Conran biographer hits back at critic

Marianne Macdonald reports on the latest round in the feud between two design gurus fuelled by 'monster' claim

The author of a controversial new biography of Sir Terence Conran yesterday defended his book against claims that he had portrayed the founder of the Habitat group and high-profile restaurateur as "a monster".

The allegations were made by Sir Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, in a review of Terence Conran: The Authorised Biography by Nicholas Ind, a 36-year-old design consultant.

In the latest salvo in a feud between the design gurus which dates back two decades, Sir Roy's review for the Sunday Times claimed that the book described Sir Terence, 63, as tactless, abrasive, bullying, misogynistic, ambitious and egotistical.

Sir Terence's treatment of his three wives and relationships with his children had rendered his family life "one long tragedy", Sir Roy wrote, saying he clearly had little interest in life beyond doing business. "Everything seems to have been deliberately sacrificed to that end, including those human values which set man apart from the beasts."

Yesterday, however, Mr Ind said Sir Roy had picked out all the negative points in his book and ignored all the positive. "The first paragraph in my biography pointed out that Terence Conran was a complex mixture of opposites. It said he was tactless and abrasive but charming and passionate, that he loved women but could also be misogynistic, and that he was ambitious but little interested in money.

"Roy Strong took that balance out and emphasised the negatives at the expense of the positive things. He could equally well have done the opposite and made the whole review sound totally sugary."

His view was supported by Tom Conran, Sir Terence's 31-year-old son who recently opened a pub-restaurant, The Cow, in Notting Hill Gate, west London. "Roy Strong's review was a bit vindictive. I thought it was taking every negative part in the book and putting it all together with a little bit of spice," he said.

Sir Terence's other children, Sophie, Sebastian and Jasper, have also defended their father.

The feud between Strong and Conran - the former representing the classical values of design and the latter the appeal of the new - dates from 1976, when Sir Roy analysed the Habitat catalogue for that year.

In his article for Design Magazine, he observed that the model on the catalogue's cover looked like a "1940s tart" and that the range of furniture pictured inside was fit only for a "Hendon semi".

Sir Terence wrote back that while he was flattered Strong thought his catalogue worthy of a sociological dissertation, "we are simply trying to satisfy the desire of many of our customers for comfortable furniture".

The two clashed again when Sir Terence decided to found a design museum called The Boilerhouse, which was set up in 1981 at the V&A (now reinvented as the Design Museum in Sir Terence's development at Butlers Wharf, south of Tower Bridge).

Sir Roy appears to have disliked Sir Terence's views on design, while Sir Terence in his turn thought him old fashioned - and suggested at one point that Strong should be stuffed and exhibited in a case at the V&A museum.

Mr Ind himself came close to alienating Sir Terence with the biography, although it was written with the subject's approval throughout. It charts not only Conran's career but his three failed marriages - his second wife was Shirley Conran, author of Superwoman and Lace - and his patchy relationships with his children.

Conran was particularly hurt by the comments in the work by his sister Priscilla, who said that Sir Terence and Shirley's treatment of their children was "appalling", and a rueful disclaimer by him in the front of the book admits: "I now realise that to allow your biography to be written while you are still alive is very foolish and egotistical."

SIR TERENCE CONRAN

Aged 63, he became Britain's modern design guru after launching Habitat in 1964, which sold stylish and unfussy furniture at affordable prices. He bought the Mothercare chain in 1981 but was forced out of what became his Storehouse conglomerate five years ago, when he refused to become an impotent figurehead after bringing in Michael Julian as chief executive. Since then he has opened the upmarket London restaurants Pont de la Tour and Quaglino's and remains chairman of The Conran Stores. Yesterday he was on holiday in France and unavailable for comment.

SIR ROY STRONG

Aged 59, he has worked as a writer, historian and organiser of exhibitions in addition to his museum career. He was applauded for his work at the V&A during his 13-year directorship, which ended in 1987, and he was always a distinctive figure because of his stylish dress and opinionated views. He has recently devoted more time to journalism, and three years ago wrote and presented a television series on royal gardens. Sir Roy could not be contacted for comment yesterday, but is reported as saying in yesterday's Sunday Times that he did not wish to explain his review.

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