Salad bowl days: Interview with Sir Terence Conran – Published in the South China Morning Post

At 87, Sir Terence Conran, the man who introduced a nation to the duvet, garlic press and chicken brick, and recently received a lifetime achivement award from the Hong Kong Design Centre, fears nothing – except retirement. By Etan Smallman

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It is quite a task interviewing Sir Terence Conran in his London penthouse.

It’s not that he is, in his own words, “in a rather slothful state at the moment”, slumped in a leather-and-walnut Eames lounge chair. Nor is it that he punctuates the conversation with polite requests to sip on his whisky and soda (“It gets me going”) or light up one of his trademark Havanas (“Do you mind if I go on smoking my luxurious Cuban cigar?”). The problem is that, as fascinating as the subject is, his home is such a feast for the eyes that it is almost impossible to keep my gaze on him.

He keeps trying to meet my eye as I find myself gawping at the furnishings of the man who spent half of the 20th century revolutionising how some of us live, shop and eat. There are the sculptures, the perfectly placed vase of tulips on the coffee table, the Danish Hans J. Wegner Wishbone bentwood chair on which I am sitting (£713/HK$7,280 at The Conran Shop) and the Eames design classic (£6,700, also at Conran’s home emporium) on which the man himself is berthed.

That is before you even get to the majestic views of the River Thames from the panoramic windows of his flat in the Richard Rogers-designed Montevetro building, in Battersea, south London.

In December, the designer, restaurateur and bon viveur won the DFA Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hong Kong Design Centre, in recognition of an extraordinary career. His son Sebastian flew to the city to collect it on his behalf because of the chronic back pain that has been plaguing Conran for 40 years; the reason he didn’t get up to greet me when I arrived.

Conran is touched to receive the honour, but “I regret to say that I feel a bit depressed about a lifetime achievement award, because it almost implies you’ve finished. And I haven’t,” he says with a chuckle.

Would he prefer to wait until his 90s before he gets any more, I ask. A pause. “I really want to wait till I’m dead.”

Conran made his name – and his fortune – with the Habitat home-furnishings chain, opening the first branch in 1964, just across the river in Chelsea, the heart of Swinging London. The staff uniforms were designed by miniskirt “inventor” Mary Quant and their hair styled by Vidal Sassoon. The Beatles and actress Julie Christie were customers and Kingsley Amis wooed his second wife, fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, in the basement.

When it comes to his obituary, it will surely be a toss-up for headline writers between hailing Conran as the inventor of the “chicken brick”, a terracotta oven container that promises to produce “perfectly browned” poultry and is still on sale 50 years on, and the man who “revolutionised the sex life of Europe”. The latter was his own boast, made in reference to his popularisation of the duvet, saving millions of hours of tucking in bed-sheets and blankets.

Conran can also lay claim to having been the owner of only the second espresso machine in London (“I suppose for the 50s it was what marijuana became for the 60s”). It created the buzz around his first restaurant, the Soup Kitchen, which he opened in 1953. He also went on to introduce the wok, garlic press and paper lantern to millions of British homes.

He lost control of Habitat in 1990, but its wares are still sold across the world, including in stores in Hong Kong, Beijing, Bangkok, Phuket and Manila.

Conran, who also went on to establish a handmade furniture company and a book publisher – while writing more than 40 titles of his own – is still chairman of The Conran Shop, which has three stores in London, one in Paris and six in Japan. And he remains involved with Conran & Partners, the international architecture and interior design studio that last year opened an office in Hong Kong, its first outside Britain. At his peak, he owned more than 50 restaurants, but that is now down to three. He also founded London’s Design Museum and is still a director of 15 companies in Britain.

If all of that were not enough for an 87-year-old, he is planning his first Conran Shop in Seoul and is also looking “as soon as possible” to open one in Hong Kong – which he hails as “very much a design-aware place”. He has already left his mark on the city, with his interiors for the Bar and Grill at the Mandarin Oriental, one of his many hotel designs across the region. It is not just his fondness for Asia, however, that is fuelling this global expansion. It is also his own country’s current political gridlock.

“This whole Brexit business makes us so disenchanted with Europe and Britain that we thought we’d like another leg in an area where we could see our business growing,” he explains. “We have millions of pounds worth of jobs that we’ve designed and got planning permission for [in Britain] where the client has just said, ‘Look, let’s just put this on hold’. It’s extremely frustrating.”

Conran’s first professional job was designing textiles and furniture for the 1951 Festival of Britain, an event orchestrated to hail a new dawn as the country came blinking out of the devastation of the second world war. He was struck by a hunger for fresh design among visitors “still carrying their sandwiches in their gas-mask cases”.

Last year, the British government announced plans for a 2022 festival to celebrate the nation’s departure from the European Union, but it is fair to say that they would be wasting their time calling on Conran for help this time around.

“I can’t think of anything that’s been handled worse than Brexit,” he says, contemptuously, “and it makes me embarrassed to be British.”

Writers who have encountered Conran often comment on his formidable, even intimidating, presence, and I can’t help feeling that today I am getting a more subdued version of the entrepreneur, whose thinking is sharp but whose speech is slow and laboured. He is polite and charming. At one point he offers me a copy of his book to take home, even though it is the only one in his flat and is signed to his wife.

It is a far cry from his heyday. Conran had “a nice line in gentle character assassination”, said one interviewer in 2005. She put his observation that the most striking note of the scent on her wrist was “sweat” down to an “odd social ineptness arising from his shyness” and “a slightly detached, absurdist response to the world”. Son Tom once said his father had “a fierce temper”. Another son, Jasper, said he was met with “cold fury” when Conran found out about his decision to study fashion design in New York. He had not told his father because he “was too frightened of him”.

Conran has been known to fly into fits of frustration over what he deems to be poor food or decor choices.

“I hate McDonald’s. It’s food for people with no brains and no taste,” he has declared. While dining at one of his son Tom’s restaurants, he exclaimed, “Oh, not grapes on the cheeseboard! I’ve always thought grapes with cheese is deeply suburban.” And a profile of Conran is not complete without a description of the time he vented his anger at his receptionist: “Maggie! Mimosas are fine, tulips are lovely – but not in the same f***ing vase!”

Paradoxically, many people have also picked up on flashes of sentimentality and, looking through the cuttings, “vulnerable” is a word that crops up repeatedly.

When one of his sons ploughed through some snow­drops with the lawnmower at his 13-bedroom country house, Conran went into a frenzy, screaming, “Can’t you hear them crying?” He later confirmed the veracity of the story, explaining, “I do care deeply for flowers.”

This mixture of anger and sensitivity has been apparent from the start. “Sitting or lying in my pram looking at apple blossom was my first good memory,” he tells me. Another early recollection was spilling bright green paint on a terra­cotta kitchen floor “and my sensation that they were a horrible mismatch of colours”.

But when I ask what is the first thing he can remember making, he recalls a bookcase his mother told him to complete before lunch when he was about 10. “I got into a temper and threw it down the stairs, where it all came to pieces.”

Just three years later, Conran was turning metal on a lathe at home when a tiny piece struck him in the face and robbed him of the eyesight in his left eye. “It got me out of doing national service, which seemed a good exchange.”

It is strange to find out that a man who has devoted his life to the visual has only half his vision. Does he think this had any effect? Did it make him appreciate aesthetics more?

“I don’t know,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, I think I can see things in three dimensions. I’ve never had any trouble driving. I’ve never had any problems spotting good-looking products. Or good-looking girls.” In that order? He laughs. “Yes. Intermixed.”

What he says next comes as a surprise. “The very strange thing is my sight is now coming back in that eye – in the last six months.” He raises his hand to cover his fully working, right eye. “I couldn’t recognise you facially but I can see you as a person. And I can see you’ve got trainers on your feet. I really couldn’t see anything before. I haven’t been back to the optician. I know that’s what I should do and see if it comes back totally,” he says, before picking up his whisky and soda, one of the three he has daily. “Cheers!”

Conran has drunk and smoked late into the night with some of the greats of the art world, from David Hockney to Eduardo Paolozzi. The Scottish sculptor was his teacher at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts and they became friends. Paolozzi showed his protégé how to chop an onion and cook squid ink risotto. In return, the student taught his teacher how to weld. Conran had sold a chair to Pablo Picasso by the age of 22 (apparently, it had reminded the Spanish artist of one of his paintings). He befriended Francis Bacon, too. A loyal Conran Shop customer, the painter could regularly be found peering at the window displays.

He also struck up a relationship with Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, whose company would eventually acquire Habitat. “The sad thing is that he couldn’t run it,” laments Conran, but still insists he learned “a hell of a lot” from the billionaire, who died last year. “We both had started flat-pack furniture at about the same time. I think we both learned from each other, yes. I mean certainly that’s what he said. He said that he’d learned our approach to KD [knock-down] furniture and that it differed in some ways from Ikea’s. He also said that he’d learned how important style was and how we had made design valuable as a brand. The Habitat brand was what interested him. He said, ‘You know, you can attract affluent people much more easily than Ikea can.’” For his part, Conran envied Kamprad’s “incredibly low prices”.

Not everyone, it has to be said, is a Conran convert. Some bristle at what they see as design dictatorialism; a sense that anyone who does not subscribe to his lifestyle prescription is simply the victim of a lapse in taste.

Rowan Moore, architecture critic at The Observer news­paper, confessed, “I have never loved a Conran restaurant or a Conran object. They seem a little too managed, manipulated, packaged and don’t quite communicate the fun he has got out of life.”

Friend and art dealer John Kasmin concluded, “The problem with Terence is that he wants the whole world to have a better salad bowl.”

But perhaps that is to miss a wider driving vision that is more generous than autocratic. When Habitat became a public company, in 1981, Conran says, “I found myself with a mass of money, you know very rich indeed. And I thought very simply, ‘Look, I’m a designer and what I do should improve the quality of people’s lives. Let’s put a museum together that demonstrates as far as possible how design can improve the quality of life.’” He has since put £74 million of his own money into London’s Design Museum, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why he has not appeared on The Sunday Times’ Rich List since 2013 (when his fortune was valued at £80 million).

“As a student, I lived in a bedsit,” he reminisces, “and the people who ran the house prepared a simple evening meal, which I’d have and I’d then go out for a walk and look through windows into people’s houses. I felt intensely depressed by how awful – well, I think ‘awful’ is the right word – most people’s homes were. Kitchens that were filthy and awfully chipped with rubbish and no spirit of enjoy­ment. Terrible carpet that you could be sick on without noticing it. Extremely gloomy lighting.

“Then I thought about what happened to those people. They’d get up in the morning and go into a depres­sing bathroom that didn’t lift the spirits in any way at all. Go down to a kitchen, have a terrible breakfast. And then go into an office where design had certainly not had any influence at all. And that was their lives.

“I also thought I understood how design was incredibly important for the economy of the nation, that if you had manufacturers making intelligently designed products, they would more than likely be successful in exporting around the world.”

Conran’s life’s work has, though, come at a personal cost. A journalist once picked him up for saying the happiest moments of his life were his shop and hotel openings, rather than, say, the births of his five children (designers Sebastian, Jasper and Sophie and restaurateurs Tom and Ned). Meanwhile, he has said the loss of Habitat was “like a child dying”.

Conran, who is now married to his fourth wife, Vicki, 25 years his junior, admits that his obsession with work has left him wanting as both a father and a husband. “They’ve all divorced me, and therefore I must be unsatisfactory in all sorts of different ways,” he told the BBC in 1996.

His first marriage, at 19, to Brenda Davison lasted just five months. His second wife, Shirley Conran (née Pearce), who made her own name as the author of Superwoman (1975) and a feminist trailblazer who declared that “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, gave a woman she suspected of being Conran’s lover a bar of scented soap so she could detect the smell on her husband. After their divorce, asked what objects he could not bear to live with, he replied: “Um … Shirley?” His third wife, cookery writer Caroline (née Herbert), left him for another man on their 30th wedding anniversary, before securing a £10.5 million divorce settlement.

After all this drama, Conran has no intention of going out without a bang. “I love fireworks,” he enthuses. “I have left a lump of money in my will to be used for a goodbye party in which I hope my ashes can be put in the fireworks and dispersed. I’d like it to happen at my house in the country. Over a river is always one of the best ways of watching the fireworks.”

Otherwise, death only occasionally intrudes on his thoughts. “Just now and again, when my back is really terrible and I think, ‘Well – coming to the end of it now. Thank God. Goodbye tomorrow!’”

Until then, one imagines that Conran’s mind will still be occupied with how to make everyday life just that little bit more pleasurable.

Look past the money, the wives, the signature tailored blue shirts, the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 cigars and the bottles of burgundy and you will see the excitement of someone whose wartime childhood tasted of Spam, whale meat and cod-liver oil. You will see a man who has discovered something better – the joys of airy, open-plan living, the perfect modernist sofa, foolproof feathered bedding, impeccably cooked Tuscan chicken and, yes, a better salad bowl – and who wants to share it with the rest of us.

Who can blame him for that?

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