Sebastian Conran: “What I got from my father is there has to be a big idea”

The designer talks to Design Week about personal and professional life with his father Terence Conran, who passed away earlier this week.

I was six when my father gave me my first work bench. And I can remember for my 21st birthday, he gave me £500 to spend on tools at Buck & Ryan tool shop on Tottenham Court Road. I still have those tools. One of the things was an engraver, and I engraved all the spanners, and sometimes I find a spanner that is now 44 years old.

He didn’t take me to football matches, but he took me to factories — to actually see the factory being built and the factory building stuff. He had this factory in Thetford, and we visited at the weekends, seeing it as a field with cows on it to a slab of concrete to a steel framework with stuff inside and to people, and it was a wonderful thing.

The thing about Terence is that there’s always a big idea behind the design. What I got from my father is there has to be a big idea — when you’re designing a product, you have to think about how you’re going to market it, because without a customer experience, there’s no user experience, so people won’t buy the products in the beginning.

“Habitat was very much setting the fashion”

A few years back, I was rooting through the cellar and I found a huge pile of all the Habitat catalogues in chronological order and looking through them, it was almost like an archaeological dig. You can see how tastes change. People have in their mind that Habitat was one style. But it changed a lot.

It changed with fashion, and it was very much setting the fashion. He certainly had his finger right on the pulse at the beginning. He was pleased with the work he had done with Habitat. He was pleased when IKEA bought Habitat, less so when it changed hands.

I think after about 2000, the Conran style almost became set in stone. There was the book he wrote Plain Simple Useful, and after that, he wanted everything to be plain, simple and useful. This was difficult for the Conran buyers because what Terence was conceiving for the Conran Shop would look on paper very much like something from Ikea or Muji, who also do very good ranges.

I think that you’ve got to look at Habitat and the impact it made at the time, and how the Habitat catalogue was an annual event and what would be the new look. That pace of change that Habitat had in the early days slightly got lost. I noticed he once said, “I’m not interested in fashion, I just want plain simple useful things” and I thought, “Actually dad, back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, you were setting the fashion”.

“He reinvented himself completely”

Conran in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Ray Williams

In 1980, he merged Habitat with Mothercare and asked me to come along. It was a wonderful period of working with him and he bought British Home Stores. It was a bridge too far and it ended up with him being ousted as chairman, and then there was a financial crash. He found himself no longer at Storehouse, no longer with 2000 stores on the High Street, and no longer with Habitat.

All he had built had gone, and he started to talk about opening a restaurant. He took me to the site, which was a car park at St. James’s, and I thought: “Oh dear, my dad has lost it. He’s flipped a cog.” We were in the depths of a recession — and he was talking about opening a 400-seater restaurant, and he got me to work on designing the ash trays, which was my total input on that project.

When it opened in 1993 [as Quaglinos] it was amazing. And I thought: how did he imagine what this would be like? How did he have that vision in his head? It was very clear in his mind what he wanted there, and it was so unpredictable, and so completely successful. It made money. He went onto open 35 restaurants, and that was when he was 60 years old. It was his second career, he reinvented himself completely.

“He’d zero in on the one thing you weren’t happy about”

He was incredibly generous and thoughtful but at the same time, he’d bargain about the price of an avocado at a market. I went to an open market in Marlborough with him in 1989 when he was at the top of his career. I put an avocado on the top of the pile of vegetables he was buying, and he said, “What’s it doing there?” And I said “I rather like it”, and he replied, “Do you think I’m made of money?” And I thought: “Yes.”

He was very kind but he could be so picky and quite competitive. I can remember working for Conran and Partners at the Shad Thames office, the second time I worked with him. We would go and show him designs that we’d been working on. You’d show him things you were pleased with, and he’d zero in on the one thing you weren’t happy about and tell you what you needed to do about it. You’d show him a spreadsheet of numbers and he’d hone in on the one number that didn’t look right. He had a very quick mind and was very savvy.

“A fantastic sense of humour”

Sebastian Conran, courtesy of David Moseley

He also had a fantastic sense of humour, and he surrounded himself with interesting people. I can remember him having people round for dinner. One day it might be David Hockney, the next it might be Lord Snowden, and he’d have me round the table with him.

I remember one journalist interviewed him, when my brother Jasper had just got back from New York, photographed wearing pink satin hot pants and the journalist said: “Well, Sir Terence, how do you feel about your son being a homosexual?” And he quipped: “Well at least he’s not a vegetarian.”

Unfortunately he had hurt his back in India when he was about 40 moving a table. He was a big, practical roll your sleeves up type of person. The back pain plagued him all his life, and every treatment made it worse. He’d been in constant pain a lot of the time. But it didn’t stop him. He’d never miss a meeting or an opening.

“A very analogue human being”

I bought him an iPad and he was bemused by it and he didn’t use it. He never owned a mobile phone and wouldn’t know how to open one. He wasn’t particularly interested in technology, and he was a very analogue human being. Having said that, he was fascinated by what technology could do — like the computer-run systems at Mothercare, and he would marvel at Benchmark’s new machines. But he wasn’t particularly interested in designing with much more than a pencil and a piece of paper.

I can remember in 1986 buying a fax machine and thinking: am I ever going to use this? And within a couple of years I was opening up a Conran Group office in Hong Kong. We got a project to design furniture and I asked for his help because he wanted to be involved in everything. So I said: “Why don’t you conceive the furniture?” We would get these faxes through from his house in the South of France, with wonderful drawings of his ideas. They were simple drawings but well thought-out, and it became the Content by Conran range.

“Every day is a new project”

I used to stay with his mother, who sadly died young, and every day I woke up to a new project with her. So I guess Terence must have lived through this nurturing with her, and the idea that every day is a new project. The day before he died, I went to see him and he was talking about projects and the Design Museum with the Connected exhibition, and he had seen all the stuff because it was made with Benchmark Furniture which is in the grounds of his home, and he was interested in what Conran and Partners were doing.

Right up to the last moment, he was talking about his latest projects. It was pretty obvious to all of us what was going on, his body was frail but his drive was robust right to the end. Over lockdown, he restored this wonderful water meadow — he was interested in rewilding nature so he planted wildflowers. In a short time, he turned it from something that was okay to something that was jaw dropping.

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