Terence Conran; chic homes and stylish food

HabitatDid you ever pop into Habitat after moving house? For those who did, it was a fun and empowering experience; one that gave you hope you could present a modicum of style to house-warming visitors, even though you were on a tight budget. The world of chic interiors suddenly seemed to open up when Habitat came on the scene, and it’s the ground-breaking designer, Terence Conran, whom we can thank for this rewarding adventure.

How did it all start?

Terence Conran was born in Esher, Surrey, 1931. His father owned a rubber importation company and was wealthy enough to send his son to Bryanston School for a solid educational foundation. This was then followed by a stint at the Central School of Art and Design to study textiles and design.

Conran’s entrepreneurial flair began early. Whilst studying, he founded a furniture studio and cut his teeth in the world of home design. After his studies, by 1951 he was working for Dennis Lennon, an architect, and designing for the Festival of Britain; which wasn’t bad for a twenty-year-old. However, things didn’t stop there. One of Conran’s particular strengths was to not be confined by pigeonholes, and this determination became a defining feature of his extraordinary career.

It was the following year, 1952, that things really started to change. He stepped out on his own and set up a furniture workshop in Notting Hill called Conran and Company. A trip to Paris during this time then crystalised his passionate love of French cuisine and his legendary melding of design and food began.

With friends, he opened The Soup Kitchen, a continental-style bistro which offered coffee made by the second-ever Gaggia coffee machine! (Thank you, Damon Syson for highlighting this. Article: Link here).

Clearly finding his feet as an entrepreneur, in 1956 he next formed Conran Design Group, and never really looked back. Interior design for both homes and retail spaces was the focus of this entity, and very early on he was commissioned to work on Mary Quant’s Markham Square shop on the King’s Road.

The birth of a household name

However, it was the establishing of Habitat in 1964 that made him a household name. He’d designed a range of flatpack furniture but was struggling to find an outlet to sell it; the existing traditional department stores weren’t interested, which was very frustrating. In the early sixties, there was a clear market of style-hungry buyers who wanted to make a statement in their homes. Their problem was they were limited by budget. Not one to be held back, Conran opened his first Habitat shop on Fulham Road, and the number of stores quickly spread from there.

It’s no surprise it was a big hit. Conran clearly had a flair for this stuff. Habitat was bright, fun, engaging, and exciting. It brought colour, confidence, and a continental je ne sais quoi to homes. Much of what Habitat sold was designed in-house. However, he also had an eye for spotting accessories elsewhere and the business did source from outside too. When shoppers visited a store, they knew they would soon be kitting out their home with unusual kitchen gizmos, fun cookery ideas (fondue sets were a huge hit), and stylish brands such as Le Creuset. And we mustn’t forget the  novel concept of the time… the duvet!

The hey days of the 80s

Habitat’s success peaked in the 1980s, with 53 outlets across the world. However, Conran had his eye on expanding his Storehouse Group in other ways. His decision was to grow via acquisition. Over time, he bought top names such as British Home Stores and Mothercare, and in that decade the organization hit the heady heights of being a FTSE 100 company.

It’s possible, however, that it all grew too big and too broad, for by 1990, Conran had stepped down as chairman having been ousted from his CEO position two years before. All was not lost, though; he’d remained firmly in touch with his designing roots throughout this period. He was a man of style, and chic homes were still his passion. Thus, during this time he’d also set up Conran Roche with Fred Roche, in a bid to fine-tune his work on interior design. And The Conran Shop also continued to thrive.

History and food for thought

We also mustn’t forget his success in the restaurant arena. The eateries that were in his portfolio are not to be sniffed and included Quaglino’s, Mezzo, and Le Pont de la Tour. And he also connected with the Victoria and Albert Museum to create a design-oriented area in the museum’s basement. It’s from this project that the Design Museum took shape, and within a few years it had settled itself into its own lodgings in a converted banana warehouse.

Thus, overall Conran’s career of ideas was extraordinary. His enthusiasm and passion for design is still inspiring and was justly rewarded in 1983 when he was knighted. He was a man who had remarkable vision and determination. And we must thank our lucky stars that these qualities were combined with a passion for design and food, for he gave the world the opportunity to enjoy style in the two most important aspects of our lives, our homes and our stomachs.