It was late on a wintry afternoon, and the skies were turning a steely gray over an eerily lifeless stretch on the East Side of Manhattan. Sir Terence Conran had just poked his head inside the forbidding Gilded Age vault beneath the Queensboro Bridge known as Bridgemarket. A half-century of petrochemical grime was caked over the sinuous white tile columns inside. The dust was so thick it clogged the nostrils. The silence inside was cryptlike. "Just to get inside, we had to scramble through masses of barbed wire and padlocks," Conran remembers.
Today -- some five years later -- Conran is wending his way through the same dust-choked corridors. He is remembering the moment his real-estate broker, on a whim, decided to swing him through after a long day of rambling through the city's most notorious vacant spaces.
"We walked over planks, and these little crawl-bridges," he says, his eyes growing wide. "Then, suddenly, there were these vague stirrings. We looked around and realized there were all these tramps lying here, asleep. They started getting up. Then their dogs got up, fairly wild dogs. There were even rats."
And then he looked up, high into the shadows, and caught a glimpse of that mosaic-intricate terra-cotta tile, undulating across a series of grand arches some 40 feet overhead.
"It was like Chartres. Like St. Paul's," he says, his eyes aglow.
It was this feeling of messianic rapture that accounts for Conran's presence here today. Only this time around, Conran's Oliver Sweeney loafers are leaving their size-9 prints behind in the sawdust-and-drywall grit of new construction. Conran is here taking his final stroll through Bridgemarket before phase one of the project opens on December 8, a vast, subterranean challenge to Pottery Barn called the Terence Conran Shop. Upstairs, where the same nineteenth-century engineer responsible for the soaring ceiling at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine also worked his sorcery, Conran will open his first two restaurants in America. This is no minor event, considering that he is the man who introduced London to flashy, high-style dining-as-theater with such hits as Quaglino's, Bluebird, and Bibendum.
In England, Conran is less a celebrity than he is a postwar monument, like the West End's aggressively modern Telecom Tower -- glaringly large and futurist for the ancient London skyline. For 40 years, Conran has been a self-appointed Prometheus of contemporary living, delivering the gloomy, class-conflicted isle from centuries of Queen Anne dressers and steak-and-kidney-pie dinners into Scandinavian blond wood and lavender-tinged sumptuosity. It's as if lifestyle diva Martha Stewart and bistro king Keith McNally had decided to express themselves in one burly Savile Row-suited avatar. And he is no stranger to New York, either: The Conran's housewares chain was a Yankee extension of Habitat, the hugely influential British chain he founded in 1964; it was a stylish, mid-priced furnishings mecca before it foundered during the Bush years. But just as a skillful craftsman can restore a shabby Aalto chair to its former self, so, too, has Terence Conran, at age 68, plotted his triumphant return -- in what may be his last great opportunity to sand and varnish his reputation in the States.
Not since the eighties, with that decade's Babylonian monuments to megalomania still strewn about midtown, has there been a building project with this same sort of quixotic, grand ambition.
The Bridgemarket bunch points out that the complex is happily situated on the border of the 10021 and 10022 Zip Codes, the best retail quadrants in the world.
"The idea to bring a shop here again came to me five or six years ago," Conran is saying. "I'd been to Daniel Boulud's restaurant one evening, and afterwards, I walked all the way down Madison, looking into all these fantastic shops. There was wonderful cutting-edge, modern fashion. Fantastic modern shoes and accessories. But never did I walk past a shop selling modern furnishings."
Conran Holdings Limited operates four Conran Shops in London, two in Paris, and one each in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Berlin, and Hamburg. In Conran's mind, this American branch will be a one-stop-shopping alternative to a weekend of trawling SoHo for giant ivory dinner plates and leather club chairs. It will be edgier than Crate & Barrel but cheaper and more mass-market than Moss, Greene Street's recently expanded museum-quality-furnishings shop.
In a riff on I. M. Pei's pyramid at the Louvre, Conran, in league with architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, has erected a steel-and-glass pavilion next to the grit-stained 59th Street bridge. It looks like a spiffy entrance to one of London's Underground stops, and, indeed, this is the gateway to the Terence Conran Shop, 22,500 square feet of retail space above and below the pavement that will carry everything a bull-market-engorged yuppie would need to furnish his first condo duplex, from the concave $24 "Mimi" plates from Japan, which look a bit like what Mondrian would render if he were obsessed with seashells, to cool designs from Conran's own lab, like the leather "Cuba" table ($1,490), which wouldn't have seemed too out of place on the set of A Clockwork Orange.
But the more rhapsodic half of the building has been reserved for a loftier purpose: a New York variation of the "gastrodrome" concept Conran has trademarked in London. On the main floor, in late January, he will open Guastavino, a 26,000-square-foot, 300-seat megabrasserie not entirely unlike the enormous Quaglino's back home.
Inside Bridgemarket's aboveground nave, white tile columns stretch taut as bowstrings to the ceiling, where they blossom into the same intricately tiled "Guastavino arches" designed by Spanish-immigrant engineer Rafael Guastavino y Esposito and seen to considerably lesser effect at Grand Central's Oyster Bar. Guastavino will be a New York restaurant with a British accent, but, Conran insists, it will have a French soul deep down.