Terence Conran: Home is where the art is

Terence Conran's own designs and brilliant retailing of beautiful objects at Habitat and The Conran Shop have made post-war Britain a much more elegant and attractive place. So why is he now, at nearly 70, trying to de-accessorise his own life?
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The Independent Online

Sir Terence Conran will be 70 shortly and, to celebrate, he has brought out Q&A: A Sort Of Autobiography. Questions, in bold print, have been submitted by friends, family and associates, which he answers in plain print. He is, he says, against the usual kind of autobiography that is no more than "egotism on wheels" (which should not, I'd suggest, be confused with an imitation-teak warming cabinet on wheels, which is a hostess trolley, and sadly no longer in vogue). Anyway, what with this book, and the fact he's been such an exhaustive influence for such an exhaustive, much-interviewed period of time, it's hard to know what to ask him that is new. Except, perhaps:

"Can I have a discount?"

"I never bribe journalists."

"What if I promise to sleep with you?"

"As I said, I never bribe journalists."

"Now that we've met, and you know what I look like and have some measure of my personality, what if I promise to not sleep with you?"

He laughs into his orange juice – freshly squeezed, in an elegant, large-bowled, long-stemmed glass. I think we may be talking now. I think we may be talking at least 20 per cent off in all his Conran Shops and restaurants (Bibendum, Mezzo, Quaglino's, Bluebird...) I always knew my looks and personality would come up trumps one day.

So, what's new to say about Sir Terence? That, today, he is wearing a blue shirt? No. He always wears a blue shirt, only owns blue shirts. He is famously fond of cigars, you see, "and blue doesn't show the ash like white does". That he's prosperous-looking, ruddy-cheeked, portly in a nice, Pooh bear-ish kind of way, and people call him "Fatty"? Actually, I didn't know that. Fatty? Who dares call you "Fatty"? "I don't know exactly," he says cheerfully, "because they only do it behind my back." Do you mind? Not at all, he says, because "I am fat". Still, I think I will use the Q&A format, too. It'll save covering the same old ground. Plus, as anyone who has ever purchased a sagbag or chicken brick well knows, if it's good enough for Sir Terence, then it is certainly good enough for everyone else. However, perhaps just a few details to set us up. Although please feel free to skip.

Sir Terence Conran has been shaping our tastes ever since 1964 when he first set up Habitat, which not only put decent design on the high street, but also grew into a chain, then an empire. Indeed, in the 1980s, he was chairman of the unwieldy Storehouse group, which included Bhs, Mothercare, Heal's, Habitat, The Conran Shop, Richard Shops, and much else besides. Sadly, it ended in tears, with Sir Terence unable to get his vision across. "Can a successful business ever be properly democratic? No, because it must rely on the single vision and philosophy of one person."

Eventually, he withdrew, losing Habitat (now owned by IKEA), but buying back The Conran Shop, and reinventing himself as a millionaire restaurateur. On the personal front, he is on his fourth wife, Vicky, after three failed marriages, most famously to Shirley, the literary giant, and Caroline, the cookery writer who, on their 30th wedding anniversary, upped and left, and then proceeded to win a £10.5m divorce settlement. He has five children, two by Shirley (Sebastian and Jasper) and three by Caroline (Tom, Ned and Sophie).

Now, what else? Oh yes, where we meet. We meet, initially, at the Fulham Road branch of The Conran Shop, where he's hosting a breakfast press briefing to launch "Plain, Simple and Useful", an in-shop exhibition featuring 200 of his designs – his 1952 cone, cane chair plus more recent creations, such as the gorgeously scalloped, white "4 Circles" dining table which, I fear, is way beyond my budget, even with the 20 per cent off. It's hard to talk here, though, what with all the smart, World of Interiors people, elegantly dipping teeny little toast soldiers into soft-boiled eggs – elegantly! How do they do it so elegantly? – plus the team over from the Japanese edition of Elle Decoration, who are going typically mad with their cameras. Clickety click! Clickety click!

In the end, I share his car when he returns to his head office at Butlers Wharf, south of the river, taking in a few landmarks along the way. So, vroom, vroom. Off we go. A conversation on wheels. But not, alas, an imitation-teak warming cabinet. Still, they'll come back into fashion one day. Everything eventually does. Except for Sir Terence. Who, amazingly, has never gone out of fashion enough to ever come back in.

What was Habitat's first bestseller? "The wok. We bought the wok in before anyone else was selling them. And then the duvet."

Where were you when you came up with the name of Habitat? "I was sitting with a woman called Pagan Taylor, the wife of an architect I knew, in her flat in Cadogan Square, and I said: 'Pagan, get out Roget's Thesaurus, look up home and read out what it says.' So she read it out and when it came to habitat, I said stop, that's it. Habitat."

Does it break your heart, not owning the Habitat chain anymore? "I have mixed feelings. Tom Dixon, the design director, is very, very good. The designers are very, very good. But it breaks my heart because they don't know anything about retailing. The atmosphere isn't welcoming. The last catalogue was just grungy. The last catalogue made a YMCA room look charming and glamorous."

Are you a fan of Habitat's new owners, IKEA? "Yes. Absolutely. Bringing good design to the mass market is what I tried to do at Habitat but, as I can see now, I barely scratched the surface. I softened the ground for IKEA, but they made it happen."

Yes, but have you ever navigated a ring road, been to a store, tackled the "warehouse", assembled the sodding things? Do you actually own any IKEA?

"Well... um... no, but certainly, I know that... Sean [Sutcliffe, who runs Benchmark, Terence's furniture-manufacturing company] bought furniture for his children's rooms from IKEA, and I know he was thrilled with it. Very well made, he said, as well as very cheap."

What do you remember of 1950s interiors? "Shagpile. Bright orange nylon fake fur."

What objects today could you not bear to live with? "Um... Shirley?"

At this, the car pulls up outside the Knightsbridge branch of Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing company that has just arrived in the UK. Sir Terence – via his architectural firm, Conran & Partners – has designed the shop's interiors. So, shall we have a quick look? In we go. The inside is quite industrial, with lots of stainless-steel shelving. "Nothing too clever. Nothing that will get in the way of the product." The product – long-sleeved T-shirts, jumpers, fleeces – are piled seductively high, right up to the ceiling. Sir Terence thinks Uniqlo is going to blow Gap out the water. However, this doesn't mean Sir Terence is not a fan of Gap. He is. He wanted Bhs to be a kind of Gap. But Bhs proved frustratingly resistant. "They'd say: 'We'll change when we want to change. Don't rush us.'" And went on ordering dozens of millions of polyester cardigans in pink? "Exactly. The other strange thing... the company had four Daimlers to take them to functions. They were very keen on functions. And the director drove a Rolls- Royce. All that was anathema to me."

We climb back into his car, which is so spectacularly unflashy I don't even note what it is. A Honda? A Vauxhall? I have no idea. It was silver, though. Or was it white? Now, where were we again? Ah, Shirley...

Do you fall in love easily? "No, I don't think so. Do I appear to? I have been married four times, but I'm not sure what difference that makes, apart from when it comes to the divorce courts."

If it makes no difference, why do you keep getting married? "Keep getting married? My first marriage [which ended after five months, when his wife went back to an ex-boyfriend] was very short-lived. My second, to Shirley, ended when she changed, got into journalism, and became ambitious. I was married to Caroline for 30 years. You can't say I keep getting married." Is it true you haven't spoken to Caroline since she left? "I do speak to her. I just don't go out of my way to speak to her."

If you find you no longer love someone, was it ever really love in the first place? "I think love goes through various stages. Love, then fondness, then affection. Love over a period of time changes its nature. [With his finger, he traces a graph that shoots up, then evens out, on the back of his driver's seat.] First you leap, then it comes down, then it plateaus." What are you saying? That love, when it changes, is still love? Is there a part of you that still loves your ex-wives, then? "I'm fond of them, but not in love with any of them. I feel affection for them. Love isn't a precise science. It's different for everyone, like taste is."

What are the flavours you remember from your childhood? "Whale meat, which, for some reason, was nice when it came from the butcher, and tasted of fillet steak, but tasted of blotting paper when it came from the fishmonger. I remember my mother making curries with apples in to bulk it out. Spam. Cod-liver oil. Syrup of figs, to keep me regular."

On today's menus, fresh tuna seems to feature almost ubiquitously. Why, when the canned stuff is so much nicer? "Ah, seared tuna. Yes, I agree, it is bland. It's a ladies-who-lunch dish. Certainly, it is much better from a can for salade niçoise."

A brief break here, as we are now passing Buckingham Palace, where he went to receive his knighthood. He's not, it turns out, mad on the Queen's taste. The Palace interiors, he says, are "absolutely ghastly! They say: I'm rich, I'm powerful, I'm someone you should respect and revere. It's everything I hate". I note this because, I think, one of the most impressive things about Sir Terence is that while much around him is poncy he, rather magnificently, is not.

You're a millionaire 85 times over, but do you still have little economies? "I think most war children do. I make everyone switch lights off, I pick food out of the bin if it looks perfectly edible. I hate waste. In Butlers Wharf, I go about picking up litter. McDonald's containers. I hate McDonald's. It's food for people with no brains and no taste. I can't think of anything I hate more than McDonald's, apart from Pot Noodle."

Shall I buy you one of those pointy, litter-spearing things for your birthday? "No! I'm de-accessorising my life. I've put on my party invitations: 'No presents'."

Your father, Rupert, was a sweetie when sober, but a violent horror when drunk. What's the worst beating you ever took?

"My sister Priscilla remembers trying to bite him whenever he tried to smack me, but I don't. He was never violent towards my mother, but he upset her a good deal. I was very fond of my mother. She was very bookish – had all the Penguin titles. She could do the Times crossword in 10 minutes. I used to say to him: 'Come on, dad, no more of this.' But he said drink made him feel energetic, young. I couldn't understand it, but I guess it's what alcoholism does. I've only been drunk once in my life. At a party in Earls Court when I was very young and somebody brought in bottles of gin. Yes, I drink, but I can drink two bottles of wine a night and still be sober. Was he proud of my success? Very. When I first opened a coffee bar on the King's Road, he and my mother used to help with the washing up, although father soon slipped off to the pub."

Do you fear death? "No. But I don't want to die. So much to do. So much to see. I hope, when it happens, it's very quick. Paul Hamlyn, a great friend of mine, recently died after 10 years of illness. Cancer, Parkinson's, he had everything. But he fought on and on. I said to him, 'If I were you, I'd take some sleeping pills and have done with it,' but he couldn't bear the idea of dying. So much going on, he said."

We're approaching his head office, which is a shame, as I've enjoyed the journey, which has been as much an architectural tour as anything. He loves the London Eye. He loves the South Bank. He loves the Dome, but was never much taken with the contents. Time for one last question: If you could return, in another life, with a great talent for something that wasn't design, what would it be?

"I'd like to be relaxed and charming." But you are! I exclaim. "I'm not," he says. "I've just learnt to be." For a moment, his vulnerability rather embarrasses me. A discount card wouldn't, though.

'Q&A, A Sort of Autobiography' by Terence Conran (HarperCollins £19.99)