Obituary: Sir Terence Conron – BBC News


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Innovative designer Sir Terence Conran and his groundbreaking Habitat store were as much as the 60s mini-skirts, The Beatles and Mary Quant.

Later, he brought the same temperament to restaurants and architecture, inspired by an inexhaustible storehouse of energy.

But her nature for design did not always extend to business matters, and she faced many financial failures, including demands on her purse from a series of failed marriages.

Terence Orby Conan was born on 4 October 1931 in Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey. His father owned a company that imported products to the UK for use in the manufacture of paints.

In his childhood, he wandered around the country catching butterflies to do something he found interesting. At the age of 13, he was blinded in one eye when a piece of metal from a lathe struck him in the face.

While at Dorset Public School, Bryanston, he first showed a talent for art and gained practical knowledge of working in wood and metal.

He went to the Central School of Art and Design, where he studied textiles, but left after 18 months to do a design job with a company commissioned to work at the 1951 UK ceremony.

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By the mid-1950s he was an established designer

This was the only time of his life when he worked for someone else. A year later, he founded the design group Conran & Co. and raised his profile considerably when asked to lay the interior of Mary Quant’s second market shop.

He also ventured into catering, opening his first soup kitchen restaurant in 1953.

He quickly gained a reputation as a taskmaster, and frugal to boot. He rarely took vacations and was reputed to go through the waste paper basket in his offices at night, on which only one side was used, he was put back on the desk for the next morning.

By the time Conan & Company joined the Conan Design Group, their stylish furniture had begun to curry favor with a new, upwardly mobile, metropolitan middle class.

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Terence and wife Shirley Conan in 1955

He was also on his second marriage. After being married and divorced within a year with architect Brenda Davison, she remarried to Shirley Pearce, who, after her divorce in 1962, became a successful author of books such as Les and Superwoman.

A year after her third marriage to Caroline Herbert in 1963, Conran saw her inability of retailers to market her furniture designs properly, opening her first Habitat shop in Fulham Road, London. Two decades before arriving in the UK, it brought style and simplicity, not to mention flat-pack furniture, to British homes.

Residence furnishings and household items were practical and elegant, distinguished by bright colors and abundant use of pinewood.

Their aim, he said, was to democratize good design; He wanted to make it affordable, once suggesting that he aimed his goods “at the salary of a teacher”.

pop Art

Customers soon flocked to their stores, which were designed to be modular shelving and soft furnishing with dazzling pop-art designs.

After experiencing the pleasure of using one during a trip to Sweden, he was the first to sell the pair in Britain, and was a huge fan of cook and culinary entrepreneur Elizabeth David.

Conan found himself always spotless, making London part of the swinging scene – as the city led the world in design, art and music.

In 1974, he published The House Book, which advised its readers to plan and design a modern house.

Healthy ego

The Habitat chain eventually formed the center of a retail empire, which included Mothercare, then Heels, Richards Shops, and British Home Stores. Conan was the chairman and chief executive of the group, which was named Storehouse. His success earned him a knighthood in 1983.

But the recession hit and profits began to decline. Sir Terence lost control after a boardroom row and moved out in 1990, losing the Habitat, but retaining control of the Conan brand.

He later said that different cultures of different professions created problems – his critics said that he was a good designer but a bad businessman. Later the group disbanded.

But Sir Terence himself stayed in business as a hands-on proprietor. After his rejection from the storehouse, he took a solo shop with him, also called Conron, which was more upmarket than Habitat. In due course, a second Conron store opened in London, along with eight more in four other countries.

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The Boundary Restaurant in Shoreditch was one of the upmarket eateries

He also started Butlers Wharf, a private property company on the River Thames at Tower Bridge, which converts a complex of listed warehouses into offices and apartments along the river. But the company went into receivership in December 1990 and Conron lost about £ 6m of his own money.

He also ran his own architecture and design practice; Helped find the Design Museum in 1989, which was managed by the Conan Foundation; And opened up a string of upmarket restaurants – starting at Bibendum, which began at Chelsea’s Michelin House, formerly the headquarters of the tire firm.

In 1996, he divorced his third wife, Caroline, after he left her for another man. The high-profile divorce agreement focused on how important a role she had in running the Habitat and restaurant business, and how much of her fortune – then estimated at £ 80m – was therefore entitled. The judge awarded her a £ 10.5m habitation, remarking that “it can be difficult for a person with a healthy ego who has achieved standing success to see and consider contributions other than his own”.

Sir Terence married interior designer Vicky Davis in 2000, though their children were revealed only after the incident.

He continued to open upmarket restaurants and, at the age of 79, made his debut in mass-market retailing by designing a furniture range for Marks & Spencer.

He was named as the Companion of Honor in the 2017 Birthday Honors.

An inspired, often difficult man, Sir Terence’s revolutionary ideas for new and colorful designs combined the end of post-war austerity and the explosion in culture and art that typified the 1960s.

A new generation of younger and more affluent consumers was looking for something exciting and exciting unlike anything their parents had. Terence Conron was on hand to provide it.

“He’s thrilled as a designer when you see something that you’ve designed and is actually being used,” he said. “Seeing a shop full of people, or a restaurant with people smiling happily, it’s like, all my dreams have come true.”