SIR TERENCE CONRAN IS A MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY THE WORLD THINKS ABOUT DESIGN. AND HE WANTS TO DO IT AGAIN.Caroline Davies HEARS HIS SAGE WORDS AT THE UNVEILING OF LONDON’S SPECTACULAR NEW DESIGN MUSEUM PROJECT
Terence Conran’s influence on design and culture is astonishing. An independent designer from the age of 21, in 60 years Conran and his work have affected the way we shop, decorate, eat and live, but he is still working to leave his mark.
Conran is as active as he has ever been during the past six decades, and his latest project is, he says, one of the most exciting yet. “This to me is really one of the most fantastic days of my rather long life,” he says. “We have the next three years to fulfil our ambition to make this the very best design museum in the world,” he says. “Every city wants a design museum it seems these days, but this is where creative Britain should lead.”
He is speaking at the groundbreaking of Britain’s spectacular new Design Museum, which will be an institution that showcases every type of design from around the world. It will be located on the site of the former Commonwealth Institute in one of London’s wealthiest areas, replacing the boutique site occupied by the current Design Museum.
There are few individuals better placed to lead the project. He is a “serial entrepreneur” whose career has seen him build and establish an architectural practice, a design company and a series of restaurants. Habitat, his furniture store that brought sharply designed furniture to the masses, was the first to introduce Britain to sharp contemporary design with wit and genuine creativity. Wondering how the average CEO’s office morphed from dark oak panels and antiques to minimalist whites, glass and an Alessandro Mendini chair? Conran’s influence influenced those who changed the world.
His first restaurant, “Soup Kitchen” was just the second spot in London to boast an espresso machine and his subsequent projects have been credited with popularising fine dining in the UK: his designs made him a restaurant king in the 1990s. And before that his designs for Mary Quant’s stores altered all expectations for the shop floor. Although Conran’s main projects have been in the UK, his mission to deformalize design and make creativity available to every stratum of society have had a profound effect on every element of design around the world. Spurred on by his belief that good design should be democratised and celebrated, he founded the Design Museum, firstly in the Victoria and Albert Museum then in its current location in Bermondsey, South London. Gaining credibility and more crucially funding for the project was not an easy process and Conran semi-affectionately refers to the period as their, “guerrilla time in the absolutely terrible old boiler house.”
“Getting this particular site was absolutely brilliant,” says Conran. “It is a very important symbol and marker. Here we have this building from the 1960s an extraordinary structure, sadly sat here for the last 12 years unused.” Soon to be part of the museum hub of Kensington, joining the V&A and the Royal College and Imperial College, the museum is due for completion in 2014. Despite his passion and ongoing energy for design, Conran does not seem quite as robust as he once was. In his usual blue suit with red cheeks, he moves slowly and rather gingerly, hunched over the microphone, carefully stating his message. His increasing years seem to make him even more determined that the public, and crucially the government, should listen.
“We must start to make things again,” he says determinedly. “If you can put designers together with entrepreneurs together with engineers we can make beautiful and useful things again in this country that the world will want. I think it just needs a push from government to make this new collaboration of entrepreneurs, designers, engineers to start another industrial revolution.”
The distant beep of an articulated lorry begins in the background.
“I hope government sees it and sees that construction is underway,” says Conran, smiling. “We are going to make a rather large hole.”