People in design: Sir Terence Conran

Find out about the designer and entrepreneur's new book, his own interior style, and what's next for the Conran brand

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What can people expect from your latest book, Plain Simple Useful?

It is a very personal book – ‘plain, simple and useful’ has been a design philosophy I have followed all my life, and the key to what I call ‘easy living’. It is 40 years since we did The House Book, but this feels so much more relevant and important to the way we live today. I hope it demonstrates that good design gives you pleasure because it is enduring and timeless.

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

It is the heart of my life really, the place where I feel most comfortable and relaxed. For me, it reflects the character, personality and taste of my wife, Victoria, and I, and is filled with objects and art that we love. The thing I like best about my house is my collections. I have little ‘museums’ around the house, and particularly like my glass pieces, which include industrial and laboratory glass, 18th century drinking glasses and agricultural pieces, and an extraordinary Jacobean Rose goblet that has been handed down in my family for generations. I love the transparency and lightness of glass, and the traditional shapes the craftsmen have formed.

In the kitchen, I display my copper pans and kitchen utensils proudly, and although many of them are older than me, they still work far better in the kitchen than I do. My favourite artwork includes pieces from another octogenarian, Dick Smith, alongside exceptional work from the graduate show at the Royal College of Art. But perhaps dearest of all are the gifts made for me by my much missed friend Eduardo Paolozzi.  He was a truly wonderful man who opened my eyes to so much in the world, and I treasure his paintings, clay heads, sculptures and hundreds of prints.

Which of your homes do you enjoy spending time in the most?

I am fortunate to have two homes. I have one in Battersea in London, and one in the country in Berkshire. I divide my time between the two because I like to get a nice contrast; the city has a great energy, creativity and diversity, and the country is good for contemplation, relaxation, quietness, comfort and joy. My life is all about getting the balance right. At the moment, because it has an exciting newness to it, I am enjoying my Battersea home very much. It is comfortable, modern, filled with beautiful objects, art and furniture that I love, and has incredible views of the Thames. If I did have to pick between the two, though, Barton Court in Berkshire is where I feel most relaxed and content. It is where I have space to think, design and create, and I have very few distractions or interruptions such as meetings, phone calls or parties to attend.

Is there a space within your homes that you most enjoy spending time in?

Probably my living room in the country, where I created an 80 foot space along the front of the house by knocking down two walls. It has huge windows, which fill the space with natural light, and houses some of my favourite collections such as my ceramics, glass, and butterflies and moths. It also opens out onto the garden, which in summer makes for a spectacular feature.

What is your own interior style?

The Conran look has always been eclectic, and in my opinion has tried to make modernism more interesting and personal. We have always mixed and sold antique and flea market furnishings together with the finest and latest modern designs, which helps make modernism more interesting and, at times, surprising. There will always be new inspirations and new ideas – constant pruning, if you like – but I still want to find humour and charm in everything I design and own. My eye will always move but my style, while different in specifics, will always stay the same.

How important is it to remember the history of a product, why it originated and how it has developed over time?

Generally speaking, I think it is most important that a piece of furniture or product is well made, looks beautiful, is built to last and is useful. On a personal level, design history is fascinating and I always take a keen interest in the life of a product or piece of furniture. They tell stories of ingenuity, innovation and craft, which I think we can all learn from and improve our work. In my latest book you will see the products, furniture and objects that I personally have loved over the years. I hope I have managed to demonstrate why they are beautiful and relevant through sharing history, stories and anecdotes, and that people will come to love them as much as I do.

Have your own designs developed over time, both in terms of aesthetics and use?

I think they definitely have – it is a designers job to keep their finger on the pulse, and adapt to changes in society and culture to stay relevant. That is not to say it is a good idea to follow fashions and trends because I do not believe that is conducive to successful and enduring design, and it will give neither you nor the consumer lasting pleasure. Having said that, when we did the exhibition at the Design Museum recently looking at my career, I did allow myself a little smile at how good my early furniture designs still looked today. They may have been slightly rough and ready, largely because I had welded them all by hand, but considering that they were designed in the 1950s, I was pleased that they looked fairly relevant to contemporary design.

Is design a catalyst for social change?

Definitely – it always has been and always will be. As a lifelong socialist, I have always believed that design has a crucial role to play in democratising a nation’s taste. Back in the 1950s, the belief was that good design improves the quality of life and makes it more pleasurable. I think we played our small part in the dramatic social changes in what we achieved with creating Habitat, but it was just a small part of a bigger revolution in the way we have all actually lived our lives.

How do you think the recession has affected how people view the purpose of their homes?

Value for money is as vital today as it’s always been, but funnily enough, I think the recession has focused people’s mind on quality. It used to be about buying huge quantities then throwing things away, but now people are looking for things that will last, and in some cases even improve with age – some of the furniture that we value most in this world is hundreds of years old. Contemporary designers should be able to add to this quality and give it a bit of extra value, too.

Which design classics do you think will stand the test of time?

The work of Mid-Century Modern designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen remain so popular because their work was brilliant, and is as relevant today as it was then. I think their work will be as beautiful and relevant even in 100 years. They demonstrated an insatiable curiosity about the world and seemed to offer a blueprint of how to live a better style of life, which has always been important to the work I try to do.

What should people invest in today?

Quite simply, you should invest in top quality brands – Knoll and Vitra continue to court the finest designers of the 20th Century. Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton, Alvar and Aino Aalto, Ron Arad, Ernest Race and Mies van der Rohe are just some of the names to watch out for. An original Eames chair is an iconic form that will hold its value over the long term because of its design quality and integrity.

You’re often credited with changing the way British people live; do you think good design is now easily available to all?

I think the way we live in Britain has improved enormously – the choices we have today would be unrecognisable to a person from the 1950s, and Britain is an infinitely better place for it. I attribute most of that to the growing acceptance of modernism. Shops like Habitat, IKEA, The Conran Shop and many others have made good design available to a mass audience, and the emergence of excellent magazines and television programmes have helped people make informed decisions about their homes.

What moment in your life are you most proud of?

Aside from some of the bureaucracy and the board meetings, I have enjoyed practically everything I have done in my life. There are so many things I have got pleasure out of that I don’t think it would be fair on the amazing people I have worked for and with during my long lifetime in design to pick one thing that makes me most proud. Creating Habitat, buying the Michelin building, launching The Conran Shop and founding the Design Museum are among my personal highlights. Others include working with my architects at Conran & Partners on the Roppongi Hills scheme in central Tokyo, and creating a beautiful collection for Marks & Spencer – and seeing my designs on the high street – has been the opportunity of a lifetime for me.

Who inspires you?

Plenty of people – closer to home I’d say Eduardo Paolozzi, Elizabeth David, Kenneth Grange, Richard Rogers, David Chipperfield, Robin and Lucienne Day, Norman Foster, Paul Smith, Jasper Morrison, Jonathan Ive, Matthew Hilton, James Dyson, and the quite extraordinary Tom Heatherwick. As students in the late 1940s, the work of Mid-Century Modern design was our great inspiration, including the likes of George Nelson, Florence Knoll, Eero and Eliel Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Mies van der Rohe. We were also heavily influenced by the teachings of the Bauhaus and, of course, the perfect simplicity of Shaker furniture. But at the top of this list would be the work of Charles and Ray Eames, who have always been the great inspiration in everything I have ever done or tried to do in my career as a designer.

What is the most amazing place you’ve visited?

A wonderful hotel located in the heart of Provence, l’Oustau de Baumanière, is romantic in a very old fashioned sense, and gives today’s traveller a real trip back in time to France as it existed decades ago, but with all the modern comforts at a deluxe level. At a time when all too many hotels in France are almost overly contemporary, with attractive but soulless interiors, it takes you back in time to the essence of French country, from the soft colours, antique floor tiles, manor house ambiance and lovely gardens with cherubs and fountains. Sadly, the wonderful Maitre’d Serge died a few years ago – he knew more about cigars than anybody else I know, and I shall miss our smokes together over a glass of wine in their beautiful gardens.

In terms of a city, I would have to say Paris. Even 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.

How else do you like to relax?

I’m lucky that most of the things I do for work I also do for pleasure – whether that is sketching up new furniture designs, visiting antique fairs, travelling, or going to a restaurant. But I do like to get back to Barton Court in the country, kick of my shoes and enjoy a nice cigar and a glass of wine. I’ve also rediscovered the Poirot television series, and have quite a weakness for the curious little chap played so brilliantly by David Suchet. I like how they have captured the Art Deco period so beautifully with the interiors, furniture, clothes and cars.

What’s next for the Conran brands?

My son Jasper has taken the reigns at Conran Holdings and the brand couldn’t be in better hands – I am so proud of him. He is a quite brilliant businessman and has the vision, passion, energy and creative eye to keep the Conran name at the forefront of everything that is good about design in this country and, indeed, around the world. On a personal level, I have some more books I’d like to write, plenty of ideas for furniture I’d like to bring to life through Content and Benchmark, and we’ve just developed a first class range of paint, which I have ambitious plans to take further. I’d also like to create a country hotel and restaurant, and we are busy foraging away on that idea. So I’m certainly not taking up golf as a hobby and living on easy street.

Plain Simple Useful by Terence Conran, £25, Octopus Publishing

In the gallery: Top Terence Conran image by Julian Broad; Plain Simple Useful, courtesy of Octopus Publishing, founders of Habitat, courtesy of Habitat.