Terence Conran and the Portrait of How We Live Now

The Design Museum in London is marking Terence Conran’s 80th birthday with ‘The Way We Live Now’, a major exhibition that explores Conran’s design career and its significant impact on contemporary life in the UK and internationally.

There is little doubt that, through his own design work, and also through his entrepreneurial flair over decades of professional activity, Conran has dramatically transformed the look of the British home. He established a design studio and an architectural practice with a worldwide reach, founded furniture stores Habitat, and pioneered a new restaurant culture driven by a passion for simplicity.

The Way We Live Now explores Conran’s impact whilst painting a picture of his design approach and inspirations. The exhibition traces his career from post-war austerity through to the new sensibility of the Festival of Britain in the 1950s, the birth of the Independent Group with its flare for the avant-garde and the Pop Culture of the 1960s, to the design boom of the 1980s on to the present day.

The exhibition, curated by Stafford Cliff and Deyan Sudjic (director of the Design Museum), covers key areas and themes of Conran’s career whilst exploring his wider impact on British life. The exhibition opens with a collection of Conran’s own pieces from the late 1940s and 1950s, when he was welding steel chairs himself, designing textile designs, ceramics and magazine covers.

The Habitat story includes the reconstruction of one of the room sets shown in the Habitat catalogues of the 1960s and 1970s. It also looks at the work of the designers that Conran commissioned to work on Habitat’s identity, as well as a range of Habitat products.

Conran’s role in professionalising the practice of design is charted by the work of the various Conran design studios, which undertook projects as diverse as lighting, furniture, kitchenware, packaging, architecture and retail design. Conran’s approach to food is traced by a look at the many restaurants that he has designed and opened. A recreation of Conran’s study from his home in Barton Court also offers a glimpse into his private world.

The exhibition also demonstrates Conran’s influence and legacy on current designers including recent Royal College of Art graduates who have been awarded the Conran Foundation RCA Award.

Born on 4 October 1931, Terence Conran studied textile design at London’s Central School of Art. Quitting his studies in 1950 to seek full time employment, Conran set up a workshop with his tutor, the artist and print-maker Eduardo Paolozzi where he concentrated his skills on furniture design, ceramics and fabrics. Travelling in France, the young Conran saw simple but delicious food for the first time, as well as enticing country markets and shops full of unfussy kitchenware. This experience was crucial in moulding Conran’s taste and design inspiration, leading him to introduce this way of life to Britain.

The early 1950s saw Conran work on the Festival of Britain alongside architect Dennis Lennon and in 1953 he opened his first restaurant The Soup Kitchen just off The Strand in London, selling soup, espresso coffee, French breads and cheeses and apple tarts. The Soup Kitchen was followed by The Orrery restaurant, hailing the beginning of a variety of Parisian style brasseries that would transform Britain’s eating habits. In 1956 Conran launched the Conran Design Group, a practice covering interiors, furniture and graphic design.

In the 1960s, as London became the capital of cool, Carnaby Street, The Beatles and Mary Quant represented a young new generation that aspired to clean lines and colour. The opening of Habitat in 1964 shattered the mould of existing furniture stores and created an entirely new retail experience, meeting the needs of the Pop Culture with its fresh interiors, cool staff and modern furniture. At this time, a breakthrough project for the Conran Design Group was designing the interior for Terminal One at Heathrow aiport.

Habitat introduced European aesthetics, modernity and affordable design, creating aspirational interiors with Bauhaus armchairs, Braun electrical goods and modular seating units. The success of Habitat propelled Conran into the retail mainstream, and in the 1980s he established The Storehouse Group which acquired Heals furniture store. He went on to oversee important British retailers such as British Home Stores, Mothercare, and Next.

The Conran Design Group demonstrated the best of design in Britain, specialising in interiors, hotel and restaurant design, graphics, products and home ware. With Fred Lloyd Roche, Conran also established an architectural practice, Conran Roche, which eventually became Conran & Partners. Today, the practice provides services in architecture, interior design and master planning worldwide.

Conran’s restaurant empire continued to grow both at home and abroad with restaurants such as Mezzo, Bluebird, Quaglino’s and Le Pont de la Tour in the UK, and Guastavino’s in New York, and Alcazar in Paris. Following the sale of a 49% stake in Conran Restaurants to create D&D London, Conran has more recently opened the Boundary, Albion and Lutyens restaurants. His desire to sell good design to the mass market enters a new chapter with the forthcoming home ware collection for Marks and Spencer, alongside his other furniture businesses Benchmark and Content by Conran.

The 1980s also saw Conran establish the Conran Foundation, an educational charity focused on promoting a better understanding of design. Its first initiative was the Boilerhouse Project, a gallery housed in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Under the directorship of Stephen Bayley, the Boilerhouse staged exhibitions and Conran and Bayley opening the Design Museum in 1989, in the development of 13 acres of Butlers Wharf which Conran had acquired. It was the first museum in the world devoted to the promotion and examination of design. In 2014 the Design Museum will relocate to new premises in the former Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street, London. This new project, passionately championed by Conran, is expected to create one of the world’s leading design museums.

Throughout his career Conran has shown how design is intrinsically linked to business activity, and one that has earned its place at the centre of national, economic and political debate. Now in his 80th year, Conran continues to symbolise a way of life that is both attractive and aspirational, an approach to life that has indeed defined the way we live now.