Interview: Sir Terence Conran on Democratising Good Design

Sir Terence Conran

One of the things I love most about being a design writer is getting to interview the people behind the designs. No matter how great a design is, I usually find that you can never fully appreciate it until you have heard the story behind it direct from the person who created it. In Britain, we have so many talented designers and makers and I’m lucky enough to be able to interview them for the various design outlets I contribute to. A few weeks ago World Interiors News asked me to interview one of the world’s best–known designers, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs: Sir Terence Conran.

You can read my article over on the World Interiors News site. However, word limits meant that I wasn’t able to include the whole interview with Sir Terence, which is a real shame as he is a major inspiration for the design community. So, lucky readers, I have decided to share the whole interview in Q&A format here on my blog so that you can all get a valuable insight into the man behind some of the UK’s best designs.

Marlow Armchair by Terence Conran for M&S
Marlow Armchair by Conran for M&S

From an early age, you cared about good design and the way that it can improve our lives. Can you tell us how you first discovered your interest in design?

I don’t think there was one particular moment where I suddenly saw my future direction, rather lots of little triggers. 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 and there is no doubt it is where I first began to develop the curious mind of a designer. As a student, I was inspired by the work of West Coast American artists, designers and architects that were illustrated in a magazine called Arts and Architecture, visits to country houses in Dorset and seeing the kitchens and dairies – the areas where all the practical things were done, sharing a workshop with Eduardo Paolozzi, the ‘Britain Can Make It’ exhibition at the V&A and the Milan Triennales of the early 1950s.

What is good design in your eyes?

The nearest I have ever come to defining good design is that it is simply 98 per cent common sense. But what makes the subject so interesting is the other two per cent, what you may call aesthetics. Many products are demonstrably good, but those with that extra two per cent have a magic ingredient that places them in another category altogether – it is the difference between something that is perfectly acceptable and something that is so special that everybody wants to own it.

When the magic ingredient is present, the whole quality of life is improved. Good design gives you pleasure and improves the quality of all our lives through products that work well, are affordable and look beautiful. As Corbusier said, good design really is simply intelligence made visible.

Barton Armoire by Terence Conran
Barton Armoire by Conran


You have been credited with bringing the European style to the UK. You introduced flat-packed furniture, the duvet, woks, garlic crushers, and even brought the second espresso machine to the UK. What was so wrong with British style at that time and how did this new European lifestyle go down with British consumers?

It’s a pretty simple philosophy, but I have always said that unless people are offered something, then they can neither like it nor buy it – and those products, by and large, were not available in the UK. I suppose I just had a fierce conviction in my beliefs – that there was a better style of life for people to live out there and that people would embrace it.

What you have to remember is how grim things were in post war Britain. However, 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 – the fifties were very important when you consider the evolution of the country’s tastes but it only became visible nearly a decade later.

The Festival of Britain gave the country a kick start and enthused people about the possibilities available to them and that is what we tapped in to. I remember taking wonderful trips to France, Spain and later Italy and wondering – ‘why  couldn’t we enjoy a life like that back in England?’.

People like Mary Quant, myself and other young designers were just incredibly frustrated that our ideas – ideas that we passionately believed would work – were not being taken up by the powers-that-be. So we opened our own shops and did our own thing. It is amazing how Mary’s one little shop made such an inspiring difference. The secret of Habitat’s early success was that it sold quite a lot of affordable but iconic products alongside the furniture – everything from paper lanterns to chopping boards and people quickly realised that by buying a few of them you could completely refresh your home.

Icon Hotel in Hong Kong by Terence Conran & Partners
Icon Hotel in Hong Kong by Conran & Partners

Your success came from being both a designer and a businessman and you are in fact one of Britain’s most well known entrepreneurs. How important is it for designers today to be astute businessmen as well? What advice would you give to the new generation of British designers when it comes to the business side of design?

I think one of the most important lessons I have absorbed over the years is that design and business are completely interlinked – one cannot succeed without the other. I’ve always thought that design was ninety-eight per cent common sense and two per cent aesthetics. It is the same with business except the magic ingredient is vision.

More than ever now – as the Chairman of a company working on hundreds of projects around the world – I realise positive leadership conveys a clear message and vision to your staff which is utterly crucial. Enthusing your staff with passion and dedication to your business goes a long way to achieving success.

The Conran Audio iPod dock designed by Terence Conran for Studio Conran
The Conran Audio iPod dock designed by Studio Conran

You have always championed the democratisation of design. Habitat went a long way to achieving this and more recently you have embarked on a project with M&S. Do you see this collaboration with M&S in some way filling the void left by Habitat?

I don’t think there has been a Habitat-shaped void to fill for a few years now but to work with M&S on this project is the opportunity of a lifetime – the design project I have waited for all my career. It gives us the chance to produce a truly democratic and British collection, something that I have been aiming to achieve all my working life. Everything that William Morris and the Bauhaus – both great inspirations to me – hoped to achieve. This is our chance at last.

The particularly exciting thing for me was the brief was wide enough to do what we call ‘recreating Habitat for the 21st century’. 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 – it is what I had set out to achieve and what I have been trying to do with my ideas and designs ever since.

The range we launched last September was a preview collection and a small taster – but this Spring we will be launching over 300 products so it really is everything that goes in to your home.

The Boundary Hotel by Prescott & Conran - Terence Conran
The Boundary Hotel by Prescott & Conran

In your time, you have given over £50 million to the Design Museum. What was it that inspired you to set up this institution and what were you trying to achieve?

I’d always been fascinated by the Milan Triennales in my early years as a designer and 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 floatation 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.

You have always had a love of arts and crafts and you firmly support the idea that Britain should once again be making things. Given the tough economic climate at the moment, how important is this?

It’s absolutely vital, both economically and culturally. I was left speechless recently when for my birthday, the skilled craftsmen at Benchmark made me the most exquisite tool cabinet, filled with the very best tools imagineable – everything that a passionate craftsman could possibly need.

It moved me to tears because it reinforces my lifelong belief that we have the most amazing craftsmen in this country and 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 making things, utilizing and valuing these skills because they were a vital part of our past and we must find a way to make them part of our future – they must not be lost.

Vases from the Terence Conran range at M&S
Vases from the Conran range at M&S

What would you say has been the pinnacle of your career to date and what has been your proudest moment?

Making a success of Habitat was perhaps my biggest achievement and I can honestly say the day I opened Michelin House was the happiest day of my life. The site of the first Habitat store was just over the road from the building and over the years I had fallen in love with the quirky Art Deco architecture of the Michelin Building. I dreamt about transforming it into a wonderful shop and – of course – a first class restaurant and to this day we still have The Conran Shop and Bibendum there.

However, founding the Design Museum was perhaps my favourite project and the one that has given me most satisfaction. I have always been a great supporter of education in design and passionately believe that good design is of fundamental importance to our quality of everyday life.

How did it make you feel seeing the exhibition and the retrospective of your life laid out in the Design Museum?

I felt pretty uncomfortable at first – it is something I had always shied away from as it felt slightly egotistical and perhaps not quite appropriate. But the excellent Deyan Sudjic is a quietly persuasive man and I felt very comfortable with leaving it in his very capable hands, alongside my dear friend Stafford Cliff and the excellent design team from Conran & Partners.

I’m delighted with what they have produced – and I must be very clear it is the team that has done all the work – and it has been a very pleasing and emotional journey through my career, producing many surprises that I had completely forgotten about.

Sir Terence Conran

The exhibition at the Design Museum coincided with your 80th birthday. Most people hope to be retired at that age and yet you appear to be showing no signs of stopping work. Will you ever retire?

As long as I am enjoying my work and have my health then I see no reason to retire. You have to appreciate that everything I do for work or business I would do for pleasure – whether that is designing products or furniture, opening restaurants, running shops, creating buildings and interiors and writing books – these are my passions and make life a pleasure from the moment I wake up in the morning. If they stopped giving me that satisfaction then maybe I would consider retiring , but I see no sign of it at the moment.

Inevitably there will come a point when you will no longer be able to work. When that day comes, what would you like the British public to remember you most for? What do you think your legacy will be?

I’m a plain, simple and practical sort of fellow. What I’ve done all my life, and continue to do, is design and promote affordable, useful products. The belief that my generation had is that design can improve the quality of life for everybody because good design gives you pleasure and improves the quality of life through products or buildings that work well, are affordable and look beautiful.

I hope that is how I will be remembered – as a designer of simple, useful and beautiful things.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.