21st century retail is all about creative collaboration and multi-sensory experiences. For that we have Sir Terence Conran to thank, who affected the way we live - for the better. Here, a profile I wrote for Belle magazine.
You would be hard pressed to find a more prolific designer than Sir Terence Conran. The 82-year-old creative-multihyphenate - interior designer, restaurateur, retailer and author - has accomplished more in his career than many businesses do over the course of generations. He's talented, yes, but Conran's real skill is in knowing exactly what people want, exactly when they want it, and away from the colour schemes, prototypes and sketches, that's essentially what design is all about.
One of Conran's greatest achievements is the creation of Habitat, a design store that sold, as he explained to Elle Decor, "all the things that make up a way of life", including homewares and furniture, at democratic prices. When he opened the store in 1964, good design was predominantly for the wealthy but, like high-street fashion boutique Biba that opened at the same time in London, Conran provided an entry point that thwarted the hierarchy of the design world. It's thanks to his vision that design has become an integral part of our daily lives.
In 2011 the Design Museum in London mounted a major retrospective, The Way We Live Now, that showcased 60 years of Conran's design, demonstrating the sheer breadth of his work which continues apace today under his direction as chairman. His business, Conran Holdings, was established two decades ago and comprises a group of designers that aims to "improve the quality of all our lives through products, buildings or interiors that work well, are affordable and look beautiful", as the company statement notes, and spans architecture, interior, interactive, product and brand design, as well as shops, restaurants and hotels. Hospitality is an important part of the broader Conran oeuvre, having been involved in the creation of some Britain's leading restaurants, including Bibendum, Le Pont de la Tour, Quaglino's, Mezzo and Butler's Wharf Chop House. Recent hotel and restaurant projects include Boundary, which opened in London's trendy east in 2008, and Lutyens, a restaurant and private club on Fleet Street, opened in 2009.
Terence Conran was born in 1931 in Kingston-upon-Thames, and educated at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. According to a spokesperson, it was not long into his textile design course that he began selling his own textile prints, evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined his career. "We were at that time called industrial artists," he says of his first job with architect Dennis Lennon. "The word designer really wasn't used."
In a way, the word designer still remains an inappropriate title for Conran, who went on to open The Soup Kitchen, serving soup, cheese and espresso, in 1952, as Britain emerged from the austerity of war, and shortly after, The Orrery, a coffee shop on Kings Road, before founding his first multidisciplinary design studio, Conran Design Group, in 1956. Although Conran's work is so extensive, his name so enmeshed in British design, his five children, all of whom work in design, hospitality or the arts (son Jasper, a successful fashion designer, replaced his father as chairman of The Conran Shop in 2012) nonetheless furthers his legacy.