How We Met: Sir Terence Conran & Stafford Cliff

'We've had rows, but I always came away from an argument knowing he was right'

Tim Walker@timwalker
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:34

Stafford Cliff, 62, was formerly creative director of Conran Design Group. He is the author of more than 60 books on interiors, food and lifestyle. He lives in north London with his partner

I've heard Terence say, "Stafford first came to work in the office as the teaboy"! I never picked him up on it until recently. He said, "The first time someone pointed you out to me, you were carrying a tray of coffee." I was the office junior, and I suppose it must have been my turn to get a round.

I'd got off the boat from Australia in 1966, when I was 19, and started looking for a job. I'd experience in advertising, and answered an ad for "a young, experienced all-rounder able to do finished artwork." I got the job – and was paid £12.10 per week.

I can't remember the first time I saw Terence, as he was the big boss and there were only four of us in the graphics department, all far too busy for such things, but it was a great learning curve. I thought I was in heaven. The place was so creative. I would have worked there for nothing.

Terence had opened Habitat in 1964, and his interests included retail, merchandise and the design company. I'd never heard of him, but I had come to Britain because of the reputation it had for fantastic design.

As time rolled by I became more involved in Habitat, and in 1971, Terence asked me to design the first Habitat catalogue. After that I did them every year for 10 years . The catalogues were magazines giving advice on how to use design in the home, which was what led to [interiors bible] The House Book.

I emulated Terence's enthusiasm and his standards. As I was young, I absorbed the things he liked, and the things he stood for became the things that I stood for, too. Whether it was a way of arranging flowers in Habitat, or a way of matching colours, we were always on the same wavelength.

He had terrific charisma and passion and wasn't afraid to speak his mind. I worked at Conran for 25 years and became director of the whole design group. Terence and I had a great rapport; he knew my work, and knew that he would like it.

Inspiration [a new book by Conran about his life, which Cliff collaborated on] was based on his house and the items in it, so we could say, for example, this or that piece from the living-room was with him when he was living in Regent's Park in 1974. And I knew that, as I was there. We'd often work at his home back then, or go for meetings, or use his houses for photography. I was coming and going a lot, becoming part of the family, growing up with his kids.

Terence could be very demanding, but he allowed me to push the boundaries. He was a good teacher, too. We must've had rows, but I always came away from an argument knowing he was right, even though it was a bugger to have to re-do anything.

Sir Terence Conran, 77, is one of the world's leading designers, a restaurateur, retailer, writer and founder of Habitat. He lives in Berkshire with his wife

I knew we'd employed a young Australian designer, as I was told so by Ron Baker, who ran the department he worked in. I saw a young man with fuzzy hair holding a tray of coffee cups across the other side of the studio and Ron said to me, "That's Stafford Cliff, he's turning out to be rather good."

We had a fairly major job coming up – the first Habitat catalogue – and Ron suggested Stafford might be the chap to work on it. I was surprised he would suggest someone so young and inexperienced. But I met Stafford, looked at his work and was very impressed; I liked him and his pulsating enthusiasm. So I gave him the job, which meant we worked very closely together.

I'll always remember shooting the catalogue at a cottage I had in Suffolk. There was a big barn, and Stafford and I devised a system of working on the photography, where we had a set at each end of the barn, and while one was being photographed, we'd be hectically building the other set at the other end. We'd end every day exhausted. They were exciting times. We did things on minute budgets, and Stafford understood the financial pressures – most designers would be far too hoity-toity to do things economically.

I got to know him better than ever when we began the project that eventually became The House Book. He seemed to like and admire the same sort of things I did. I felt happy he was promulgating my point of view. I trusted his taste, and I think our tastes formed together, because he'd bring ideas in and ask me what I thought. And I would say, "Ooh, that's very interesting."

We often sit down for a meal together. Stafford does his own thing now, but often I see one of his books and think, "I wish I'd done that." Whenever we get together, he'll always produce some book he's working on, and I'll push one at him that I've been working on. We value each other's opinion.

Stafford was the perfect person to work on Inspiration with me, as he remembered things I had forgotten. I've been terribly bad at keeping an archive of my work, and completely forgotten things I'd designed, but he'd tweak my memory. He was very good at contacting people we both worked with, to produce photographs or drawings.

The book is a visual autobiography, and there are lots of people I know who, if they had someone as good as Stafford to extract their visual memory from them, would make very interesting books.

'Terence Conran's Inspiration: At Home with Design' (Conran Octopus, £40) is out now

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