Sir Terence Conran is the high priest of abundance - and he has achieved it. But success, he now admits, may have 'impacted in a negative way' on his personal life
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NOW HERE'S the thing: Sir Terence Conran does not like publicity, not at any rate the sort of publicity that dwells on his three former wives, his relations with his children and business partners and the occasional lapse in his marriage vows. On the whole, he prefers the sort of coverage that draws attention to his virtues as a designer, his vision, his powers of realisation and the many delights to be found in his ever more numerous restaurants around town.

This is by no means an exceptional stance. Most people cannot bear the sort of focus that has been placed on Hugh Grant these past weeks, nor even the comparative trickle of personal comment that Sir Terence has attracted in his career as the great panjandrum of British design. So why is Sir Terence now sitting in front of me on a canopied balcony overlooking the inlet of Butler's Wharf on the Thames, in London, talking about his religious beliefs, his happiness (or the lack of it) and his regrets, when he could be employed less stressfully and much more remuneratively on the design of new Conran shops, or guest-editing an edition of Elle Deco?

He looks a good deal more vulnerable than I had expected, far from the tormenting bully one has heard about. He's also smaller, and has less presence, than I had anticipated. Still, he looks the picture of prosperity - an unopened pink rosebud in his lapel, a dormant cigar in his hand and a maid on hand with a supernatural ability to deliver tea to your side without your noticing. Five storeys below, a boat especially designed to scoop up flotsam from the river is cleaning up Butler's Wharf. "We rang to ask if someone would come and do something about the mess, and then this boat arrived... Not bad," says Sir Terence, who, in a rather Teutonic way, likes things to work - his famous losses of temper have always been in response to objects, offices, and designs that haven't functioned properly. Some say that he expects people to be as reliable and efficient as machines, and he does have the reputation of being monstrously demanding, although inspiring too, if you can take the pace. He was perfectly amiable to me, but I couldn't work out whether he was just being polite or whether there had been a genuine mellowing of the man. If there has been, it might not be great news for his businesses; he didn't strike me as being very articulate, and so I came to the conclusion that his achievements must be the result of force of character and a very considerable drive to prove himself right.

He was wheezing a little from the climb upstairs from his offices to his extraordinary apartment - easily the most attractive that I have ever seen. I asked him whether he ever got tired, thought of taking things a little easier. After all, he is 63 years old, has shops in France and Japan as well as England, a design practice, homes for practically every day of the week, and restaurants in constant need of his eye for detail and efficiency. "Sometimes I do get physically tired," he tells me. "Like yesterday: I spent a day wandering through an eight-storey building under construction in Paris. Heat and dust and so forth. Then, coming back on the train last night, I felt 'Phew! Thank God that's over!' " He collapses forward as if resting his head on the Eurostar table. For a moment, his frailty embarrasses me.

Sir Terence clearly has no need of publicity, but he has manfully agreed to help promote a new biography of himself by Nicholas Ind. Nothing strange in that, except that Terence Conran: The Authorised Biography (Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 25) is full of precisely the sort of revelations that make him shudder. His tendency to bully his colleagues, his difficulties with the business of emotions, and the enormous "appetites" of his life are given a pretty fair airing by Mr Ind, which probably explains why a rather rueful disclaimer, signed by the subject, appears at the front of the book. "I now realise," it reads, "that to allow your biography to be written while you are still alive is both foolish and egotistical. Nevertheless, I do hope that my involvement in design, marketing, retailing and restaurants over many years may be of interest to budding entrepreneurs of all ages. Remember: nothing ventured, nothing gained!"

Actually, I have never agreed with this last cliche, particularly when it comes to publicity and the writing of biographies. It seems to me that there is always something to be gained by venturing nothing. In this case, I would suggest that if Sir Terence had not first begun to help Loyd Grossman with a biography, later cancelled by the publishers, and then agreed to assist Nicholas Ind, he would not now be answering for his character, causing people to exhume their prejudices about his smugness, lack of spiritual values, meanness, materialism, overweening self-assurance and greedy interest in the next meal. I found evidence of none of these. If anything, the opposite holds good; Conran is tentative about his judgements and generally rather hesitant, so much so that I sometimes have to lean forward to pick up what he is saying.

He is certainly not able to make matters much clearer on the business of publicity: "My personal life is my personal life and is private. But then... well, I remember Shirley [his second wife and the author of Superwoman and Lace] was fantastically keen on publicity of a personal nature, saying that we have got to show people what our home is like and be prepared to do personal interviews. Of course, she was right, because actually it did help the business."

Indeed, one remembers the photographs of the young and goodlooking Conrans with their children in the magazines of the Sixties, their house perfectly equipped with things that went together and worked and were functionally appealing. In among the robust egg-whips, stripped pine, chunky objects of continental utility and out-of-the-way olive oil containers it was plain that there was happiness and modern ease to be found. The trouble was that people wanted to know what lay behind such a public exhibition. They wanted to know whether in fact all these possessions assisted happiness: a conspicuous lifestyle invites further inspection.

That he has certainly got in Ind's book, which at one point says: "Terence would put up barriers to prevent Shirley and others getting close to him. This meant that Shirley didn't get the support she needed and it led to confrontations between them... Shirley eventually found that her personality was being eroded by Terence's need to lead and dominate in both business and private lives." It seems odd to authorise these sorts of assertions, and clearly he regrets them, but there is in the whole nature of his business and the way he has advanced his design for living an implication that he has to put up with it.

Reviewing his career, you come to realise what an extraordinary man he is: very continental in his eye, sense of form, tactile pleasure and gifts of arrangement, but utterly English in his reserve. His father, Rupert, was not a particularly successful businesman, but his mother, Christina, was obviously gifted. "She had extraordinary visual talent, and if she had been living in this age, when she would have been expected to go out to work, she would have been very like me or my sister Priscilla. It was my mother's enthusiams which started us off."

Sir Terence went first to a London day prep school, then, once war had broken out, to Highfield, near Liphook in Hampshire. "It was a high church school, a prep school for Eton where a classical bent was admired... Yes, they did think that if you did not possess that, you were stupid. They thought, he can go into the army or be an artist." Later, at Bryanston, Conran began to develop his talent for drawing, pottery and metalwork, but as great a clue to his future career was his fascination with collections of butterflies, beetles and wild flowers. Collecting is an interesting trait. It tends to be practised by solitary children - usually boys - and provides an enormous emotional satisfaction. It would be silly to say that it replaces the need for relationships, but it certainly appears in loners and sticklers for order, people who want to run part of the world in their own way.

To state that this precisely applies to Sir Terence would be presumptuous, but it is clear that a very strong part of his aesthetic derives from the amassing of similar objects. He likes a sense of plenty. When he first started Habitat, in 1964, he was convinced that the deep shelves should be filled with household objects which, in number, gained an appeal that they did not possess individually. In those walls of display, it's not difficult to see the cases of hawk moths, fritillaries and stag beetles of his youth.

His interest in nature was stimulated during the Second World War, when he found himself scampering around heathland. "It was a whole new habitat [yes, I was struck by the use of that word, too]. There was a mass of new and exciting wild flowers and moths," he says, his eyes, rather charmingly, widening with excitement. He still loves the countryside, but his interest in collections has gone; or perhaps it might be said to have moved on to other things: the acquisition of restaurants, houses, cottages and converted barns - and, in the Eighties, the companies which, with Habitat, were welded together in the Storehouse conglomerate.

It had been Conran's great dream to run a large group of stores, and this was his chance of permanently changing British retailing culture. It nearly did for him. His judgement was clouded - although he is the last to admit it - both by the feverishly acquisitive culture of the Eighties and by the conviction that management mattered less than assets. He bought Selim Zilkha's Mothercare chain first, in 1981, and, in five years, increased the turnover of the Conran businesses from pounds 67m to pounds 447m. Then, in January 1986, he merged with British Home Stores in a deal worth pounds 1.2bn. Turnover increased to pounds 1bn per annum.

All very good, except that he was suddenly head of a vast corporation employing 33,000 people, people moreover from entirely different businesses. He had no experience of this, and could not adjust to the time lag between command and action. He brought in Michael Julian as chief executive at Storehouse, but relations soon soured. Conran left the company - and thus Habitat - in 1990, having refused to take on the role of impotent figurehead. "I don't feel bitterness about these things," he says. "Life's too short. I chose Michael, who is an admirable man in many ways, but at the end of the day he and I just did not seem to be sharing the same sort of vision."

At bottom, his vision and his business life have been about the marketing of good design to the mass market, not always easy in a country where people love tradition and are vaguely suspicious of an object which proclaims its functional virtues. Obvious design seems to prompt in us a sort of Calvinist worry about materialism, which perhaps has something to do with British doubts about display and showing off. This was much more acutely the case in 1948, when Conran studied at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, emerging a year later to a very drab world indeed. "There was no fun, no parties, no one had enough money to go out for a meal. You couldn't get your hands on anything. If you wanted to make furniture out of metal, you had to go and find a friendly foreman on a building site and acquire some reinforcing rods. If you wanted to print some material, you had to go to Bethnal Green Market and find somebody who had a bolt of white cloth which had no doubt fallen off the back of a lorry."

This scavenging, and the trick of adding value to cheap materials with original design, paid off in his business career. "In my early days I realised that it was all very well designing things that looked wonderful, but you have to sell them for more than it cost you to make them." The shortages of post-war Britain are also probably responsible for the delight that he takes in abundance - on the way into his duplex at Butler's Wharf, for instance, there is a vast table on which stand scores of differently shaped glass pots; clearly these are not displayed for sale, but for the pleasing effect of bounteousness.

As a young man Conran was attractive in a scrawny sort of way, with looks which have been reproduced more tidily in his son Jasper, the fashion designer. As Nicholas Ind reminds us - almost to fatiguing degree - he still has a sex drive to go with the good looks, and this is reciprocated by women. When, in the late Fifties, he gave evening lectures at the Central School of Art, he appeared precociously remote and was decribed thus in her diary by Min Hogg, the founding editor of The World of Interiors: "Had an incredible man to teach us, looks around 23, but has a string of wives and children already. We had to design kitchen unit... Terence Conran was his name."

Conran has been so much a part of British life for so long and has operated on such a large canvas that it is easy to forget the contribution that he has made. The founding of Habitat in the early Sixties was truly a revolution in retailing. Although we may mock the paper lanterns and brawny teapots today, there was a look to it all, a sense of emancipation that gave people the idea that for the first time they were being offered things they really wanted. It was a process of education as much as a meeting of demand - he told people how they should live, suggesting both a much greater informality in their lives, and that taking pleasure from the shape and feel of an object was not wrong.

This same hedonism was responsible for the success of his early restaurants; the Soup Kitchen, for instance, which was plainly designed by a man who wanted to create the sort of surroundings that he enjoyed. The shops sometimes seemed a little chilly to me, and suggested that if you set up a sort of Conran clone home you would end up like the couple in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle, living in proud but high-maintenance modernity. But this is a quibble; the main point is that Conran understood perfectly his own needs and therefore the needs of his generation.

All this is rather admirable, and was reflected in the way he behaved with me. Indeed, it is extremely hard to reconcile him with the portrait you take from his biography. He is relaxed, considerate, not at all the man who once said: "I use my temper to stir the blood of my designers. I like the idea of people thinking I am idiosyncratic, so that they can gossip behind my back. I hate the dull pattern of sanity."

Mind you, his family do not seem to have had much problem confirming that self-evaluation for the biography. His sister Priscilla recalled a merchandise meeting at which he exploded when she presented some bathroom fittings: "He said, 'How dare you present something that doesn't work' and laid into me for quarter of an hour." Jasper, his second son by Shirley, also contributed an account of what happened when he announced his decision to stay in New York to learn fashion design: "I presented him with a fait accompli. The reaction was one of cold fury because he hadn't been asked. He hadn't been asked because I was too frightened of him - he was a very powerful figure."

I ask Sir Terence whether he feels that this emphatic drive, this determination to have things just so, has caused him to regard some things as expendable.

"You mean," he says, "has it impacted my personal life in a negative way?"

"Yes," I reply. "And if so, do you regret it?"

"Yes, I do when I hear my children saying I was a lousy father. I regret it when my wife of 30 years leaves me because she thinks that I am not giving enough of time and life to her, I very much regret that. Yes, I do. I get on with them all now, three ex-wives. I get on well with my ex-girlfriends and children. I don't have personal animosity. A little with Shirley, but that is long past. I do think that if I was able to reorganise myself again I would find a way of putting more into my personal life than I have done."

Does he have many regrets? For instance, his failure to sell Storehouse to the late Tony Clegg of Mountleigh in 1987 , which would have probably netted him between pounds 145m and pounds l60m? "Tony was a very sweet man, but megalomania had gripped him in a very big way. He just wanted to break the whole thing up, just as Michael Julien did later. But I wanted to make it succeed. Anyway, Black Monday came along just at the moment he would have been going to his own shareholders to get permission to do the deal. It would never have happened." Maybe, but his own departure from Storehouse (coupled with the almost simultaneous collapse of his Butler's Wharf development into receivership) undoubtedly caused a crisis in his life. As Caroline Conran, his third wife, recalls: "Terence's leaving Storehouse devastated him. He bounced back from it in a way, but I think it changed his outlook on life and made him pessimistic." She should know, but publicly he appeared to move seamlessly from the chairmanship of a very large corporation back to his core passions - restaurants, shops and individual building projects. He says that he now has more work than he has ever had and wishes that it had somehow been distributed more evenly through his life. "I still get excited about it. Young designers and archictects are nonchalant about the jobs they're offered, but if someone comes along and asks me to design a shop or whatever, the pulse quickens - it's a wonderful feeling. And today I'm doing things in a much more pleasurable way. When you're building up a big public company, you have to make compromises and perhaps listen to opinions and go along with them when you don't really,in your heart, believe in them. Now I don't have to make those sort of compromises, and I am probably a good deal better off financially than at any time in my life."

Is he really content with this outcome? Perhaps, although a theme of Ind's biography is Conran's lack of self-analytic skills. I ask whether he is still disinclined to examine his motives. "Obviously there are a number of things that have caused me to go back and think: 'Why did I do this ?' I usually find it difficult because I forget so much. I'm obviously more interested in the future, and there doesn't seem much point in self-examination except to learn from the mistakes and successes."

What is clear is that he finds discussion about the loss of Habitat and the liquidation of Butler's Wharf irritating. He still believes that his vision for converting the area south of the Tower Bridge was absolutely right and hopes that the receivers will eventually complete it all. "On a day like this, I know I was right, when you see the restaurants filled with people, the Design Museum packed and people walking around in the sun - I know I was right."

Still, the very likeable part of him is that he is not self-pitying, although, of course, as a very rich man with some of the nicest homes and restaurants around to his name he has no very good cause to be. His companies are doing very well now; Conran is a smart businessman and friends say that he has not lost his meanness when it comes to a deal. The vast Quaglino's restaurant was launched in 1993, following on from the success of Bibendum and the Pont De La Tour, and there are other big restaurant schemes in hand. And there are the Conran shops: these are distinctly upmarket from Habitat - which is now owned by IKEA - and represent Conran's genius for assemblage and juxtaposition. There is altogether less emphasis on limitless supply, and more on the individual knick-knack, the single cute paper parasol from Bali.

According to Ind, Conran once said that the only two things worth living for were food and sex, and he has certainly indulged both to the limit of most people's ambitions. I wonder whether he has found any religious belief. "No, not really. Obviously I know that there are things in our lives, differences between good and evil, and things which control us that we don't understand. I happen to believe that man created God rather than the other way round."

Is he happy?

"Yes. There are always some regrets, but I am probably as happy now as I have ever been. In fact I am probably happier... I don't think much about it."

I leave him standing by his collection of glass jars, giving the photographer a hard time. I have seen a softer, more winning side, and I realise that I am little the wiser about his attitude to personal publicity - it seems to me that he doesn't at all mind talking about himself, as long as you accept his version of events.

I suppose that if you have spent so much time building up the best collection of hawk moths, you want people to pay attention. It may be foolish and egotistical, but it is also perfectly understandable. !