Terence Conran

(b. 1931)

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Festival of Britain

Ambrose Heal (1872—1959) shopkeeper and furniture designer

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(1931– )

Conran has played a seminal role in changing attitudes in design retailing in Britain since 1964 when he established the first Habitat in the Fulham Road, London. An active designer and entrepreneur he has influenced many facets of contemporary life, whether in terms of the appearance and consumption of well‐designed modern products, the promotion of design in museum contexts as in the Design Museum, London, or the establishment of a number of well‐known restaurants. His commitment to higher standards of design in daily life has managed to capture the imagination of consumers in ways that the non‐commercial and occasionally high‐minded didacticism, of state‐funded organizations such as the Design Council have often failed to do. Conran's House Book of 1973 proved influential for the domestic lifestyle of many, an outlook reinforced by the many books about interiors, crafts, decorative arts, cookery, and gardening published by Conran Octopus books. A student in textile design under Eduardo Paolozzi at the Central School of Art and Design (See Central School of Arts and Crafts) in 1949, he worked at the Rayon Centre, London, in 1950 and, in the following year, as a designer in Denis Lennon's studio. Conran played a minor role designing furniture for the 1951 Festival of Britain before setting up a small furniture and design workshop in 1952, his early clients including Edinburgh Weavers and John Lewis. He commenced his entrepreneurial career in the mid‐1950s with the launch of his Soup Kitchen restaurant, the first of three in London, with a fourth in Cambridge. He went on to establish the Conran Design Group in 1956, working ina number of fields, including textiles, ceramics, and furniture, and was particularly influenced by the elegance of contemporary Italian design and the clean modern lines that characterized post‐Second World War Scandinavian goods. Conran's first Habitat store was opened in 1964 and the idea (aided and sustained by his close associate Oliver Gregory) rapidly expanded through a network of Habitat and Conran stores across Britain, Europe, and the USA. Many of the goods sold in the early years proved highly attractive to a younger generation of consumers open to fresh ideas, whether French cookware, brightly coloured Eastern European coffee pots and mugs, or stylish furniture at affordable prices. Habitat's approach was influenced by the Swedish design retailer IKEA (which, in the 1990s, took over Habitat). The success of his venture led to the floating of the Habitat chain on the Stock Market in 1981 and the allocation of some of his profits to establish the charitable Conran Foundation. Conran took over the high‐quality design retailer, Heal's in 1983. Other notable retailing chains in which Conran has had a substantial managerial involvement included Mothercare (children's products), bought in 1982, and British Homes Stores (mass‐market clothing and domestic products), purchased in 1986, which, with Habitat, became Storehouse plc with Conran as chairman and chief executive. Economic problems in Britain in the later 1980s led to Conran's withdrawal from the enterprise in 1990. However in 1992 he bought back the Conran Shops that he had first established in 1973 to complement the increasingly numerous Habitat outlets, later opening Conran stores in Japan, Germany, and France. For many years Conran had also been concerned to establish a new museum devoted to design at a time when few museums were committed to the display and understanding of contemporary design culture. The first steps were taken with the opening of the Boilerhouse Gallery in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1981, under the curatorship of Stephen Bayley, and culminated with the establishment of the Design Museum in Butler's Wharf, London, in 1989. These twinned initiatives were intended to provide designers, design students, and the public with the means of stimulating design awareness on a broader front than had been the case with the state‐funded Design Council. Throughout his life Conran has continued to be involved with the design process, setting up Conran Associates in 1971, a consultancy with a leaning towards corporate identity and product design. In connection with the latter he won a Design Centre Award in 1974 for a series of brightly coloured plastic containers for Crayonne, a subsidiary of Airfix Plastics. His interest in furniture design has remained undiminished since his contributions to the 1951 Festival of Britain. In 1983 he established a furniture‐making company, Benchmark Woodwork and, in 2002, he produced his first range of mass‐produced furniture since launching Habitat almost four decades earlier with a collection for G Plan entitled Content by Conran. This range is marketed in furniture warehouses, with the aim of selling quality furniture at low prices. His interest in restaurants has also spanned half a century, with a considerable acceleration in the 1990s, his more recent ventures including the Bluebird restaurant (1990), Le Pont de la Tour (1991), and the Great Eastern Hotel (2000). Terence Conran was knighted in 1983 for services to British design and retailing.


Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.

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