Ultimately, it is more important to find out what you really like and what suits you and if you get a satisfying combination of space, light, colour, materials and products it will continue to refresh your spirits long after the latest ‘look’ has had its day.
Focus on the simple things that make you happy and you are more likely to enjoy your surroundings and – most importantly – it will work well and allow you to live a life free of complexity. Which is perhaps the greatest luxury of these increasingly chaotic times we live in.
Terence Conran’s living room:
Terence Conran’s hallway:
What three products could you not live without?
1. An excellent set of very sharp knives for the kitchen, without which cooking can easily become quite a chore when it really is one of life’s great pleasures.
2. James Dyson’s new bladeless fan which is brilliant. It looks good, it’s quiet, it’s efficient and it can save money in avoiding air con. James is a genius, a champion of British industry and I’m proud to say, a great friend.
3. Thick, sumptuous towels for the bathroom are tremendously satisfying after a long, luxurious soak in the bath.
What’s the secret to successful designing?
I would advise any young designer to absorb knowledge left right and centre. Visit design fairs, museums, exhibitions and galleries. Read books and magazines and take clippings of things you like. Feed your imagination with ideas to create a scrap book in your mind that you can always draw from. Talk to designers and artists, gain practical experience and learn a craft so you understand how things are actually made and how different materials shape the design process. I have always concerned myself with what one may call the practical aspects of design and tried to relate my work to the manufacturing process. I have never designed any product that I wouldn’t know how to make myself.
How will you be spending this Christmas?
With this perishing cold snap, I am delighted to say I am getting away to sunnier climes and will be spending Christmas in Marakesh with friends. It will be blissful to have some sun on my face.
What’s your motto?
Keep it plain, simple and useful – design should be about solving problems and making life easier, not more complicated.
Check out the beautiful new Conran Audio iPod dock designed by Studio Conran. It works both docked and wirelessly with iPhones and iPods, and wirelessly with iPads.
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Emily Peck, Editor
View all posts by Emily Peck, Editor