Design Museum marks Terence Conran’s 90th birthday with free exhibition

Conran founded the museum in 1989, and the showcase will explore this and several other “parallel careers” he had, including with Habitat and the Conran Design Group.

The Design Museum will celebrate what would have been Terence Conran’s 90th birthday with a free display exploring the late designer’s life.

Born in 1931, Conran was a prolific designer, retailer, businessman and restaurateur. As the Design Museum explains, he is credited with “changing the way we eat, shop, and live today”.

The showcase of Conran’s life and work coincides with the publishing of a new book dedicated to the designer. Terence Conran: Making Modern Britain has been written by Deyan Sudjic, director emeritus of the Design Museum.

Habitat 1971 catalogue

“Terence’s work has been both fashionable, and out of fashion”

The display honoring the life and work of Conran was first announced on his death last year. At the time, Sudjic said: “No one has done more to create modern Britain than Terence Conran. He spent his whole career looking for ways to make life better for everyone.”

Sudjic says now that Conran would have considered the museum “his most important legacy”, and adds that this exhibition is a reminder “of how much he achieved and of how the role of design – which was called commercial art when he was a student – has developed in his lifetime”.

“Terence’s work has been both fashionable, and out of fashion,” he says. “It has now been long enough, since the start of his career at a remarkably young age in the 1940s, to see his contribution as beyond fashion.”

Chequers platter, designed by Conran

Personal and professional insight

According to the museum, visitors can expect to see personal photographs of the late designer, as well as well-known fabric designs from the 1950s and furniture.

Among the display will be Conran’s Cone Chair, one of his most popular designs. The simple design is considered indicative of Conran’s commitment to affordable quality.

Alongside more personal mementoes, the Design Museum says visitors will get access to memorabilia from the launch of both Habitat and the Conran Design Group.

Conran in his famous cone chair

“Terence had so many different careers”

The overall effect, the museum says, is to show Conran’s many “parallel” careers. As Sudjic explains: “Terence had so many different careers, from craftsman potter, to the chairman of a £2 billion public company, to a restaurateur.”

Spinning many plates was a long-standing habit of the designer, Sudjic continues. “By the time he was 25 he had opened and sold 5 restaurants, opened a furniture manufacturing business, gone into partnership with a textile mill in Manchester (to start Conran Fabrics), art directed a magazine, worked at the Festival of Britain, married his second wife, and published his first book,” he says.

Original Habitat bag

“So much I hadn’t really known”

Sudjic’s latest book follows a collection of other pieces the former Design Museum director has written on Conran. In 2011, to mark the designer’s 80th birthday, he published Terence Conran: The Way We Live Now.

While he says he had a close relationship with the designer, having met him first in the 1970s and began work together in 2006, he says the process of writing about Conran this time around revealed “so much I hadn’t really known”. Rather than ordering Conran’s life and work chronologically, the book is organised as a series of themes, Sudjic says. “His education in the arts and crafts, his impact on food and restaurants, his role as a taste maker – the Habitat catalogues and his books,” he says.

“Then there are the 1980s when he really took off as a businessman, at one point leading Storehouse, a group with 19,000 employees and valued at £2 billion, before he lost control, and started his restaurant group. The last chapter is his role in the culture of design, in particular in starting the museum.”

“With such a hyperactive career, my problem was not to sound like a racing commentator at the Grand National,” he explains.

The Conran Effect opens on 4 October and is free to visit at the Design Museum. For more information on the display and accompanying book, head to the museum website

All images courtesy of the Design Museum.

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  • mike dempsey October 5, 2021 at 12:59 pm

    As a newly married twenty-something in the mid-1960s, Terence Conran, with his design beacon store, Habitat in Tottenham Court Road, transformed the mindset of a new generation to think more creatively about the spaces they inhabited. It is a wonderful legacy

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