Whether you regard Sir Terence Conran as an ambitious visionary or a restless control freak, the fact is that this 73-year-old English designer and “lifestyle guru” stays forever busy. He designs chairs, sofas and vases; restaurants, bars and cafes; apartment rooms and hotels. He consults, he lectures and he spends a lot of time thinking about design’s place in our lives.
After studying at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, Conran joined the Rayon Centre as a full-time industrial designer in 1950. Two years later, at age 21, he set up his own furniture-making business, which was the starting point of his career. In 1964 he opened the first Habitat store on Fulham Road in London and began offering an array of affordable modern design products to customers in postwar Britain.
Then, in the 1980s, his horizons as a “lifestyle guru” expanded further when he ventured into the restaurant business, over which he has since come to have a tremendous influence on the London scene and beyond.
Celebrated as someone who democratized design by making it more accessible and affordable, Conran was awarded a knighthood in 1983 for his contribution to the design and retailing industry.
Ten years ago, Conran launched the first Conran Shop in Shinjuku Park Tower in Tokyo. While the items sold in this and the other two he has since opened — in the Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station, and one in Fukuoka — are more up-market than those in Habitat, each is an elegant blend of form and function.
The designer’s presence in Japan will expand further in 2006 when his company, Conran Restaurants Ltd. — in a joint venture with restaurant company Hiramatsu Inc. — will open the first of what are being dubbed his “Modern British” restaurants in Tokyo.
Conran was recently in Tokyo on a three-day visit and, as usual, his time was fully booked. In addition to announcing his new restaurant venture, he met with many Japanese in the design business and took part in events for Tokyo Designer’s Week.
Despite his hectic schedule, he seemed to be comfortable and relaxed here, speaking casually and cheerfully with many people. For this interview, held in his Park Hyatt suite overlooking central Tokyo, the guru was dressed in his trademark bright blue shirt and dark suit. He spoke slowly and chose his words carefully as he conveyed his unswerving confidence in the potential of design and his role as a designer.
You started off as a furniture designer. How did you become a “lifestyle guru”?
Well, the U.K., rather like Japan, at the end of the war was a very gray, battered place. Nobody had any fun. It was a pretty depressed society, with a lot of damage from the war. I was lucky enough to go off with a friend of mine [a Conde Nast magazine photographer] on a trip around France. I went to a lot of rural areas of France where life seemed to be very much happier.
I looked at their markets, looked at their shops where they bought plates, coffee machines, pots and pans. You know, everything was quite simple and rather functional. And this had a great effect on me as a designer.
I thought, “Why can’t I find these things at home?” Inspired by that trip, I started to realize that if I could put together a sort of a big collection of these simple things that everybody needs and bring color into them, bring comfort into them, put them all together — this was my first Habitat shop. It would signify a style of life, if you like, that I believed at that time young people in England would like to live — and they did.
There was a huge change after the war. For the first time, young people wanted to get away from their parents. They wanted to go and live by themselves. They wanted to have their own place, their own home. For the first time as well, they were earning a bit of money by themselves. They listened to Beatles music. Ate different sorts of food. Also at that time, they were getting to go abroad on foreign holidays. People wanted to live a different sort of life.
To me, my sort of design doesn’t fall into “Oh, I am a furniture designer and therefore I only design furniture.” I design everything to do with people’s lives, whether it is restaurants they eat in, hotels they stay in and things that they buy for their homes. Everything that surrounds people. Because, all of this, all these little components, add up to a style of life.
Can you see nationality in design?
Well, it’s interesting. I’ve just done a book which is now publishing, and in it, many of the designers say, “Oh, no, we are not interested in nationality.” Most of them say, “We are not interested in it. It doesn’t matter to us.”
And yet, a few years ago we had an exhibition at the Design Museum [in London] of what was called “National Characteristics.” And we took about 10 different nations — American, German, French, Japanese, English, Swedish and so on. And it was absolutely clear that there was still a national characteristic. And I think it is terribly important. I hope that it isn’t annihilated from people’s DNA. I think it very important that we do keep these qualities of difference. Don’t do on purpose. Just do it naturally.
Do you use the same guidelines when you design a chair, restaurants or hotels in any country? Do you ever find that your principles would not work in another country?
I hope that we never have a global style, so when I come to Japan I don’t see anything that I feel is Japanese, or Japanese people come to England they don’t see something that seems to be connected to that country. I mean I think the Coca-Cola, McDonald’s sort of globalization is such a bad thing for the world. It’s just sort of everywhere; there is nothing special about it.
But to answer your question more specifically, [my company] would always think very carefully, and we do a lot of study and thought if we are say, designing in Japan, to bring some of our own knowledge but to shape it so that it’s right for the Japanese market. We did a hotel for Niki Club [in Nasu, Tochigi Prefecture], and I think everybody would say when they went to this little hotel in the country, “Ahh, it’s got the real feeling of Japan. And yes, it’s got some sort of European qualities about it.”
We always study. If we are doing restaurants in Japan, certainly we bring our own ideas, but we always study the market. We have altogether 54 different restaurants, bars, clubs and cafes. Each one is different, because we have studied the area that it is going into, thought about people in that area, thought about the type of atmosphere they might like. And if we were working in another country, we always think about people who are going to use the product and the space we designed. It is not just a cookie-cutter, like, you know, “We are Conran and Partners and we design the same thing everywhere we go.”
When catering to the mass market, how do you avoid losing sight of aesthetics?
Well. My definition of intelligent design is 98 percent common sense and 2 percent aesthetics.
You can design something that works very well and is perfectly good. That glass [he picks up a drinking glass from a table], for instance: Perfectly nice glass, nothing wrong with it, works well, cheaply produced. But it doesn’t give you that extra 2 percent. It hasn’t got that magic ingredient in it that makes you say, “Ah, that is a very beautiful glass.”
A really good designer would be able to take this glass and make something about it that makes you say, “Ah, that’s a really lovely glass.” Do you see? I mean, a small twist that just can take a perfectly ordinary object that’s full of common sense and just make it special.
Why do you use the phrase “intelligent design?”
Intelligence comes from knowledge. Intelligence comes from experience. Intelligence, of course, comes from education. Great Britain was never noted as a particularly creative nation, but it had a huge number of art and design schools. And these art and design schools not only trained architects, designers, potters, artists and crafts people, but they also inspired people to go into the music industry such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Many other sorts of musical innovators have come from design schools. That’s because what you were taught in those schools was how can you change people’s lives. Some of them did it by design, designing furniture, cars or whatever.
Perhaps, the finest example, of course, of bringing intelligence to design is what happened in Bauhaus in Germany in the 1930s. That was the school that really changed things. One of the things they said then was, “Why should intelligent design only be for rich people? Why shouldn’t everybody have things that are intelligently designed?”
Twenty years from now, do you think the principles of intelligent design will be the same?
I think so, because there are so many more people now who are interested in design. So many more people are being trained as designers. So many more people are talking about design.
We also have to go back to reassess some of the designs that we produced in the previous generations. In America, for instance, there were designers in the late ’40s, early ’50s, people like Charles Eames and [Eero] Saarinen. They never really inspired the mass market at that time because they were quite expensive. They never reached shops. They never really got into the public’s eye. [Customers] thought “too modern for me” or “too expensive.”
But suddenly, those designs are being remanufactured today at prices that ordinary people can afford. Suddenly the qualities of these designs are being recognized by more and more people because retailers like ourselves put them on the high street for people to look at, put them in front of you. To begin with, you may say, “Oh, not for me,” and you go back and look a second time and you say, “Well, perhaps.” Then you buy it!
People can’t buy what they are not offered. It is really a retailer’s job to make intelligent design available, putting it in front of people so it can change their opinion. More, more, more retailers are doing this, that’s why tastes are changing so rapidly in home furnishing at the moment.
This year is the 10-year anniversary of the first Conran Shop in Japan. How do you view the past 10 years?
Well, I think there has been a huge amount of change in Japan in this last 10 years. If I get back a bit further, I’ve been coming to Japan for 30 years. When I first came, there were very few people who were interested in design. I’ve seen this gradually increase over this period, but over this last 10 years there has been an enormous increase in fascination with design and how it can improve the quality of people’s lives.
Here, the British Embassy is taking part in the Tokyo Designer’s Week, and this wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. So it’s indicative, I think, that Britain should have encouraged a lot of designers, put exhibitions on of what we are doing in the U.K. to demonstrate to people in Japan that we also have very energetic, creative industries.
In 2001, the British government did an analysis of what the creative industries added to the economy of London. And at that time — this is just London — it was valued at £21 billion a year. It is developing so rapidly and in the next survey that will be done in 2006, they estimate that the figure will be £32 billion a year. When I said creative industries, it isn’t just design — it’s architecture as well, it’s music, it’s writing software, it’s theater. In other words, all our creative industries are second only to the financial industries in contributing this huge income to London.
I think other nations have realized how important this is, and I see here in Japan also this increasing interest in creativity and how important it is to the economy of the country.
How do you think the Japanese people’s views toward design have changed?
One of your problems in Japan is, of course, that you give each other so many presents. And because you give these presents, your homes become absolutely filled with the presents that you’ve been given. So one of the important things, something which I said on the television program I made for Japan, was, “Take all the things out of your house. Put them in the backyard, put them on the driveway. Pay attention to the inside frame of your house, to your walls, to your floor, to your ceilings. . . . Then take back those things from your backyard that you really need or you really love. And you will be very surprised how much you could get rid of. We have too many things . . .
It is really interesting that the very first industrial designers in England were inspired in 1880 by coming to Japan. They saw simplicity, rational design that inspired them in their work. They brought the ideas back to Europe, and they really started the modern movement in design.
What would you like to be remembered for?
It’s quite interesting. The things I designed are plain, simple and useful. And they are not sort of great stylish objects. My things are a sort that slip into ordinary life and people don’t even say, “Oh [whispering], that was a design by Terence Conran.”
Well, I would like people to say, he made a different style of life available to us. He put things in front of us, he put ideas in front of us. He put shops in front of us, filled with different things. He put restaurants in front of us that had a different atmosphere. He designed hotels that were a bit differently designed buildings.
I am not trying to hit people over the head and say you’ve got to have something completely different. I mean, take our [special edition of Nissan's] Cube car. It’s a very interesting thing. We did a new interior for it and changed something outside. . . . Nothing very radical, but it was a big change.