On the road to Bibendum

Jonathan Glancey eavesdrops on the recent row over the Terence Conran biography; Terence Conran by Nicholas Ind Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Of course it's not true, but it would be more than pleasing to learn that Sir Roy Strong had been bribed (a small Uccello, perhaps) to write his vitriolic attack on Sir Terence Conran in the Sunday Times. After all, the occasion for Strong's sally was the publication of this rather pedestrian official biography of Sir Tel that offers the reader nothing about the man behind Habitat, Bibendum, Quags and the Design Museum than those with a passing knowledge of the design world do not already know.

Sir Woy insisted that Terence (Conran is known as Terence, by biographer, children, friends and foes alike) is a bully and a beast, unredeemed by the usual saving graces such as kindness to animals. Woy's attack chivvied the Conran lobby out of its well-designed lair like a seething of rabid stoats. The Conran brood, including two talented designers (Sebastian and Jasper) and a restaurateur (Tom) rallied to their father's defence as did such well-seasoned PRs as Stephen "Cheshire Cat" Bayley, who once ran the Boilerhouse Project in the basement of the V & A, under the tutelage of, surprise, surprise, both Terence and Woy.

All this exposure for a self-authorised biography is somewhat rum. For the book, apart from telling us nothing new, has none of the spice that made, for example, Fiona McCarthy's sensational Eighties' biography of Eric Gill (sculptor, letterer, priapean) such a rich and sticky read. The life of Terence Orby Conran, if cleaner, is far from uninteresting. Terence has, as you will hear repeated ad tedium (but justly so), done more to promote what we call "good" design in this land of visual philistines than almost anyone since Frank Pick (legendary chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board and greatest of all patrons of public art and design).

A biography of Conran might work best if it were picture-led rather than word-driven. After all, Conran's life has been one long obsession with the way things look, from the butterfly collections of his introspective youth to the Conran Shop of today. The best parts of the book are the photographs showing Terence changing the cut of his jib to match the rising and ebbing tides of his personal fortune. In one picture, from the mid- Fifties, we see Tel and Shirley, his second wife, at home and looking for all the world like a couple of prototype Yuppies.

The best chapter is the first, about Terence's background and childhood, although Ind does that tedious thing of inspecting the family bloodline, so we hear about the ancient Irish O'Conrans before getting on to the good bits when, for example, young Terence smacks Von Ribbentrop's son across his square head on the beach during a discussion of (one imagines) who has the best designed uniforms in the forthcoming world war. And how interesting to discover that a man with such a keen eye for design can barely see out of one of his, the result of an accident, Ind tells us, with Terence's first lathe.

The publishers of the Ind biography are lucky indeed. They have, with a little help from Woy, got more publicity for this book than it deserves. It is hard (though wrong) not to think this was more by good design than accident.