The eldest son of Sir Terence Conran, Sebastian Conran runs his own design studio in Barons Court, London. He has recently launched Universal Expert collection of homewares, available from www.johnlewis.com. He talks to Annie Deakin about his mentors, common design mistakes and his dream project.
My design philosophy is… In simplicitate elegance est (simplicity lies in elegance).
The first thing I do when I start a design job is… thorough research to really understand all the issues about how the product is going to be made, sold and used. This sometimes means going into stores and getting a salesperson to try and sell me one so I see what they emphasize.
I’m proud of… all of the current work from our studio, but the 1977 Complete Control record cover I designed for The Clash with photographs taken on the back in Belfast is probably the most socially interesting and [now] I’m very pleased I had that time as it shaped my design approach.
The most unusual object I’ve created is... a sculpture using the actual nose from the Concorde prototype that’s hewn from five tones of polished stainless steel on a copper and burr walnut base. It’s called ICON and we are going to be unveiling it at Royal Ascot this year.
My biggest design challenge has been… our own Universal Expert range of home collections – creating almost 300 pieces of merchandise (over 150 items shipping this June already) in the space of two years, sourcing, exhibiting, setting up distribution, selling to retailers, has been a very exciting challenge.
We are particularly interested in… designing products to enhance experience of later life and have been working on non-humanoid robots for some time now – we hope to launch something in around 5 years time.
My advice to any beginner designer is… Start by learning as much about all aspects of different fields as you can. Then choose a specialist niche that you can work on becoming the best at.
The most common designing mistake is… thinking you understand without a foundation of thorough research how a product is made, sold and used. Also underestimating the scale of the challenge, overdesigning or designing something for yourself in mind.
Usually when I want good advice, I ask… my wife Gertrude. On design matters I speak to Michael Wolff, who’s a non-executive director of our business. I have had several mentors during my career, including people like Eduardo Paolozzi, Michael Wolff, Sir John Sorrell, Keith Whitten, Deyan Sudjic, my father and my mother.
I admire… my ex-partner Tom Dixon. He has achieved amazing things. It goes to show what you need is talent, imagination, self-belief and motivation to succeed, rather than any fancy academic initials after your name (although he does have an OBE!).
I mourn… Jessops.
My favourite shops are… Maplins, John Lewis, The Conran Shop and SCP. For generic goods Amazon is only a mouse click away (but it is not always the cheapest).
For original gifts for discerning people... Design museum shop is great.
My favourite website is… sebastianconran.com [no surprises there!] or the Design Museum website, although I do enjoy plenty of others such as designboom, Fab and Fancy.
I used to subscribe to… lots of magazines, but since having an iPad it tends to be The Week online. Practically all the books I read I buy on Kindle and read on iPad. I can recommend Why Buildings Fall Down by Levy, Not Much of an Engineer by Hooker, and On the Psychology of Military Incompetence by Dixon.
I share the perspective put forward by Grayson Perry where… all styles have their place; it’s just a question of doing them in an outstanding fashion. I’m not a great loather of things.
I couldn’t live without… my 10inch chef’s knife, chopping station and stockpot steamer. I use these items every day – practically every mealtime – as I tend to steam all my vegetables. I love the chopping station; it is so solid and robust but has a lightweight transfer tray. My Chef’s knife is beautifully balanced and always razor sharp – a blunt knife is a dangerous knife.
My dream project would be… to reinvent the bicycle in such a way as to improve user experience of safety, security, weather resistance and luggage capacity. It may not have only two wheels though and would probably be best described as an Eltrike.