The Secret History Of: The Quaglino's ashtray

When Terence Conran designs something, it has an instant appeal. So, naturally, objects with such pedigree are cosseted within shops, with a carefully constructed price tag and elaborate alarm systems to deter casual thieves.

Perhaps that’s where the restaurant Quaglino’s went wrong.

As part of his revitalisation of the landmark restaurant in central London in 1991 – in the days when smokers were welcome inside – Conran designed an ashtray for the diners shaped in a ‘Q’, and then proceeded to leave those ashtrays lying around, all over the restaurant.

The Quaglino’s ashtray, with its smooth metallic circle cut in two by the elegant tail of the ‘Q’, was a hit – a little too much of a hit. Soon it had |the tag “iconic” attached, and with that, the trouble started. By the time the restaurant was 10 years old, more than 25,000 of Quaglino’s ashtrays had gone “missing”.

Maybe Terence just thought the patrons of his restaurant were unlikely thieves. But he was forgetting that they were flocking to Quaglino’s precisely because the restaurant’s reputation was synonymous with design.

They weren’t there by accident, and their beady eyes were open to the possibility of getting their hands on a piece of design history.

And with the chance to get their hands on a piece of Conran design for free? Management tried selling the ashtrays for £15 in a gift box, but these weren’t as attractive, somehow.

Eventually, surmising that a certain element of Dutch courage probably played a part in this middle-class thievery, the restaurant generously (and somewhat desperately) called an ashtray amnesty: for those who, it was nicely put, had “inadvertently allowed one of the iconic Q-shaped ashtrays to slip into their pockets”.

Strangely, not so many people took up the offer of a free glass of champers and a donation to charity in return for the stylish ashtray that had fallen into their possession.

Because, you know, the separate compartments make it the most darling of salt and pepper holders in the kitchen. So next time someone asks you to pass the salt and you find it in the chicest of Q-shaped holders, don’t feel surprised if it feels slightly warm to the touch.