Woks, duvets, chicken bricks: how Terence Conran restyled Britain | Culture

“I’m a Bauhaus-educated chap,” Terence Conran told Vanity Fair last year, before spelling out his philosophy of design, that objects should be “economic, plain, simple and useful”.

On these points he was remarkably consistent: he would have said something very similar at any time in the past seven decades, ever since he was a student at what was then called the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, or even at the design-aware Bryanston School in Dorset.

He was, to be more precise, a product of that version of modernism that developed around the Festival of Britain of 1951, on which he had worked. As also expressed in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s influential Britain Can Make It exhibition of 1946, it was the idea that postwar Britain could, with the help of enlightened modern design, both enhance the quality of everyday life and rediscover its ability to make things.

The ideals of William Morris, as interpreted by continental modernists, were to be reimported for the good of the nation. The means of this transformation, however, turned out not to be an enlightened socialist state, but the consumer culture of the 1960s, which Conran’s skill and nerve as a businessman turned to his advantage.

Terence Conran enjoys a night out in London with his wife, the journalist and author Shirley Conran, in June 1955.

Terence Conran enjoys a night out in London with his wife, the journalist and author Shirley Conran, in June 1955. Photograph: Thurston Hopkins/Getty Images

His most famous achievements were shops – most notably Habitat and later the Conran Shop – and restaurants. His first business venture, The Soup Kitchen, grew out of his experience working in a Paris restaurant, where staff stole steaks by strapping them to their inside legs. It would be harder, was Conran’s thinking, to steal soup.

These shops and restaurants really did change the visual and gastronomic culture of the country. It has often and accurately been pointed out that, along with the cookery writer Elizabeth David and the fashion designer Mary Quant, he helped to bring some continentally inspired joie de vivre to what was a drab place. “It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” he said of his early years in the city, “it really was the era of Spam fritters.”

Conran’s most cited achievements include the introduction or popularisation of such things as flat-pack furniture, paper lanterns, duvets, espresso machines and woks. Also the chicken brick, a once-popular terracotta device for cooking poultry.

His many restaurants played a leading role in transforming Britain’s reputation as a gastronomic wasteland.

If none of these innovations were essential to existence, they could certainly add to the enjoyment of it – Conran’s claim that his promotion of duvets “undoubtedly changed the sex life of Europe” was only partly hyperbolic. Ultimately Conran’s work was about pleasure, about making a sort of tasteful hedonism widespread.

Balance alcove shelving, a typical Conran design.

Balance alcove shelving, a typical Conran design. Photograph: Design Museum

His personal life, with four marriages and many affairs, might also be said to have been about pleasure, although with sometimes spectacular divorces and widely reported family tensions that belied the calm of his design aesthetic.

If Conran’s core clientele was a certain kind of metropolitan buyer and diner, his influence can be seen in the products of Ikea, in restaurant menus all over the country, in the popularity of what now gets called “contemporary design”.

At the same time he never ceased in his ambition to restore British manufacturing greatness through the power of design. To this end he founded and generously supported the Design Museum, founded in 1989 near Tower Bridge and since 2016 located in the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. He also supported younger designers, for example giving Thomas Heatherwick his first break when he was straight out of college, the design of a gazebo in the garden of Conran’s country house of Barton Court in Berkshire.

Conran the businessman did well in the era of Margaret Thatcher, including through canny property development, but he never accepted her politics. “One of the most odious people who’ve ever walked the earth,” he called her. She, for her part, was outraged that the Design Museum’s displays included objects made by foreigners.

Conran found Tony Blair much more congenial, and the feeling was mutual, at least until Conran opposed the invasion of Iraq. He was a prominent representative of Cool Britannia, of the young-at-heart and stylish country that New Labour wished to promote. The Blairs entertained the Clintons at Conran’s Pont de la Tour restaurant. When the French president Jacques Chirac visited for a summit, Conran designed the setting“I’ve seen the fuchsia and it works”, wrote the Daily Telegraph columnist Boris Johnson.

Conran never liked the suggestion that he was a businessman more than a designer, claiming that he hadn’t known what “entrepreneur” meant. But it was in bringing modern design to a wider market that his greatest achievements lay. There’s not a Conran chair or a Conran interior that really sticks in the memory, as there were by, say, Charles and Ray Eames or Eileen Grey, and he was never avant-garde. What he did do, though, as he put it, “was to make things available”.

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