I have been reading about a feud between Terence Conran and me. Now it is true that I have a reckless and well-exercised appetite for conflict that even the forces of the UN peacekeepers could not temper. And there is too much to admire about Conran to justify a petulant spat for no good reason. Except there was a good reason: Conran has just published an eccentric, self-serving autobiography which does down his collaborators, especially me.
So I wrote a revisionist review for Management Today, thinking this sober medium was the best place for a thoughtful reappraisal. The result was shazam! A man unused to criticism was piqued. Wanting only to twist his tail, I appear to have discombobulated his entire central nervous system.
I spent the 1980s working with Terence. It was an exciting period, and we were a good combination: he had the style, money and power I wanted while I, perhaps, had the education and intellect he needed. It was successful. For a while. Depending on whether he is buying or selling, Conran can be charming, witty and amenable or nasty, mean and selfish.
No doubt clarity of vision, bullet-proof self-belief and a reluctance to let obstacles impede progress is a characteristic of all successful businessmen. But it can be a small step away from what the American Psychiatric Association defines as a narcissistic personality disorder, which they helpfully define as "a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration and lack of empathy".
Thus, it is not enough to have done well selling duvets to Parisians; it is necessary to claim to have changed French sleeping habits. Nor is it sufficient to have commercialised a version of the southern European kitchen; instead we invented Provence. Once I actually heard Terence explain to a credulous student audience that when he found a bolt of denim cloth, he suddenly had the unique perception you could make clothes out of it.
Whatever, I had always admired the Conran effect. When I first went to work for him I was amazed to find fresh flowers, good coffee and decent soap in the loo. I revered a man whose protean efforts had brought a way of life hitherto only known in glossy foreign magazines to the gloomy British provinces. Like those other luminaries of the period, Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Mansell, at some point in the 1980s he started calling himself "we". The mock humility of this collective pronoun is deceptive: that first person plural is a deadly way of subjugating all competing egos to the common good.
Not all egos were prepared for submission. These are the important individuals given very short shrift in the autobiography. There was the late Oliver Gregory, largely responsible for what people recognise as the Habitat style. Rodney Fitch, who looked like the heir, was crudely terminated. Simon Hopkinson gets insufficient recognition for establishing an influential style of cooking in Conran restaurants. Keith Hobbs, now a successful international designer, is insultingly dismissed.
For my own part, managing on Conran's behalf the V&A's Boilerhouse and putting 10 years into creating an environment which made the Design Museum possible are reduced to a few snide comments about my disinclination to administrate in traditional style. When Conran saw my exhibition "Taste" in 1984, he was enraged to the point of infarct. A picture of this exhibition, not in any way attributed to me, now illustrates his autobiography as an indication of innovative thinking.
The tragic thing is that a generous Terence Conran could have been more successful still. And possibly happier. All those facetiously dismissed helpmates would have stayed loyal to a cause which no reasonable person could find unattractive: making Britain a more beautiful place. We both wanted that. We were divorced, I suppose, on grounds of irreconcilable similarity.Reuse content