Terence Conran: The Way We Live Now, Design Museum 16 November 2011 – 4 March 2012

To celebrate the eightieth birthday of Terence Conran, the Design Museum, in London’s Shad Thames until 4 March, is hosting the exhibition, The Way We Live Now. Curated by Deyan Sudjic, it charts the wide-ranging career and life of this ubiquitous business dragon, designer and celebrated restaurateur, from his creative beginnings amidst the austerity of the post- war period, through the pioneering spirit of the Festival of Britain in the 1950s and social and economic advances of the 1960s, to the design rebirth of the 1980s and on into the present time.

Conran has always credited Bryanston school in Dorset with having given him the creative impetus to forge his parallel careers. It was here that he learned to cook, weld, make ceramics, but above all to work under his own initiative. When he both created and endowed the Design Museum in 1989, saying he wanted to ‘encourage the country to be a workshop again’, he was merely echoing a work ethic picked up from his alma mater. At the Central School of Art he was to learn culinary skills from another of its students, the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, who taught the grateful Conran how to cook black squid risotto. In return Conran taught Paolozzi how to weld.

On leaving art school after just one year of studying textile design, Conran began to pursue his own career. He headed to Paris to live with an American girlfriend and improve his cooking skills by working in the city’s restaurants. Back in the UK he opened the Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, selling delicious stocks loaded with different ingredients, for a shilling a pint. 1964 saw the launch of Habitat, the furniture and interiors chain that predated Ikea in the then highly novel marketing of flat-packed furniture. Habitat, Conran still believes, changed people’s lives. It gave them ‘an opportunity to create a contemporary lifestyle feel in their own homes’. He had a finely tuned commercial sense of what people wanted in terms of design, and with Habitat he saw his moment. Following post-war austerity, the 1960s was a time of sustained growth in the economy. On the back of this wave of optimism he was able to sell to an upwardly mobile populace the dream of a better life. He both fired their enthusiasm, via ads in the Sunday supplements, whilst at the same time supplying the resulting demand. By the end of the decade the chameleon Conran had sold, by the million, lifestyle packages in the same way holiday companies were peddling package holidays in the sun.

Some Habitat products are on display in the show, arranged as retro room sets, from the 1960s to the 1990s. Groans, and smiles, greeted some of the all-too-familiar design staples from those decades; the plain and dyed chenille rugs, cane and chrome chairs and dining tables, the chunky, brightly-coloured crockery and other kitchen wares that furnished countless homes. The clean lines and pared-down design aesthetic of the Bauhaus is imprinted on nearly all of Conran’s designs. It is a ‘boutique’ form of modernism; the movement’s starker and more challenging productions are watered down for ease of visual consumption. A classic red teapot design, for example, is – as can happen – something in the exhibition to which I took exception. Here, a timeless shape has, during the design process, been rationalised to the point where it has lost its character and become just another innocuous mass-market product. Yet what Conran is capable of as a designer, given free rein, is glimpsed in the closing moments of this show. Here sits a freestanding shelving unit, designed in 2004 and part of the exclusive Benchmark range of furniture. The Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol (the unit is from a range called Clifton) is echoed in its stainless steel tension wires and curves that hold the structure rigid. My eye traces its sections of oiled ash and the traditional exposed jointing. I ignored the discreet DO NOT TOUCH sign nearby as I ran my hand over this elegant piece of design – an accomplished coupling of art and functionality.

As well as Habitat and Benchmark, Conran still owns the flourishing Conran Shop on the Fulham Road. An upmarket interiors emporium, it is situated next to Bibendum, a flattering imitation of Parisian grands cafés situated in a refurbished, ex-Michelin tyre factory. Contemporary designs are mixed with classics by Ray and Charles Eames, two of Conran’s heroes. Clearly, there are different products for a different audience.

Twenty years after the initial launch of Habitat, Conran was to find fortune a second time in the economic boom under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. He floated Habitat on the Stock Market. ‘For the first time in my life,’ he recalls, ‘I had a lot of money.’ The rampant consumer culture of the time was hungry for more from the Conran Dream Factory. He speculated in property and, at the same time, introduced to the UK a tranche of new restaurants, such as Orrery, the Zinc Bar and the Clinton-patronised Pont de la Tour. Yet there was something unconvincing about these colonial imports of French café society. What is it about even the most lavish of these enterprises that feels contrived and manufactured? The restaurant transplants never really took on English soil, remaining merely ‘concept’ eateries, manufactured in a marketing laboratory. Why, then, have they been such a financial hit for Conran? It may be their very predictability and consistency – the reliability of a certain culinary product at an affordable price. One suspects, though, that punters flock to these establishments for the same reason that people buy Elizabeth David recipe books; simply because they stir fond memories of idyllic holidays spent in Provence and the Dordogne.

Yet, as a marketer and design businessman, Conran was, and is, a real innovator. He continues to wave the flag for British design and manufacturing, which is laudable. In this sense he sees his job as to ‘educate, at all sorts of levels, from school children to industrialists’. He is also giving the Design Museum the building it presently occupies in Southwark in order that it can be housed in a new venue in Kensington. But what kind of museum will it be? Conran’s conservative tastes in design are somewhat worrying. For instance, the visually more outré creations of certain postmodernist designers, such as Alessi and Ettore Sottsass, might as well never have been if you look at the product ranges Conran retailed in the Habitat catalogues of the 1980s and early 1990s. These tame designs seem to be stuck in a time warp, as does his quaintly held belief that design is a socially engaged cultural practice that can lead society forward and improve the quality of people’s lives. Is he really an old-fashioned modernist at heart, who believes in the spiritual value of good design?

Maybe that is how Conran will be remembered – as a very smart, design- savvy retailer, who brought to the British public, albeit in a diluted and synthetic format, a little of the flavour of a once-great cultural epoch, one that was already passing into the flux of history by the time his creative and business careers had commenced?

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