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Welcome Back, Conran

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Terence was a skilled cricketer, but he says he felt far more alive when he was arranging flowers, painting, or collecting brilliantly patterned hawk moths and butterflies. Conran has the peculiar ability to make such pursuits seem eminently male; he will rhapsodize about the Dior A-line dress his teenage girlfriend wore but still manage to imply that the real joy was in slipping it off.

He attended Bryanston, an artsier cousin to Eton and Harrow, and in 1948, he landed a place at the respected Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.

"London was exceedingly austere. Grimly austere," says Conran, whose lippy blond prettiness helped lure the girls in those days. "Social life then was practically nonexistent. There were no restaurants or cafés. Food was rationed. There was no garlic -- no olive oil. Pubs were about the only place you could go."

Like many other art students of the day, Conran was intrigued by the socialist aesthetics of Germany's Bauhaus movement.

"We were very left-wing," he recalls. "I wanted to see if I could prove the theories of the Bauhaus -- that things that are intelligently designed shouldn't be more expensive. If anything, they should be less expensive. And they should be available to everybody."

Conran worked as a textile designer upon graduation, but soon set up a small workshop in a derelict East End garage, where he fashioned lightweight chairs from low-cost materials like iron and wicker. By 1952, his work started appearing in such department stores as Simpson's. But some highbrows were starting to take notice: Pablo Picasso owned three of his chairs, which had a minimalist iron frame with white rope webbing. "He even paid for two of them," Conran says aridly.

In 1953, Conran opened a quasi-Continental, streamlined lunch nook near Charing Cross called the Soup Kitchen, which featured "the second espresso-coffee machine in London," Conran says proudly.

At the War Museum, Conran, wearing a generously cut, conservative gray suit and a cobalt-blue Turnbull & Asser shirt, shuffles past an installation re-creating a Soup Kitchen-like coffee bar from late-fifties London into the "Mod Sixties" section. Conran has a rapid, heavy, slightly pigeon-toed gait; it's as if his shoulders are perpetually tilted forward and the rest of his body needs to hustle to keep up.

An original Habitat catalogue has been casually tossed across the front seat of a glassed-in Austin Mini. Habitat was as fab as Brian Jones's teardrop Vox guitar back in the early sixties. The British public had already been turned on to the Mediterranean lifestyle by food writer Elizabeth David's lyrical prose. But nobody was yet equipped to cook the things she was writing about. Habitat was the first to import Sabatier knives and sturdy cast-iron cookware, which would come to replace pitted British aluminum pans. Then came the wonderful, simple earthenware, the terra-cotta jugs, the garlic presses, the butcher-block tables. It was all utterly new to England.

Overnight, Conran's down-filled comforters became staples of English life. "I think the sex life of the English was enormously affected by my introducing the duvet," Conran says, smiling. "They made it so easy and quick to make the bed, and they had a sort of sexy, Swedish overtone to them." Conran was also the first to display his wares in theaterlike "sets" that sold a lifestyle, not just individual items. "He was the first retailer to understand the genius of the total environment," says Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, "the first to use furniture to help sell something else. You see the Habitat influence today in stores like ABC Carpet & Home, where everything is for sale down to the floorboards."

And it was cheap -- perfect for the iconoclastic sixties generation, who affectionately called it "Shabitat." You knew the stuff wasn't going to last forever, but it was fun, and it had a certain look.

Almost unimaginably, the quiet, fastidious shopkeeper became known as one of the great pop impresarios of Swinging London. "Conran was part of that second generation after the war. The first generation had been the Elvis, Teddy Boy, fifties thing. The second generation was the Beatles and the Stones and Mary Quant," says one Conran friend, fashion designer Paul Smith. "And Terence was right in there."


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