Action man

From an inauspicious start with only 247, Terence Conran has built an empire, discovers Richard Williams

Terence Conran is the father of them all. He gave us Habitat to set up home with, made the previously tatty Mothercare a great place to shop, set up the glorious Conran Shop, produces marvellous books, has created darned good places to go and eat and more than any other Englishman has put design on the map.

For years I have wanted to meet him. When I do, he is on the phone, talking decisively about logos, packaging formats and plastics versus glass for his latest venture, the conversion of the Bluebird Garage on London’s King’s Road into a huge restaurant and food complex. For me, it was this kind of real hands-on involvement that made Habitat such a joy for so long.

I always imagined that his office would be like a perfect, tidy page from the House Book, and I guess that at first glance I was disappointed; it is a real working space – strewn with stacks of Iris prints, Tony Stone photolibrary books, and magazines and papers piled on a desk featuring a square glass ashtray filled with numerous butts from his ever-present cigars. Surrounded by designers and in his beloved Butlers Wharf, he looks like he enjoys being here.

He explains: “I am the luckiest man in the world since practically everything I do I would do as a hobby. Designing and running restaurants, the Conran Shops, writing books and designing projects are all things that I would hate not to do. There is nothing much I would want to do that is not involved in my business.”

At 19, Conran turned his hobby of “making things” into making and selling his own furniture, and at 21 had already set up his first restaurant, The Soup Kitchen, for an outlay of 247. This was at an age when most of us are getting used to the concept of trading in our piggy banks for a student bank account. Throughout his career his fearlessness appears time and time again. Where did it come from?

“I needed to find some work to pay the bills. I did some work for the Festival of Britain and after that there was absolutely nothing. Luckily, I had learnt to weld at college and started making furniture. Those early days were tough and we were all looking for something to keep body and soul together. Out of it certainly developed a form of entrepreneurialism, but I don’t think that there were entrepreneurial genes passed down by my parents,” he says.

The failure of retailers to display his furniture properly frustrated him,”so we decided to set up our own shop which sold a whole range of home furnishings”. He talks of this venture as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

Thus Habitat was born. At 22 Conran had been on a touring holiday of France. “Coming from war-torn, rationed Britain, France was such a colourful place. The markets were wonderful, the cafés fantastic, the little ironmongers glorious. I saw a style of life that I preferred.” In Habitat he was to bring this vision to grey, stuffy old England, where he simply made the displays burst with merchandise and colour.

The sceptics who said “the English won’t like that”, and, later, “that’ll never work up north”, were proved wrong and the store was a great success. “How can people know if they like something if it is not offered to them? We were told that people would never cross the river to eat in a restaurant in Butlers Wharf.” He rejoices in his “truffle pig’s instinct” for finding the right place at the right price for his businesses.

“One of our great successes has been spotting derelict properties or strange, quirky locations,” he explains. From Conran Design Group, set in the home of a derelict Jewish charitable school in London’s Hanway Place, to Mezzo, built on the site of the old Marquee Club, he manages to tempt people out of their way to shop and eat and avoids wasting money on silly rents. “The thrill of opening a shop or restaurant, going for some idiosyncratic solution and finding that your gut reaction has not let you down and that people do like it, is the real pleasure of it all.”

Habitat grew inexorably and in the Seventies Conran floated it and soon after bought Mothercare, which he transformed in 18 months. Sales increased by 15 per cent and profits by 32 per cent. This was the first time that he had tackled a store with such a wide appeal, and he was seen as a man with magic at his fingertips. At the time, other retailers such as Marks and Spencer and Boots were way behind. “Marks and Spencer was dreary, everyone in the shop looked as if they were on the dole,” he says.

The success led to the purchase of British Home Stores and formation of the Storehouse group. Here he came something of a cropper. The business was rife with internal politics and he spent much of his time fighting cranky takeover attempts. Clearly it rankles with him that people think he was ousted. He was not. He insists he planned his departure carefully over some three years. But he had got fed up: “I knew I was right. There was a great opportunity for BHS, but I am an impatient person and was depressed that I could not achieve what I wanted in the time I had set myself. I decided I would do better to work in a business with people around me that were my sort of people.” The business press wrote him off with glee.

He was bruised from the Storehouse business and the Butlers Wharf project going into receivership, but still extremely wealthy. Who would have blamed him if he had quietly retired? Instead, his huge energies went into the development of his Conran Shops, the publishing empire, his restaurant interests, his own design group and a 25 per cent stake in Fitch & Co “to help out his old friend Rodney” – a relationship which has ended in acrimony.

He winces at being labelled a restaurateur. First and foremost he is a designer who likes to design and control the environment where products are bought and sold and where food is enjoyed. “All life involves design. You have to eat, and it has always been my attitude to do everything as well as you can. Eating good food is not very much more expensive than eating bad food,” explains Conran.

Nowadays he is front page news again, recently in support of Tony Blair. “I have always been left of centre,” he says. “Clearly Britain needed some form of Thatcher to make the necessary changes, but she also made us a much less caring society, and that continues today. The Eighties was a good period for us, because it was one of huge change and it changed peoples’ opinions about how good design could bring a better quality of life to everybody. If you offered people today the environment and products of 1980 there would be uproar.

“One great sadness of this country is that we have this huge melting pot of talent which we do not know how to use properly. Under Thatcher, our manufacturing and what it does for the economy was put on the backburner. The bizarre thing is that Americans, Germans and Japanese are making things in this country, whereas our own industrialists have thrown up their hands and said it’s too difficult.”

He is, however, optimistic about design’s future. “We live in a civilised world which now realises that a designer who has had training and experience can add enormously to the perceived value of a product. It is a business which has developed since the Thirties. The skills of a designer in both practical and aesthetic terms are recognised the world over.”

We talk of whom he admires in creative circles today and John Hegarty springs to mind. Although an advertising man, “he would be interested, concerned and able to discuss any aspect of design, as would David Abbott. They are sophisticated people with an understanding of the world. They travel a lot and meet a lot of people. Designers who are going to head up a design business have got to take a wide interest in everything that is going on – from politics to hamburger bars. They have got to be connected to a kind of Internet,” he explains.

I spent 30 minutes with Conran before his last visitor of the day, who had flown in from the US to see him. The next day he was leaving to make a speech in Australia and look over a department store there with the possibility of redesigning it. It looks like the kind of life we would all love to have – but not many of us are clever enough to get anywhere near. m

Conran’s designs

1952 Terence Conran launches furniture company Conran & Company

1956 Conran Design Group is formed

1964 Habitat is launched

1968 Conran Design Group and Habitat merge with stationer Ryman to become Conran Ryman

1970 Conran buys out Habitat from Conran Ryman and leaves CDG. The Burton Group buys CDG, headed by Rodney Fitch who later buys the group and renames it Fitch & Co, and Conran sets up Conran Associates

1986 Conran receives a knighthood. Storehouse is created as parent of Conran’s swelling retail group, which includes Habitat, Heal’s, Mothercare, Richard Shops and British Home Stores. He also sets up a second Conran Design Group

1989 The Design Museum opens at Butlers Wharf in London Docklands with Conran funding

1990 CDG is acquired by international communications group Roux Seguela Cayzac & Goudard to become RSCG Conran Design, part of RSCG Design Group

1991 Pont de la Tour is the first of a string of Conran restaurants to open at Butlers Wharf in London Docklands

1992 Conran becomes chairman of the Design Museum in February and is involved in a rescue deal with Fitch in October

1993 Quaglinos opens in London’s St James’s and the Conran Shop expands into contract furniture. Conran quits RSCG Conran and sets up CD Partnership

1995 Mezzo opens in London and other mega-eateries are planned

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