There’s a quote at the end of the new Terence Conran show at London’s Design Museum where he states his design philosophy is to produce items that are “plain, simple and useful,” adding: “Such things many not win any design prizes but neither do they go out of fashion.” It’s a sentence that sums up Conran’s genius – his revolutions have been carried out not by massively left-field ideas, but by reading the popular mood and reacting to it, a designer who understands life and the people who live it.
The Way We Live Now aims to explain how as a maker, designer, retailer, restauranteur and entrepreneur, Conran has helped shape contemporary Britain. His impact is undeniable – he’s widely credited as the reason why so many of us now sleep under duvets for example – but the show is thankfully free of any whiff of haigography. Although there is no real Conran style there is certainly a Conran approach, formed through his interests in manufacturing (“I have never designed anything that I would not know how to make myself,”) and commerce (“Design and business are completely interlinked,”).
But there’s also an understanding of real people, real homes and real concerns, instincts which led him to have the Habitat stores designed and displayed to create a feeling of “generous abundance” and which allow him to shift through the decades in a way that responds to but never slavishly follows aesthetic trends.
The section of the show on Habitat is among the most enjoyable, putting as it did a full stop on the dreariness of post-war Britain and marking the turning the much-trumpeted ideas around the Swinging Sixties into glossy, tangible, affordable goods.
And just as impressive as his ability to move with the times, Conran also has a golden touch when it comes to working across different areas of the same industry. This is exemplifed by the display of chairs from various restaurants he has designed, which are all very different but perfect matches for the spaces in which they inhabit.
We learn too about his love of tools, his obsession with process, walk through a recreation of his office and then read about his “mission” to promote design, a mission which led to the foundation of the very museum in which this show takes place.
This is a cracking, well-curated show which tells the story of Conran and his impact on the UK in a pragmatic and lively way. Apparently he and his peers saw the post war years as “an opportunity to change the world.” Seeing that opportunity and grasping it are very different things though, and this show helps explain how one became the other.
It runs until March 4.