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Welcome Back, Conran

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Even to the American eye, Habitat was impressively ahead of its time. You look at a picture taken inside Habitat from 1965 and it looks like Pottery Barn circa 1995. A quintessentially Manhattan space like Dean & DeLuca, with its sanitary white interior and stainless-wire shelving, owes an obvious debt to Conran, says the chic hotelier Ian Schrager, who admits that Conran was an early influence. "Terence popularized those stylish plastic stacking chairs. Before that, there were just these horrible steel folding chairs," Schrager remembers. "He also popularized nonflowery canvas on couches and paper lamps like Noguchi's. It's not unlike what Andy Warhol did in the art world: He took the pretension out of art and made it for everybody. But for some reason, Terence just never got the credit."

It's a shadowy basement beneath a walk-up tenement on East 59th Street that for years served as the Ford modeling agency's headquarters. The coffee is a bit sharp, and several pairs of eyes are jet-lagged. But they'll have to stay focused during today's meeting, one of many where it will be decided what lands on the shelves in the Terence Conran Shop.

Conran is gathered here with his top American lieutenants, under the basement's sickly fluorescent halo-shaped bulbs. The American store will feature more products designed and manufactured on these shores, but Conran insists the stock will be, if anything, even more avant than it is in Britain's Conran Shops. The item currently under discussion is a sleek navy-blue plastic case shaped like a bulbous kidney.

"It's a travel-pillow clutch," explains Kim Cohen, an assistant buyer for the New York shop. Snap open the kidney, and inside -- presto -- there's a travel pillow.

Conran rolls his eyes.

"I can't see this selling, can you?" he snorts. "Are you really going to carry a plastic container with a pillow inside it onto an airplane? I mean, I think it's very beautiful as an object. It's a shame, really. Somehow, the fact that it's a pillow . . . If you had just said it's just a bag . . ."

A heavy silence fills the room.

"Pass," Conran says with an air of boredom, his cheek resting on his hand.

Cohen then pulls out a bundle of dried, decorative artichoke stalks.

"I think we want to be very careful in this area," Conran says. "Because before you know it, it's going to look like Pottery Barn."

Next on the agenda, a large pine doghouse.

"Shit," says a wide-eyed Conran, alarmed by its size. "What a terrible business, having dogs in Manhattan. Giuliani should ban it," he says. Then he shrugs.

"Well, they're nice and simply made. But as you can tell, I'm not a petophile." He smiles impishly.

Most items today earn a languid "pass" from Conran, but he does green-light a simple rattan cushion from Vietnam and some oversize aluminum cookware from Brazil.

Finally, out comes a sleek leather pouch with a long, narrow shoulder strap. "It's a cell-phone case. You put your phone in here," Cohen explains pertly.

"Why would you want to put your phone in something?" Conran says petulantly. "Life is complicated enough."

He pauses.

"After I left, some really daft things started to happen at Conran's in America," says Conran, "masses of cheap furniture at one moment and Ralph Lauren boutiques in the next."

"It's bad enough even having a cell phone . . ."

Most who know Conran agree that his life has an almost Calvinist bent; there is a Depression child's guilt over excess, opulence, and torpor. In London, no Rolls idles out on the curb for him: Instead, he prefers to tool around in the backseat of a slightly cramped silver Audi.

"Sir Terence doesn't approve of excess of any kind," says Kissin. "One time, one of his employees asked him, 'Would you like me to get you a car to take you to the airport?' And with his famous, finger-wagging gesture, he said, 'I'm the only one here trying to save money. I'll take a taxi.' "

Occasionally, the calvinist loses out to the sensualist. The thrice-married Conran's appetites, famously, do not end at the dessert course. Even in business, Conran has been accused of getting too far ahead of himself.

"Oh, risk is terribly sexy, isn't it?" purrs Vicki Davis, Conran's attractive, strong-jawed lady friend of six years. I have asked her why Conran would gamble so much to return to New York.

"Oh, terribly," Conran adds skeptically.

Conran and Davis are due at the home of the architect Sir Norman Foster, his close friend, for dinner, but the seemingly ageless Conran has sunk deep in a hemispherical black leather chair by Finnish designer Kukkapuro, pausing after a ludicrously hectic day to drink a Rolling Rock poured into a tall glass. He and Davis share a bright glassed-in aerie atop a converted warehouse in Butlers Wharf, on the humble south bank of the Thames. For Conran, it's a shopkeeper's commute to work: Two stories below his flat sits the headquarters of Conran Holdings Limited. Butlers Wharf was an eleven-acre, rat-infested expanse of vacant Victorian brick warehouses before Conran bought it up in 1983 (he lost control of much of the complex, however, during the early-nineties recession).


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