The Way We Live Now

The Design Museum marks Sir Terence Conran’s 80th birthday with a major exhibition that explores his unique impact on contemporary life in Britain.

Were you to walk down a street today and look through the windows of the houses, you would witness a wide variety of living spaces: homeowners today are preoccupied with design and the arrangement of the world around them. Countless magazines – Elle Decoration, World of Interiors, Wallpaper* and Domus – cultivate an aspirational vision of the home, while hundreds of books ensure its prosperity, television shows ignite popular appeal, and a plethora of design courses ensure a steady influx of wide-eyed interns ready for any opportunity to influence the shape of things around us. We have become aware of our cutlery, our bedding, even the message behind the font on our CV, in a reality of hyper-awareness and tactile fetishisation of the everyday.

However, this has not always been the case: for those living in the 1940s the concepts of household design had yet to become universally accessible and as a result domestic fashions tended to be staid and unimaginative. Since the 1950s, though, the British public have been exposed to the influences of Sir Terence Conran, who has, more than any other British designer, affected this change in national awareness. Since dropping out of his Textile Design course at the Central School of Art, Sir Terence has opened a workshop with Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (his ex-tutor), worked on The Festival of Britain, cultivated a restaurant empire, launched the Conran Design group, introduced flat-pack furniture and European design through Habitat, overseen a high street empire (including Heals, BHS and Next), worked extensively with Concorde, opened an architectural practice, established the Conran Foundation, and created London’s Design Museum, the first of its kind in the world.

It is the Design Museum that plays host to The Way We Live Now, the current exhibition celebrating Conran’s 80th birthday and his central role in shaping the national consciousness of design. Taking the visitor through Conran’s illustrious career, including pieces from his early workshops, a re-creation of an early Habitat room and insights into his industrial and restaurant design, it’s an ambitious project curated by Design Museum Director, Deyan Sudjic and Conran’s long-term colleague and collaborator Stafford Cliff. Since joining Conran’s studio as Office Junior in 1966, Cliff has learnt from and admired Conran at close quarters, designing the first Habitat catalogue and collaborating on Conran’s 2008 publication Inspiration, where he provided an invaluable mental catalogue of works on behalf of the designer who has modestly refused to keep an archive of his own works.

Cliff’s affection for Conran and his work is evident and his enthusiasm is contagious in forcing you to consider the effects that Conran has had on our aesthetics. He describes the task of curating an exhibition on such a huge figure in British design as an “overwhelming” one and goes on to describe Sir Terence’s influence as “pretty fundamental [because] it’s not only our homes but our behaviour, our shopping and eating habits, the way we socialise, the places we like and how we respond to them. In his lifetime he has changed all of that, not single-handedly of course, but by giving us things that we didn’t know we wanted.” Cliff cannot articulate enough the effects that Conran has had on our surroundings. “Look at all the programmes we have on home makeovers. Who would have thought? In the 1960s, 1950s, and even further back than that, the home wasn’t something there were many magazines about and certainly there were hardly any books on interior design, decoration or lifestyle. When I started, if there was a new book out about home design and interiors, I would buy it and maybe there would be two a year if we were lucky. Now you couldn’t possibly buy them all. It’s an enormous industry with a huge amount of interest and it has captured people’s imagination in a way that couldn’t possibly have been anticipated.”

Of course, a significant part of Conran’s legacy and this acknowledgment and popularisation of design is the Design Museum itself and, given Conran’s position as benefactor, there’s an uncomfortable conflict of interests at bay, something that Cliff is quick to reject by emphasising Conran’s lack of personal involvement: “He’s extraordinarily modest, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction because he has been so outspoken in terms of his point of view, his feelings and his targets. But at the same time he has never wanted to have anything that seems self-congratulatory. What he has been focusing on all these years is the rest of us. He had to be persuaded that this was the right moment. So it was a challenge [also because] he has never really been interested in saving things, he has no archive of his own and he never really takes photographs.”

This lack of an authoritative archive poses a real challenge to The Way We Live Now, but it is one that Cliff has approached with the enthusiasm of a child on a treasure hunt: “I get a thrill from being able to discover things.” He shows a democratic desire to display these pieces and continue the country’s appreciation of taste: “These are rare gems, there may be a lot of these designs out there but they’re not around where anyone can see.” Such artefacts also remind us of Conran’s own influences, and the manner in which he has brought things now familiar to us, including duvets and woks, and even a more general, European Bauhaus aesthetic, to the common consciousness, while Cliff reminds us of the importance of making in Conran’s design process: “A lot of what he has done has a resonance in the beginnings of the arts and crafts movement and the idea that the making and understanding of things has a part in why it looks the way it does.” These elements are illustrated in some of his most famous pieces – the industrial-blown carafe and carefully balanced asymmetric shelving. And while Conran is frequently credited with the democratisation of design, his influences belie the clean, unadorned aesthetic of mid-century modernism, a style accused at various points in history of being both humourless and elitist.

Any interrogation of today’s leading tastemakers, such as Stephen Bayley and Sudjic himself, provokes an insistence on modernism as the “correct” mood for today’s post-industrial society, and this is something that Conran whole-heartedly endorses – “He gets a great thrill out of seeing something that somebody else has done when it works in the way he thinks it should work that is well priced, well made, has a good function and an appeal.” In spite of modernism’s failure to realise the utopian promises of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier, it remains the prevailing aesthetic for international design professionals and the cliché that form follows function continues apace.

Cliff explains Conran’s relationship with modernism: “He has always been interested in simple solutions that are effective and I guess that meshes with modernism. He’s never been interested in decoration for the sake of it, or in over-embellishing something if it can be simple. It’s in his bones but I don’t think he analyses it. That also explains why he hasn’t had a phase of being very trendy or fashionable and then fallen out of fashion; he’s never been interested in fashion for its own sake at all.”

And while this refusal to abide by and engage in fashions and fads ensures the timelessness of Conran products, it also jars markedly with the prevailing business model of manufacturers today: that of in-built obsolescence. In discussing Conran’s very early pieces from his first factory Cliff enthuses: “You see the pieces now and they are completely timeless, you would buy one tomorrow. Not vintage looking, not old-fashioned, not impractical, they are terrific.” In avoiding such a cynical commerciality Conran, who has cultivated a lucrative personal fortune, showcases strength of purpose rather than a naivety, taking pleasure first and foremost in the object itself, and witnessing how it improves the lives of those around him: “It liberates people, as simple as that. Terence has always believed that if you give people well made things, at a good price, they will buy them.”

With a significant business empire, Conran is as much an entrepreneur as a designer – cultivating the idea of “lifestyle” products as well as the aspirations of the middle-classes. Habitat was undoubtedly his defining legacy and despite the company’s recent closures, the shop paved the way for many other high-street chains and introduced design staples to British homes. By the 1990s, Conran had left the business and since then it has struggled, an apt flattery of his talents.

Conran’s interests are not restricted to the home though: in addition to Habitat, Conran is known for his restaurant business and takes pleasure in creating beautiful, comfortable and welcoming environments in which to enjoy delicious food and vivacious company. With Mezzo and the Bluebird Café in his repertoire, Conran creates a “full experience … there’s a glass wall, you can see the chefs working away, you’re a member of the whole process. It’s become an important part of the dining process, to understand what’s been going on and who’s been doing it for us.”

Furthermore, he expertly uses this experience as a way to further his education of the public in the nuances of design and ensures customers for the other aspects of his empire through the whole dining and socialising experience: “You sit in a restaurant and you are thinking ‘the quality of light in here is very pleasant’, or ‘this chair supports my back in rather a nice way’, or ‘look at the way the light catches this glass and this cutlery works rather well, I can feel in my hand that it isn’t awkward.’ All of those rather sensual things that involve our homes as well, we can experience in a restaurant, and you can take this with you; it seeps into the way we live as well. It’s all part and parcel of his push towards having a better life for people.”

In this manner Conran has showcased a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit that focuses on the holistic experience: “It all ties together in a way that nobody imagined” is the emphasis for today’s young designers. While for many creatives, manufacturing and finance are seen as the dirty aspects of work, Conran has always embraced this and created Habitat through necessity, because “when he sold his furniture to stores they didn’t know how to display it, in some cases they weren’t even taking it out of the box.” Similarly Conran begin working with other countries, particularly India, long before it became the norm. Budgeting, business and the constant innovation to create new markets became a significant part of what he does, and for young designers: “He has given them a lesson in showing them that you have to be involved in industry and the way things are sold … he has shown that it’s fundamental to being a success.”

This business-sense furthers the idea that Conran’s work is an over-arching lifestyle whole. He has a specific look, a consistency of message, but unlike many designers: “He has never designed the Conran chair, that Robin Day or Philippe Starck might have done, because he’s never been interested in just one chair.” The Habitat catalogues in particular showed a way to live like Conran but Cliff emphasises that he never intends to be prescriptive: “The Habitat catalogue was a fundamental thing to show people how their homes could be. Terence never wanted people to have their homes furnished entirely by Habitat, that was a terrible idea, he wanted them to express themselves, some things from Habitat, some things from their parents, from a flea market or a junk shop, from their grandmother – to show their own personality and mix it with modern things and antiques or whatever your taste might be – make things yourself!” It’s an idea that seems far too obvious today but this is largely due to the influence Habitat had upon the lifestyle market; our confidence in creating our own homes has come a long way.

The Way We Live Now was showing at the Design Museum, London 4 March 2012.

Ruby Beesley