Profile: Knight on a cultural crusade: Taste requires confidence. Habitat's founder is back in the business of making both pay, says Charles Nevin; Sir Terence Conran

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The Independent Online
A DAY for contentment by the Thames, a sunny day for watching the boats go by from the high balcony outside the impeccably uncluttered office. Sir Terence Conran, 60, is amiable and expansive, but he is not content and is not watching the boats go by.

It is two years since he resigned as head of Storehouse, bested by the lieutenant he had appointed, decried by the City and disillusioned with the 'deconranisation' of the retail group he had built up on the sureness of his taste - a taste that had found its most feted outlet in Habitat, purveyor of pine and primary colours to the masses, or at least the mass of the middle classes.

He bought out his famous Conran Shop in Knightsbridge, London, for pounds 3.52m, plus a bit more for the right to use his own name, and took himself off to Butlers Wharf, his riverside development near Tower Bridge, where he converted the office with the balcony from a flat no one wanted to buy. Later that year Butlers Wharf went into receivership with bank debts of between pounds 50m and pounds 60m. Conran lost more than pounds 5m plus another pounds 8m he had lent to the development. In five years his fortune has fallen by pounds 150m: now he is down to something like his last thirty.

But Sir Terence is a man of resilience; all that taste requires a great deal of self-confidence. 'In one way I'm sad I lost money on it (Butlers Wharf)', he says, 'but it was money I could afford to lose. I never had any dreams of millions. My idea is not to die rich.'

He remained at Butlers Wharf, and leased part of it from the receivers to open a new restaurant. Everyone in the know said that he was completely mad to do such a thing, at such a time and south of the river. Le Pont de la Tour has, of course, been a great success.

Conran has been in and out of restaurants since he opened his beatnik Soup Kitchens in the early Fifties. Now he runs Bibendum, at Michelin House, also the site of the Conran Shop; Le Pont de la Tour; and the Blueprint Cafe, also at Butlers Wharf and next to his Design Museum. They are three of the most successful restaurants in London. Later this year he is opening yet another restaurant at Butlers Wharf, and in February next year he will reopen Quaglino, on St James's, closed since 1980, as the biggest brasserie in London. In two weeks time he opens a Paris branch of the Conran Shop.

And now he wants Habitat back. Not to run, but to advise. Storehouse is said to be ready to sell the chain, which has lost pounds 20m in the last two years, and Sir Terence will be 'very happy' to help a sympathetic purchaser in a non-executive capacity: 'For reasons of pride and sentiment, I would like to see what I created revived.'

Conran has every right to be proud of Habitat, which was a startling innovation in 1964 when he opened his first shop in the Kings Road with its clever and confident mix of simple French and Scandinavian styles. The middle classes, decor-challenged by the arrival of central heating and fitted carpets, had found a mentor.

HE WAS one of them, the son of a rubber importer from Esher. His gifts were practical and he was sent to Bryanston, the Dorset minor public school with a crafts bias. He studied textile design at London's Central School of Arts and Crafts and played rugby for Rosslyn Park. He looks like a rugby player and has a ruggerish sense of humour; he does not look like a designer should.

His sense of taste, if occasionally mocked, has never seriously been challenged. His management abilities have been less highly regarded. The opinion in the City now is that as a businessman he makes a very good designer.

They were rather more keen on him in the early Eighties when he built up the Storehouse group, merging with or acquiring Mothercare, Richard Shops, Heal's, and British Home Stores in the space of five years. But the recession stripped off Sir Terence's gloss: the group was quickly seen as over-extended and badly managed. BhS had been the deal too far. Conran brought in an accountant, Michael Julien, to sort out the logistics; Julien sorted out Conran.

Today Conran does not accept that he overreached himself, but he does accept that the BhS deal brought him boardroom problems he was not equipped to handle. Roger Seelig, one of the Guinness defendants, then an adviser with Morgan Grenfell, is often blamed for persuading Conran to merge, but Sir Terence will have none of it: 'He actually tried to persuade me not to do the BhS deal, and he was absolutely right and I was wrong.' There is a significant pause before Sir Terence utters the word 'wrong'.

Sir Terence has said hard things about Julien in in the past, but he is now kinder, saying it was his own fault for bringing Julien in. Sir Terence says he is not bitter now, but he regrets the death of his philosophy of perennial quality items at Habitat and of his attempt to create a mass market with taste at BhS.

Sir Terence has a fine way with distaste. He is still upset with the punchy slogan, 'Habitat is revolting' and the continual change of range at Habitat, which he sees as a doomed attempt to create 'a precocious fashionable image, whereas I believe that what Habitat needed to be was straightforward, serious, good value-for-money.'

He remembers with horror, too, the pink fluffy dressing-gowns and 'the incredible sort of tart's knickers' he banned from BhS. But although Sir Terence began to attract more of his middle classes into BhS, he also lost the stores' traditional customers. He claims that things were beginning to turn and that his mistake was to expect change too quickly. He refuses to accept that the British mass market rejects quality if it can get something worse for less, citing the success of The Gap, Ikea, and Tesco: 'I know it is there to be done and people are doing it . . . The other day I went into Marks & Spencer in Paris and found them selling fresh foie gras - can you imagine if you were told 10 years ago that Marks & Spencer would be selling fresh foie gras?'

No, he does not accept that the French have innately more taste than the British. His distaste is for the Government and its failure to give the right lead culturally or economically. He remembers talking to Margaret Thatcher about Mitterrand's cultural crusade in Paris and the need for something similar here: 'She said 'Yes, I believe you're right, we should be doing this but I don't know how to do it. Would you think of designing a new cabinet table for us?' '

He is dismissive, too, of the influence of the Prince of Wales, which, he says, has been responsible for 'producing all these tawdry semi-traditionalist buildings' and has encouraged mimsy mock-rural decor. 'I feel sad for him because I don't think that's what he meant to achieve.'

There is no such sympathy for the Government; Sir Terence is, he says, a socialist: 'I just cannot believe that they can sit there complacently at the moment seeing this country in ruins.'

Sir Terence does not on this occasion thump the table in his well-recorded fashion; he is not losing his temper, he says, but 'determinedly making a point'. Does he agree with his reputation for being overbearing? 'I don't know. It's very difficult. Do you know yourself? I don't know how much time you spend on the psychiatrist's couch, I spend none and I would not claim that I really knew myself, and so when people say 'Oh, you're overbearing', then I have to believe it. But I don't think I am . . . I want to encourage other people to come bubbling to the surface.'

'A charismatic bully,' says a friend of the family. 'You want him to love you because you hate the idea of him not finding you fascinating. He's intensely competitive, the sort of person who only enters the kitchen to perform a work of art and isn't too worried about the washing-up.'

'You want to pick him up and hug him,' says a former associate. 'But a lot of people loathe him because of his ill-manners. He's incredibly generous - though totally by stealth.'

He also remembers, on a visit to Kintbury, Conran's country house in Berkshire, seeing one of Conran's sons run over some snowdrops with a lawnmower: 'Terence went berserk. 'Can't you hear them crying?' he screamed. He's a very sensitive man.'

The restaurant world is in awe of his success. He is, they say, a restaurateur who actually likes food. His success is based on food simply but splendidly done. Classic brasserie food worked up to haute cuisine at Bibendum, shellfish and grilled meats at Le Pont. 'I started when I was very young,' he says. 'The cockroach got in my bloodstream and it's been very difficult to dislodge.' He talks of the interplay between food and setting and compares restaurants to the theatre; he likes producing a team, making it work, he says. It is a commonplace that restaurants do not make a great deal of money, even outside of recession; put this to Sir Terence, though, and he will tell you: 'My primary interest is not to make money, but Bibendum, Blueprint and Pont de la Tour make a very great deal of money.' How much? He does not have to say. 'One of the joys of private companies is not having to expose yourself to analysts.'

He laments Thatcherite greed, Majorite inactivity and the undirected workings of market forces which laid him low at both Storehouse and Butlers Wharf. 'It doesn't make me feel a failure . . . I don't view either Butlers Wharf or Habitat as bad parts of my life that I want to forget for ever and a day: they were both of them good things with good intentions that circumstances got in the way of.' That is why, he says, he would like to help get Habitat back on its feet again.

'I think, I absolutely believe, that design in all its manifestations can improve the quality of people's lives, and I would like to be remembered for making people see this and understand it.' One of the people responsible for it, he quickly adds.

The Conran shop is not busy. Here and there intelligent-looking couples in casual clothing browse among the teardrop-shaped tweeter units, speakers which 'combine the latest technology with a unique aesthetic', the large antique pot for pounds 1,995, the Sumatra Blue Lingtong Coffee and the glossy hardback Living with Kilims. The nearest Habitat is even less busy. Overloud and tinny Beethoven echoes around. You sense Sir Terence's shudder.

(Photograph omitted)

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