Sir Terence Conran: 'There is so much left for me to do'

It's been a long journey from his youthful days at Habitat in the 1960s to his position as high priest of British design today, but Sir Terence Conran isn't finished yet, he tells Caroline Roux.
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The Independent Online

Sir Terence Conran's life is peppered with a fabulous cast of characters. There is any number of politicians – he often sits next to them at dinner trying to get them fired up about design. Vince Cable was particularly difficult to enthuse, apparently. Not so Gordon Brown. "He had a direct understanding of design. I liked him very much – a quiet and humble man."

There are legends like Mary Quant (he went to Bryanston School with the man who went on to be her husband, Alexander Plunket Greene, and together they colonised the Kings Road in the 1960s). And acquaintances like Stuart Rose – "he did a terrific job repositioning M&S".

The names of ex-wives – like Shirley, Superwoman, author of Lace – roll through the air. Then there's the children. Fashion designer Jasper, at 50, is already a multimillionaire and an OBE, with the possibility of more honours to come.

But to concentrate on Sir Terence's associates is to perhaps forget how fabulous a character he is himself. We meet in the sun-filled upper floors of the Conran and Partners building at Shad Thames, which is an apartment of sorts (he used to live above the office, when in London, but it's been superceded by a mews house off Pavilion Road in Chelsea). On the agenda is British craft. He's been cherry-picking British practitioners and putting their work on show and on sale since earlier this month in the Conran Shop in Brompton Road under the banner "Handcrafted in Britain", as both a political and aesthetic statement. It's a "miniature initiative", he says, curated by his creative director at the store Polly Dickens, that "might just make a change. If ours works, maybe others will pick up on it."

But first we have to discuss his 79th birthday that happened a few weeks ago. Friends of many years – including architect Brian Henderson, a "bon viveur par excellence" and father of Fergus, the now-famous proprietor of St John restaurants – gathered at the Conran country pile of Barton Court in Berkshire, and Jasper flew in a tureen of foie gras and truffles from Paris, which thanks to a bit of culinary confusion at British customs, only just made it to the party.

His exuberance for living has always informed his retail activities, his restaurants and his business interests. His love of the French lifestyle started the transformation of the British home in the 1960s. His clever promotion of himself as the brand made him the first design celebrity, possibly in the world. "It takes a lot of time, it's quite a diversion," he says now of continually being sought out for himself rather than his views on design. "I've certainly been hounded for my marriages and remarriages and I've been trying to step back ever since."

As regards giving up or slowing down, it's out of the question. "I love all this," he insists. "It's my life. I work in a creative environment with lots of creative people. And there is so much to do."

Sir Terence has just taken a project to Camden Council for planning permission. It's for a new space in Bloomsbury that will promote craft-oriented design, fashion, food and homewares. "We're all ready to see Camden and persuade them it's what they want in their borough," he says. "Now, they're still Labour. But then there's Boris to think about, too, and I do get on with him. I find him amusing, charming."

The handcrafted showcases at the Conran Shop are, then, a bit of a practice run. Currently on show is work by Louisa Taylor, a ceramicist who looks back to the 18th century to create quirky new products like a teapot with a two-way spout to encourage sharing at the table. Next up will be kinetic objects by Martin Smith and Nick Regan including the idiosyncratic Applause Machine, where two mounted wooden hands enthusiastically start clapping should you interact with it.

"Craft comes from my youth," says Sir Terence, resparking the stub of a Havana cigar. "My business started with welding and making furniture. I eventually opened my own store, because I couldn't find anyone to sell it properly. The retailers were so hopeless then." The first Habitat dates back to 1964. The rest is history.

"Being a craftsman allowed me to build my business. And while I know we're never going to be the workshop of the world again in Britain, it's important on a human, emotional and cultural level that we keep on making things."

To this end, Sir Terence co-founded a company called Benchmark 23 years ago with a young furniture graduate called Sean Sutcliffe and one employee in a couple of old stable buildings in the grounds of his Berkshire home. "Now it's the biggest employer in Kintbury," he laughs. The village has a population of 2,400 and Benchmark has expanded to a staff of 50, with many learning the trade on the job as apprentices. It produces good-quality wooden furniture to a high, but not overtly fashionable, standard; a triumph perhaps of integrity over sheer style. But the company has also started editioning work by the mid-century Danish-American modernist Jens Risom, cleverly upping its design credentials. "I see craft and design as employment," says Sir Terence. "In Italy there are still many workshops with just one incredible expertise. Of course mass production will happen in China, in Asia. But not everything is mass production."

His next dinner date will be with David Cameron, once the massive shards of the recent cuts have hit the ground. "I need to talk to him about the Design Museum," he says of the London institution where he is a trustee, and which is finally moving to the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington in 2013. It is currently housed in a Conran-designed building, once a banana warehouse, around the corner from Shad Thames, that has, after 21 years, proved too small to house a permanent display or more interactive workshop-type facilities.

He is also Provost of the Royal College of Art, London's only wholly postgraduate design college, where cuts and crises loom equally large. "Those kids from the RCA, after seven years of training [including the two as postgraduates at the college] can't find work," he says. "They should do what I did – not twisted silly stuff, but proper small-scale furniture. But still, the design world has been devastated by lack of work. That's why I go to any party I can, where there's any possibility of meeting a client. It's my job to feed the design mouths."

It must be hellish, I say, to be nearly 80 and facing out yet another recession. "It's my fifth," says Conran with something that could almost be pride. "You just have to get on and do things. The three-day week [in the 1970s] was probably the most penal. But at Habitat we just kept our nerve and did new things. Everyone else went brown and beige. We went all colourful, and while it didn't do much for profit, it certainly improved our mood."