Terence Conran, who has died aged 88, did more than anyone to enhance material life in Britain during the second half of the 20th century. Like John Lennon and David Bowie in their rather different ways, escape from suburban norms was his continuing inspiration.
He had a brilliant eye, good taste, the zealous energy of a messiah, entrepreneurial flair, humour and great charm, the latter with a sensitive on-off switch. His was a personal life as richly textured as a tranche of pâté de campagne. Terence had a big appetite for life and all its sensual pleasures.
He created a succession of influential and interesting businesses which – for an impressive while – fused design, retail, publishing, restaurants and food into an attractive belief-system that became known as “lifestyle” (a term he disliked, perhaps because of its deadly accuracy).
Occasionally he was tempted into self-mythologising: he had a cause so great that he sometimes forgot to acknowledge the sources of his own inspiration. But, because of his prodigal efforts, as his friend the art dealer John Kasmin once put it, everyone in Britain who needed a better salad bowl could, by circa 1975, satisfy themselves from one of Terence’s Habitat shops.
He had an absolutely sincere passion about the importance of ordinary things – a drinking glass, a roast chicken, a kilim tapestry-woven rug, a table – and taught anyone willing to listen to share it. In conversations about design, he often used the word “sad” to indicate when improvements needed to be made. His passions were fixed and benevolent.
Born in Esher, Surrey, he was proud of distant ancestors imprecisely located in the Berkshire squirearchy. He even claimed descent from Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But he spoke little of his parents. His father, Rupert Conran, was a businessman, to the loss of whose rubber importation firm during the blitz may be attributed Terence’s own sometimes ruthless determination to make money of his own. He was much more affectionate of his mother, Christina (nee Halstead), to whom he attributed his marked artistic temperament.
At Bryanston school in Dorset he was not bookish, but the art and craft traditions there were a refuge. One schoolfriend, Alexander Plunket-Greene, described him as “surly … old beyond his years”. Plunket-Greene later married Mary Quant, and Terence designed her second Bazaar boutique in Chelsea. He left Bryanston in irregular circumstances, never fully explained, that he always said had “something to do with girls”. At the Central School of Art and Design in London he found in Dora Batty (“the sensible Ms Batty”) a tutor who encouraged him. He dismissed his student colleagues as “virgins from Surbiton”.
He left the textile design course before graduating, the Festival of Britain of 1951 becoming the stage for Terence’s debut. Under Hugh Casson’s cheerful direction, the festival created a sense of euphoria amongst designers. There Terence was employed by the architect Dennis Lennon to work on exhibition stands. This was his only experience of salaried employment.
Later in 1951, he occupied a Bethnal Green workshop with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi, who became a lifelong friend. A basement in Notting Hill followed. Two years on, he started making furniture at Donne Place, Chelsea, then something of a backwater. Then on to Camberwell and a workshop he called Cock-Up Yard. An early bestseller from this period was a conical basketweave flower pot in a metal stand.
In 1953 he opened what would now be called a bistro. The Soup Kitchen in Charing Cross had a style that was clever, gentle modernism, making ingenious use of inexpensive materials and copyright-free illustrations. The total budget was £267. As a philosophical principle, Terence insisted on making his own stock: he revelled in such demonstrations of practicality.
In the same year, he made a gastronomic trip to France with Michael Wickham, a cultured individual and Vogue photographer who was Vergil to the younger man’s Dante. Elizabeth David had already alerted the deprived English to the pleasures of French food, as well as to the availability of decent, chunky, vernacular French crockery in Madame Cadec’s shop in Soho.
Now, Auguste Escoffier’s instruction “Faites simple!” was being passed from the kitchen to the workshop. Terence’s mind was thus prepared. One way to describe his vision is to say he was the first to see the connection between wanting to make ratatouille and wanting a kitchen to make it in.
It is now difficult to disentangle the influences, but by the mid-1950s the essential elements of the “Conran” proposition were in place. Polite, eclectic modern design, much influenced by urban Scandinavia and rural France: a fine knack with restaurants; brave business decisions; a keen sense of self-worth and a very beady eye for a good source and clever, dedicated workmates.
In 1956, when the Institute of Contemporary Arts introduced Pop Art with its exhibition This Is Tomorrow, and John Osborne was an angry young man at the Royal Court theatre, the Conran Design Group was founded. It was one of the very first such businesses in Britain: hitherto “designers” had tended to be engineers in lab coats or craftsmen in smocks. Now they wore suede shoes and corduroy jackets.
By 1961, regional development grants from the London county council had lured Terence to start his own factory at Thetford, Norfolk. But this was an ill-starred venture. Instead of manufacturing, retail became Terence’s theatre.
Habitat opened on Fulham Road in 1964. It sold his own designs that had been rejected by conventional furniture stores, but lots of other stuff besides. A great many suppressed suburban longings – of both proprietor and customer – were satisfied by Habitat and its Polish enamel, Bauhaus chairs, French crocks and Braun stereos. Caroline Charles did the staff clothes. They played the Beatles.
It was an idealist adventure, perfectly conceived and brilliantly packaged for an aspiring generation of first-time buyers emerging from the new universities. To people who read Penguin Sartre, the optimistic cosmopolitanism of Habitat’s merchandise was alluring. Suddenly, items only hitherto available on the pages of glossy foreign architecture magazines was available on Chelsea shelves.
In the psycho-social art history of Britain, Terence will always be remembered and admired for the creation of this remarkable store. Significantly, Habitat sprang up at the same time as the new Sunday colour supplements, and Terence’s early collaborators – and wives – included some savvy Sunday newspaper journalists. This did no harm to the cause. The very first Habitat catalogue – a sheet of folded brown paper – was produced by Caroline Conran, whose translations of Jean and Pierre Troisgros and of Michel Guérard later introduced Britain to nouvelle cuisine and confirmed a helpful connection between the Conran name and good food.
Nearly 20 years of consistent growth, if not consistent profit, followed. Habitat Paris opened in 1973, New York in 1977 (although it had to be called Conran’s for reasons of copyright). Habitat’s flotation in 1981 realised the funds for expansion.
Terence detested Margaret Thatcher, but was happy to enjoy the boiling economy she created. In 1982 Habitat reversed into Mothercare, a manoeuvre that displeased a City that thought he had quite enough to do already. Four years later, with the help of the banker Roger Seelig, Habitat Mothercare conducted a bodged merger with the dour-but-decent British Home Stores.
Not for the first time, Terence’s vanity exceeded his common sense. Although notionally – if briefly – worth billions, the new Storehouse group was a catastrophe. Terence despised the City as much as the City distrusted him: the autocratic flair that energised his own middle-sized business did not work in a huge public company. Terence could cajole young designers, blag suppliers and stroke journalists, but the money men were less amenable to style and charm.
On grounds of taste, Terence insisted that some tacky British Home Stores merchandise be removed from the racks, only to be told that they were in fact the best-selling line. Terence believed that most people wanted to sleep in river-washed linen sheets. He never could accept that there may be people who actually preferred easycare nylon. In 1990, after an unhappy period with an unsympathetic chief executive, he was forced to resign as chairman.
The Storehouse misadventure cost Terence control of his beloved Habitat, ruined his reputation as a businessman and changed his personality. But with characteristic creativity and dogged determination, he re-invented himself as a restaurateur. Since 1970 his Neal Street restaurant (shared with his consigliere Oliver Gregory and Kasmin) had been a bright Covent Garden landmark. And in 1987 a masterly restoration of the Michelin Building (opposite the site of the original Habitat) had produced Bibendum: an hommage to all things French.
Now it was time for expansion. Eventually, there were to be more than 50 Conran restaurants, but while the early ones, including Pont de la Tour at Butler’s Wharf (1991), had true energy and style, the majority soon fell into formulaic complacency. There was tragedy here: Terence’s restaurants provided exactly the sort of middle-class mediocrity he had earlier made it his purpose to eradicate. In 2007 they were bought out by management.
Still, Terence’s achievement was to put middle Britain in touch with the pleasure principle. Habitat was meant to make houses cheerful. Thus, there was a sort of missionary ethos. However, the success of the mission always required a certain subjugation of other personalities involved. One man’s inspiration is another man’s plagiarism and many, including the distinguished furniture designer Vico Magistretti, believed Terence crossed that line.
Equally, a large measure of what we recognise as the early Conran style (white-painted brick, quarry tiles, tongue-and-groove jointed wood, bright lights) was the work of Oliver Gregory. Described by the press as a “Habitat millionaire”, Gregory died broke in a shooting accident in 1992.
Nevertheless, Terence’s accomplishment was to create an enviable personal way of life which was then commercialised in well-publicised shops and restaurants. Shop here, eat here and you can be just like me, he seemed to be saying. But people not paying full attention could get the impression that he actually invented baguettes, pâté, soup, room-dividers, the duvet.
In 1980 Terence plucked me from the obscurity of a lectureship in a provincial university. I was amazed, after university life, to discover a world with Havana cigars, fresh flowers, scent in the loo, good towels and proper coffee. And this was just the offices.
With generous funds from Habitat’s flotation, we created the Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The 26 exhibitions held there in the 1980s helped make design the popular subject it is today and turned the Boilerhouse Project into London’s most successful gallery of the period. We then planned and created the Design Museum at Butler’s Wharf which Thatcher opened in 1989, the most turbulent year in Terence’s business life. It was a world first.
What in the end made this extraordinary man? Puritan or sensualist ? World-improver or bully? A bohemian in bleu de travail who wanted to conform, he had a beautiful, big house in Berkshire. As a nod to democracy, you entered by the kitchen door. A cigar-munching tycoon who cared about the numbers, he immoderately loved art, fine food and butterflies. He was a Stakhanovite: his Covent Garden offices circa 1980 served superb coffee free to all the staff, but this was to encourage early attendance; the kitchen closed at 8.30, not to re-open until 11. And then for a very spare 15 minutes.
Looking back, there was something old-world about this modern man. It is hard to decide whether he was restlessly creative, or simply incapable of concentrating. New openings of shops and restaurants gave a sense of personal direction where, perhaps, no more profound spiritual motivation existed. Concentration on his projects was like the beam of a lighthouse, brilliant for a moment, then gone. Ingvar Kamprad (whose IKEA bought Habitat in 1991) chided him “When will you learn to take care of what you already have?”
Although family life was an important element of the Conran mythology, he was sometimes careless about the players in the drama. A youthful misalliance in 1954 with Brenda Davison, an architect, was very rarely mentioned. His second marriage, in 1955, was to Shirley Pearce, a steely journalist who made her own distinctive contribution to Conran brand values: Superwoman (1975) was the first successful British how-to book since Samuel Smiles’ Self Help (1859), and her pioneering bonkbuster novel Lace (1982) was a roman-à-clef containing pen portraits of many characters in the Conran universe.
This marriage, which ended in 1962, produced two sons, Sebastian and Jasper. Caroline Herbert became the third Mrs Conran in 1963 and Lady Conran when he was knighted 20 years later; in 2018 he was made Companion of Honour. From this marriage came three children, Tom, Sophie and Ned. The split from Caroline in 1996 led to a divorce settlement of £10.5m, and to a fourth marriage, in 2000, to Vicki Davis. During the divorce trial, Terence had angered the judge by claiming Caroline offered him only “domestic help”.
The family extended in other directions too: Terence’s sister Priscilla brought a companion on holiday who was a talented cook. This was Antonio Carluccio, who soon became her husband. Conran principles of design were directed to turn the charming and avuncular Carluccio into one of Britain’s most popular Italian cooks. Terence is survived by Vicki, his children and Priscilla.
Realising from the beginning that he was not a designer of original genius, Terence instead became a unique editor of merchandise and entrepreneur of ideas (often other people’s). He turned “design” from being a description of something people do, to a commodity: something you can buy in his shops.
His great memorial is the Design Museum, which has consumed a substantial amount of his fortune. In 2016 it moved to an ambitiously, some say over-ambitiously, re-purposed Commonwealth Institute in Kensington. Critical reception has been mixed. While the cavernous spaces revealed by John Pawson’s re-purposing are impressive, its sublime emptiness hints at the essential vacuity of the subject.
Towards the end of his life, Terence’s businesses were in a melancholy rallentando of decline. Prescott & Conran, his last major restaurant venture, went into administration in 2018.
He deserves to be remembered with lunch at Bibendum, even if it is not what it was. The old principles of simple French food derived from Elizabeth David and Richard Olney have now given way to what Terence used to dismiss expletively as frou frou. Anyway, I will unplug a bottle of Richebourg and drink it from a handsome glass.
I shall try to find something robust and simple on the menu. And I shall look across the road at the site of the first Habitat and wonder how very much poorer Britain might have been without the finger pointing interference of this enigmatic, difficult, but fascinating man. Then I shall go home and admire my salad bowl.
• Terence Orby Conran, designer, restaurateur and businessman, born 4 October 1931; died 12 September 2020