There is a charming irony to Sir Terence Conran’s account of the day he finally got to meet his design hero, Eileen Gray when she attended a London exhibition of her own work, organised by Conran.
“If I had to say who was my favourite designer in the world she is certainly in my top four or five. I have a photograph of her as a young girl in Ireland in my office on the wall. But it is always difficult, especially with someone really old; I remember when I met her she was finding it quite difficult to suddenly be put in the spotlight,” he says.
At 78, Conran too is beginning to show signs of his own frailty - he speaks in a slow, deliberate manner, takes plenty of long pauses and short steps; his back gives him trouble. The day in question, he admitted, was “turning out to feel like a very long one.” Unlike the reclusive Gray, however, he is well-versed in media and industry attention. Last week, the design guru was thrust into the spotlight for the opening of The Conran Shop at Arnott’s department store in Dublin, where he attended business meetings, sat for press interviews, posed for photos, gave a speech, conducted the raffle and then spent almost an hour signing copies of his various books for a long queue of fans.
Although a full twenty years younger than Gray was at the time of her demise, Conran is anything but unappreciated in his own time. He opened the first Habitat shop in London in the mid-1960s, and is credited with bringing quality home design to the masses, allowing those who didn’t know their Eames from their elbow to dare to purchase good design. Knighted in 1983, he also set up Heals, Mothercare, Next and saw Habitat become an international franchise. He runs a series of successful restaurants and hotels, and his empire is worth an estimated £95m to him and his talent-rich family. Conran is, quite literally, a household name. It is said that there isn’t a middle-class household in the United Kingdom that hasn’t been in some way ‘Conranned’.
Now, he has chosen Ireland as only the fifth country in the world in which to locate his eponymously-titled design shop – the others are in London, New York, Paris and Japan.
“Being a bit Irish myself I have always loved Dublin and the energy of the city. On my father’s side, I have Irish ancestors from the Co Cork area, who I believe eventually left for Australia to dig up gold,” he says.
Conran acted as an advisor to Kilkenny Design in its early days, and he executed the chic interior design scheme for U2’s Clarence Hotel, and later the Fitzwilliam Hotel. “I know Bono and the Edge quite well. My wife grew up here in Ireland and she used to work for Bono in the South of France, so there are all these connections,” he says.
Conran is the main name associated with a definition of what modern British design is: for him, this is defined by clean simple lines, strong colour and quality materials. However, when it comes to a definition of an Irish design scene, Conran is at a bit of a loss – with one notable exception, of course.
“Eileen Gray, a hero for design. That’s who Irish designers should follow,” he says. He speaks with some regret about having lost the chance to purchase Gray’s entire catalogue of work from her niece, a painter called Sandra Blow. “She offered it to let us have it at the Design Museum when we first started. We hadn’t enough space so we turned them down, and said we would come back in five years. But within five years, Eileen had died and the archive disappeared. I’m glad to hear it is happily back in Ireland, which is where it should be,” he says.
“I think you can see Irish style in early engineering, in steam locomotives and agricultural equipment. Plain, simple and useful is how I would optimistically describe Irish style, always connected in some way to the soil.
“Unfortunately I don’t think Ireland has any very notable design schools. It has good architecture and certainly excellent architects, so if the Irish are going to create a style of their own, I feel that it will be in architecture, and not in industrial design,” says Conran, who is Provost of the Royal College of Art in London. “Of course, you also have wonderful artists.”
Conran and the artist Francis Bacon were good friends from the early days in swinging London.
“There was always £3,000 in fifty pound notes on his mantelpiece of his studio, ready to go out gambling. I remember once he stayed in the country with us the year before he died, so he was going a bit gaga. We had just had a very good meal and he had consumed probably a magnum of excellent claret and gone to sleep at the table. He woke up suddenly and said to my wife, ‘send the bill to the gallery!’ and then he reached into his pocket and turned to one of my young children who was walking behind him, and said: ‘there you go boy,’ handing him a ten pound note. He really thought he was in a restaurant. He was always very generous.”
Conran remembers Bacon as “the most intelligent man when he was sober, which wasn’t that frequent. He was filled with knowledge, he knew everything about design, Bauhaus furniture and all that.”
Bacon lived in Kensington, near the first Conran Shop, and often ate at Bibendum, Conran’s restaurant, with the writer Elizabeth David. “He came into the Conran Shop one day and bought a whole window full of furniture. He had set up with some young man down in Essex and bought all this furniture for the young man’s apartment. One of the pieces was a big ash dining table I made called S12,”he says.
As well as a product and interior designer, Conran is the author of over 30 books, including two written with Diarmuid Gavin.
His latest, the Eco House Book, is a practical guide to sustainable, green interior design, about which the designer is passionate. So passionate, in fact, that he made sure to send a copy each to Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy prior to the forthcoming UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. The White House has yet to acknowledge receipt of the book, although Conran adds, “I suspect Michelle will have nabbed it,” and he hopes the first lady may use it to make a convincing eco-argument to her husband before world leaders attempt to thrash out a deal on global climate change next week. Meanwhile, Conran paid a visit in person to Number 10 last week, where he noticed the book on a table next to the prime minister’s desk.
“He said to me, ‘this is the most useful book, especially at this time. God, I hope I can convince Obama, if we cannot convince Obama, then the rest of the world will have a reason not to sign.’ I do hope it has convinced Brown, and that he wasn’t just saying that as a matter of courtesy.”