A Knight's Retail
"I can never understand why people employ decorators," posits Sir Terence Conran, a man whose surname is synonymous with design. "One of the great joys in life is collecting things to put in a home," he adds, and it's apt that outfitting a house is more than just part of the job for Conran; he has been helping others discover that same satisfaction since opening his first furnishings store, Habitat, in London in 1964. In 1987 he launched the Conran Shop, and his reach now includes architecture, books, and restaurants. The sun, it seems, never sets on this British empire.
What prompted you to launch the Conran Shop?
Habitat had become quite a big business, and I really wanted to have a very personal company again, where I could make decisions rather than having teams of people making them.
Have you maintained that intimacy?
It's still the sort of size where I can keep my hands on. I see every bit of merchandise that we stock, and I go into the shop twice a week and make many suggestions about what we carry.
How do you go about bringing a new product to the collection?
I ask our buyer to get a sample of the product, and hope that the rest of the team likes it and agrees with me when it's presented. They usually do—usually, but not always. And I design quite a lot of things, too.
There are now Conran Shops in England, Ireland, US, France, and Japan, with more to come. How do you manage to maintain the character of your stores while matching the varying needs and aesthetics of the various cultures?
Representatives from each country attend the merchandise meetings and give their opinion as to whether the product being selected is suitable to their country. If you went into one of our shops in Japan, or France, there might be some differences but I think you would immediately say, "This is a Conran Shop."
How does British design fit into the mix?
Britain has a terrific reputation for creativity, thanks to the energy of architects, designers, musicians, photographers—you name it. Design is certainly recognized in England as being very important to the economy.
Who introduced you to design?
My mother was constantly talking about design. She would have been a designer if middle-class ladies had that opportunity before World War II. She took me to exhibitions, and interesting shops, and saw that I got a good creative education. Which I did. Public schools don’t usually have much interest in the creative side of life, but I was lucky to attend the one that my mother specifically selected. In addition to teaching me foreign languages, mathematics, and the basics, I also learned how to weld and be a woodworker. There was a wonderful teacher I had who taught me metalworking and sculpture, and he had a huge influence on my life. So I have a great deal to thank my mother and my school for, and I shall always be grateful for that.
So it started in the home?
Indeed. Now I have old things that have been handed down, family portraits, modern furniture. Most of the classics. And a lot of bentwood.
What draws you to bentwood?
Early on in my career, it opened my eyes to the possibilities of furniture design. The process of steam-bending wood had an engineering flexibility built into it, and created a structure that wouldn't break in the way a normal chair might. Parts could be shipped all over the world and assembled when they arrived at their destination. Thonet chairs went all over the world, and that’s really the first time that anyone thought of doing that.
Who are your design heroes?
Charles and Ray Eames were the best designers in the world. They encapsulate what I most admire: innovation and modernity.
The Conran Shop carries a wide collection of classic pieces alongside new designs. How do the older items compare?
I think that 20th-century furniture—quite often pieces that were originally designed and made in America—never really reached the American market in the way that it deserved to. None of what Eero Saarinen, Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, Herman Miller, and Knoll did in the mid-part of the last century has dated; It's all still so fantasic and relevant to life today. It should be in every shop in America, but it never had that exposure, sadly.
And how about the next generation?
I'm provost of the Royal College of Art, so I see an awful lot of young designers. There's a chap who came from the university a few years ago called Thomas Heatherwick who is outstanding. I have a wonderful gazebo in my garden that he made.
Who are you trying to reach with the wares at The Conran Shop?
People who want to live in the 21st century. People who want to furnish their homes both with modern things, and also with very personal things. Obviously I’d very much like to see things they bought from the Conran Shop, but I’ve always said that I don’t want to go into somebody’s home and find that they’ve bought everything from us. I want to understand a bit more about the personality of the person when I go into their home.
Do you feel that what you have in your home reflects who you are?
Yes, I think it probably does.
What's your most recent purchase?
It sounds amazing to say this, but I never owned an Eames lounge until I bought one a few months ago. It's pale walnut with a creamy white leather.
How do you define "good design"?
"Good" means so many things to so many people. When something is plain, simple, and useful it becomes intelligent design. You can rapidly spot stupid design. Unfortunately, the world is full of it.
Will intelligent work endure?
I like products that stay with me a long time; they acquire the patina of good usage which comes when you use something every day, like worn stone steps on a staircase or shoes that have been well looked-after and properly polished.
Any guilty pleasures?
I smoke cigars. That is thought to be a guilty pleasure these days, I'm afraid.
What's best about your job?
A new challenge every day, a new project every day, and working with a bunch of talented, creative people.
Is there anything that makes you wish you did something else?
Bureacracy in the planning departments. We do a lot of architecture, too, and constantly we’re having to battle with planners; we'll think of something that would be an inspirational solution, and they tend to conform to the book too much.
What's next for the Conran Shop?
A huge project that we're all terrifically excited about is a sort of design department store in London—it should be thrilling if it actually comes off—and we're opening a new shop in Kuala Lumpur, anticipated for the spring of 2011. Oh god, there's work all over the place; a hell of a lot of stuff going on.