The Q&A: Terence Conran
Make things with your hands
Dec 23rd 2011, 15:52 by G.D. | LONDON
A DESIGNER, restaurateur and retailer, Sir Terence Conran has significantly influenced the way we live and eat in Britain over the past five decades. Beginning in 1964, his Habitat chain of stores helped to introduce simple, well-designed housewares at affordable prices. Decades later, his restaurants did much to introduce the country to fine and stylish cuisine.
Sir Terence remains busy: having turned 80 in October, he recently launched a collection of housewares for Marks & Spencer. A new retrospective of his work is also now on at London’s Design Museum. That this museum even exists is in part due to Sir Terence’s work in establishing its forerunner, called the Boilerhouse, in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1982. The project’s success led to the opening of the Design Museum in 1989 at its current spot in Shad Thames. Over the past 30 years the Conran Foundation has supported the museum to the tune of £50m.
Why did you feel strongly about creating a design museum in London?
I’d always been fascinated by Milan’s Triennale in my early years as a designer. I saw how stimulating and influential it was for both students and manufacturers to see the design of the best contemporary products in the world. I started to dream about how something similar could happen in the UK—so when I made serious money through the flotation of Habitat I set up the Conran Foundation with the idea of creating a permanent home in the UK for the display of modern design.
Unlike many young designers today you learned how to make many things with your hands, from brick-laying and pottery to welding. Do you think that was important for your career as a designer?
Absolutely—I have always related my work to the manufacturing process and never designed anything I wouldn’t know how to make myself. As a small child I remember my favourite present was a bag of wooden off cuts and a pretty basic tool kit. After much pestering, my mother gave me a space for a small workshop and allowed me to set up a wood fired pottery kiln. There is no doubt it is where I first began to develop the curious mind of a designer. I think it is vital for any designer to roll their sleeves up and get heavily involved in the making process because it helps you get a deeper level of understanding about design and how it relates to the consumer.
Do you think all designers should learn to 'make' things without using a computer?
While we must embrace computers, we must not become slaves to them—the best ideas always start with an HB pencil and a sheet of plain paper.
Can you tell me something about your new collection for Marks & Spencer?
To work with M&S on this project is the opportunity of a lifetime. It gives us the chance to produce a truly democratic and British collection, everything that William Morris and the Bauhaus—both great inspirations to me—hoped to achieve. It’s really everything that goes into a home. To me design has, and always will be, about problem solving and making people’s lives easier and more comfortable. Because design is all around us, in the shape of our houses and the arrangement of our interior space, in the way we entertain ourselves and the ease with which we move from place to place. Even at the start of my career I had a fierce conviction that there was a great opportunity to sell furniture to a wider domestic audience.
You were the first person to make flat-pack furniture in Britain, and you introduced new cooking utensils such as Italian coffee-makers to this country. Why do you think you had such a desire to change people's lifestyles?
It grew out of our generation’s sense of frustration.What you have to remember is how grim things were in postwar Britain. But there was a younger generation growing up who, for the first time, had a bit of money in their pockets and wanted to live a different life to that of their parents. The seeds of the “swinging sixties” were actually sewn a decade earlier. Over two decades later when we were establishing Conran restaurants it was a similar story—Londoners were flush with money and wanted to enjoy the pleasure of eating out, but there were practically no good restaurants around. In fact the choice was appalling, which is incredible to think as London is now the best city in the world to eat out. People can only buy what they are offered, and that is fundamentally how people’s taste evolves.
The Habitat catalogues were also quite unique. They were like glossy magazines.
Along with the shopfronts, the catalogues were just a new and exciting way of showcasing our products and opening people’s eyes to how they may look in their own home. We wanted to inspire people. We started them in 1965 as loose sheets attached in one corner, and eventually the catalogue grew to 88 pages in full colour, managed by a specialist department within the company dedicated entirely to its production.
I have heard you say that living in a country that doesn't make things destroys national pride. What do you mean?
My lifelong belief is that we have the most amazing craftsmen in this country. If you add this to the fact the UK’s creative industries are the finest in the world, then why on earth are we no longer a country that prides itself on making things? We need to ensure we keep utilising and valuing these skills. They were a vital part of our past and we must find a way to make them part of our future. There is nothing more profoundly depressing in life than unemployment, and the easiest way to create jobs is to employ people to make things. It seems so absurdly simple to me. The government needs to understand the vital role of the arts, design, craft and ultimately manufacturing. They give back so much more to the economy in return for a relatively small amount of funding.
"Terence Conran: The Way We Live Now" is on view at the Design Museum in London until March 4th
The Q&A: Terence Conran
A conversation with a pioneer of contemporary user-friendly design(7)