Obituary: Oliver Gregory
Wednesday 13 January 1993
I met Oliver when Terence Conran 'apprenticed' me to him after I joined the Conran Design firm in the early Sixties just at a time when the 'style Habitat' was beginning to emerge from the Conran firm. That seemingly effortless combination of old and new things together, natural materials and good colours set within a simple white envelope, became the Conran trademark. But this stylistic idea with its Nordic origins brought to life by English wit, informality and eclecticism was lassoed by Oliver, who made it his very own.
Over the years he and Terence Conran refined this approach until, embodied in the Habitat chain, it became the principal decorative theme of the 1960s and 1970s, influencing middle-class interiors from Islington to the Wirral. Oliver also worked this style into a raft of commercial projects, both here and overseas. It was an approach that came naturally to him, because of his craft rather than academic background. Good-looking, well-made things were always more important to Oliver than ideas per se.
Again, because of his practical training, he was a tireless and successful organiser of projects on site. A skilled craftsman in his own right, and the possessor of a truly remarkable collection of tools which he housed in a workshop that had more style to it than the entire portfolio of many of his competitors. Secure in his own craft abilities, he did not always endear himself to that body of pseudo-craftsmen who would attempt to fashion his interiors with a claw hammer and pump screwdriver. But his innate respect for craftspeople always won through in the end and another simple interior would be added to an already considerable portfolio of work.
He was my early mentor and a good friend. At work he was demanding and organised. After work and between his marriages he and I would career around the minor fleshpots of west London causing mayhem. His ability to get us out of the most awful scrapes was Houdini-like. All his friends suffered his wicked, sometimes cruel, sense of humour, kindness and loyalty in equal measure.
Recent years were not always kind to Oliver Gregory. Work became harder and harder to find as his approach seemed to fall from favour, when a new breed of younger designers sought to create a different British style. Habitat was not the force it once was, the recession brought its own problems and he found this forced inactivity frustrating. But his professional legacy will be assured by a strong body of work and a design culture that upon reassessment will be found to be original and enduring.
Never a great joiner, not always comfortable in a gathering of his peers, he always resisted my attempts to engage him with the wider design community. Partly I think because he was unnaturally reticent about his work but essentially because he was for all his largeness a very private person. Oliver was however a wonderful family man. He virtually made his home in Wiltshire with his own hands, was devoted to his wife Sue and a terrific father to his children and stepchildren.
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