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October 2020

Vol. 162 / No. 1411

Terence Conran, marchand-mercier

Was life in 1950s Britain so very awful? Every assessment of the legacy of Terence Conran, who died last month at the age of eighty-eight, has insisted that it was. In an amusing overview of Conran’s impact on British culture, the Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore recalled ‘the drabness of the postwar years, the grey houses, the Spam fritters, the colourless mackintoshes’.(1) It seems pointless to argue that the 1950s also saw the birth of Pop art and rock music and was the great age of haute couture in France and of furniture design in Scandinavia, all of which had an impact in Britain. Historians of British post-war design almost never accept the 1950s on their own terms but emphasise instead the events that seem in retrospect to point the way forward, from the Festival of Britain in 1951 to the opening of Mary Quant’s first boutique in 1955. Conran was in the background of both: he worked on exhibition stands for the Festival, under the direction of the architect Dennis Lennon, and he designed the interiors of Quant’s second shop.

Conran’s abilities as a designer were significant – his initial training was in textile design, and his ceramics for W.R. Midwinter Ltd in the mid-1950s were the subject of an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum in 2013 – but he will be remembered as an entrepreneur who helped shaped taste, principally by his creation in 1964 of Habitat, the chain of furniture and homeware shops. His great strength was the way that he regarded the items that Habitat sold as part of a complete way of life – it was no coincidence that he was equally influential as a restaurateur. The sources of the taste that Conran marketed were not unusual. His outlets – Habitat was joined by the first of the (more expensive) Conran Shops in 1973 – embodied a characteristically British take on Modernism that combined admiration for the Mediterranean, in such items as enamel cooking pots and French faience tableware, with Bauhaus-flavoured light-fittings and furniture – Conran was a pioneer of mass-market flatpack design.

What was new in the 1960s was the way that Habitat made this relaxed, design-conscious bohemian look available to a large new audience – as Moore writes, ‘Habitat became a mecca for those who wanted to create something other than the suburban style they had grown up with. It was affordable for someone on a teacher’s salary’. Conran would certainly have acknowledged that the obvious precedent for his democratic vision was William Morris. A remark by him cited by his obituarists, ‘I believe that the useful should be beautiful and the beautiful should be accessible’, riffs on Morris’s famous injunction, ‘If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’. Like Morris, Conran was highly successful in marshalling a creative team while remaining firmly in overall control. The establishment in 1956 of the Conran Design Group has echoes of Morris’s foundation of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. in 1861, and in Conran’s private life the atmosphere of the country house that he restored for himself, Barton Court, built in 1772 overlooking the River Kennet near Kintbury, Berkshire, echoed in some ways that of Morris’s Kelmscott Manor beside the Thames.

Morris’s determination to reform contemporary design was part of a wider movement in nineteenth-century Britain, of which one result was the foundation of the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria design for industry. This was a central concern for Conran, so it was not a coincidence that he turned to the V&A when he made what is perhaps his greatest contribution to public life in Britain. In 1981 his educational charity, the Conran Foundation, paid for the creation of a new gallery at the V&A curated by Stephen Bayley. Conceived of – in very Victorian terms – as a ‘Museum of Industrial Design’, it was catchily named the Boilerhouse (since it was built in the museum’s boilerhouse courtyard) and for five years was one of the leading attractions of the museum during Roy Strong’s directorship. The Boilerhouse was the origin of the Design Museum, opened in 1989 in a former banana warehouse at Shad Thames that had been converted to look like a building designed by Walter Gropius in the 1930s (Conran disapproved of period pastiche in all except the Modern Movement). Since 2016 the museum has been housed in the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington – a building, designed in 1958 by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, that is itself a reminder that in Britain the 1950s did not entirely lack elan. Its conversion into a museum was paid for in part by a donation from Conran of £17.5 million. 

It is arguable that the Boilerhouse was a more appropriate name than the Design Museum, since it better evokes Conran’s main interest, which was design for manufacturing as understood, for example, at the Bauhaus. Directors of the museum who sought to enlarge this conception of design were given short shrift – in 2004 the chair of trustees, James Dyson, resigned in protest at the then director, Alice Rawsthorn, staging exhibitions – admirably forward-looking exhibitions, it seems in retrospect – on such subjects as Manolo Blahnik and Constance Spry, and Conran privately made known his displeasure at the direction his museum was taking. Did he object to the idea that his conception of design might be due for a feminised correction? If there is anything regrettable about his influence it is the way that ‘design’ is now almost universally identified with a narrow retro-Modernism that has no inherent virtue but is simply a reflection of the taste that he championed.

There would, for example, be nothing in the Design Museum’s principles to prevent it staging an exhibition on Sèvres porcelain, one of the great successes of design for industry, but it would definitely not have appealed to Conran. Yet if one were to seek historical antecedents for the impact that Habitat had, one might look back to the eighteenth-century French retail entrepreneurs known as the marchands-merciers, who co-ordinated the work of teams of craftsmen to make furnishings for fashionable interiors. Among the best-known is Dominique Daguerre, who in the 1780s opened a shop in Sloane Street that had ambitions not so far removed from Conran’s in creating Habitat. Daguerre’s most celebrated commissions were the interiors he created for the Prince of Wales at Carlton House and the Royal Pavilion, Brighton – about as far from retro-Modernism as it is possible to get – but Conran would surely have appreciated the irony of history that at the same time Daguerre was importing Wedgwood creamware to Paris, where the stylish simplicity of this triumph of British industrial design proved immensely popular.

1. S. Moore: ‘Grey houses, Spam fritters: Terence Conran saved Britain from so much’, Guardian (14th September 2010), available at, accessed 16th September 2020.