In praise of Terence Conran

A Conran legacy

I was a big fan of Habitat in my twenties and thirties. I loved the clean design of the furniture, kitchen wear and dinner sets. I’m typing this blogpost on the 23 year old Habital dining table (now my working from home desk) seen in the photo, while drinking from the pictured 31 year old coffee cup from the store. Somewhere I still have a Habitat fondue set and towel rail.

It’s all thanks to Terence Conran, who has died aged 88. Conran was one of the entrepreneurs who changed the face of Britain, bringing fresh, modern design to the high street and the home.

“It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” Conran later said. “You could go along a terrace of houses, and every living room you looked in was the exactly the same, with the same extremely dreary furniture.” (You can see a glimpse of that world even today in many chintzy guesthouses.) Design was a hugely under appreciated discipline, as a glance at almost any household product would show. Conran opened the first Habitat store in 1964, and the stores quickly became a symbol of the Sixties. Over time, Habitat made the duvet (or continental quilt as my parents and grandparents called them), beanbag, wok and fondue part of everyday life.

We still use the white plates and bowls that I bought in Habitat’s store in Kingston upon Thames (Conran’s birthplace) in September 1989. (The coffee cup in the photo is part of the same set.) I did intend to replace it when it completed 30 years’ service a year ago but never got round to choosing a replacement.

Later, I spent many happy hours in the Cheltenham and Cardiff stores, once dragging a very heavy garden chair half a mile back to my old Cheltenham office in the Eagle Star tower block. Karen wasn’t as keen as I was on the swivelling metal liquid soap dispenser. It didn’t survive when we set up home together a few years later.

Conran was always ambitious, constantly looking for new ventures. He became a successful restauranteur, reviving the famous London institution Quaglino’s, and helping making the area south of Tower Bridge popular with Le Post de la Tour. (Tony Blair and Bill Clinton famously dined there; less famously I enjoyed many lunches and dinners with journalists at both, especially in the 1990s..) Conran’s mission was the same as with Habitat: to show the British that there was a better way. He also founded the Design Museum just along from Le Pont de la Tour.

But his ambition led him to disaster in the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like many entrepreneurs before and since, he couldn’t resist expanding and acquiring. By the mid 1980s, Habitat was part of a retail empire that included Mothercare and British Home Stores. The near doubling of interest rates in under two years caused havoc on the high street, and Conran resigned as chair of the group. Within two years, Habitat was bought by the family that owns IKEA. For many, it was appropriate: IKEA had taken the Habitat and Conran vision of simple, clean furniture to a new scale and at much more affordable prices.

Habitat, 2020

There are now just a handful of high street Habitat stores. I popped into the Tottenham Court Road one not long before lockdown to look for replacements for that 1989 dinner set. I liked the colourful ones above. I think Sir Terence would have approved.

The Sixties design revolution

Design for life

Conran was just part of the 1960s design revolution. The year that Habitat’s first store opened saw the launch of British Rail’s fresh, new identity. (See my 50th anniversary blogpost here.) So many elements of that identity still look modern 56 years on, and remain a familiar sight today. Especially the famous double arrow, which once appeared on cross channel ferries as well as trains and stations.

Conran showed that good design made good business sense, and should be integral to a product, not be an afterthought. That was the ethos later adopted by Steve Jobs and his British born design chief Jony Ive.

As The Times pointed out in an affectionate editorial marking his death, “Conran nurtured the extraordinary flourishing of Britain’s cultural and creative industries that continues to this day. That is his real legacy. Conran helped to shape not only Britain’s past and present, but its future too.”

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