It is tempting to consider the concept of design as being one of the defining features of the 1980s, up there with synthesiser bands and Joan Collins’ shoulder pads. For the designer was one of the decade’s big beasts, with cropped hair, bow tie and an office in regenerated Covent Garden. But long before this creature entered the public consciousness, a much more important figure had been around, setting the pace. He’s still doing so, and now we have this exhibition to mark his eightieth birthday. Who is he?
The answer is, of course, Sir Terence Conran. And if seeing his name in print awakens memories of what we’ve heard of him, we shouldn’t think it’s sufficient simply to leave him with a nod of recognition at his place in the history of design. His work - and his achievements - should be revisited, and this exhibition is an opportunity to do so.
In Britain, the 1950s weren’t just the era of rock and roll and Angry Young Men strutting their stuff on page, stage and screen. They were also a period of post-war austerity and drabness: the young JG Ballard, returning to his homeland after internment under the Japanese, felt that Britain looked as if it had lost, not won, the war. Attlee’s New Jerusalem seemed decidedly tatty. Recovery from the war was sluggish. But not everyone was prepared to be submerged in the post-war spirit of ‘mustn’t grumble’. Terence Conran, born in 1931, a one-time textile design student at London’s Central School of Art before going on to establish a workshop with artist and print-maker Eduardo Paolozzi where he concentrated on designing furniture, ceramics and fabrics - had the revelatory experience of travelling in France. Seeing delicious food, country markets and simple kitchenware inspired him to introduce this attractive lifestyle to the land of ration-books and bomb sites.
After working on the 1951 Festival of Britain, he opened his first restaurant - The Soup Kitchen - off the Strand in London, selling exotica such as espresso coffee, French breads and cheeses and, of course, soup. Meanwhile, the urge to design hadn’t left him, and we see a simple but eye-catching textile from 1952 showing what look like upside-down red and black umbrellas on a white background. We also see a basket-weave cone chair from 1953. Though it doesn’t look very comfortable to sit in, it givest he impression of being an attempt to introduce a fresh, light-hearted spirit to furniture design.
In 1956, Conran launched his eponymous Design Group, covering interiors, graphic design and furniture, and from the following year we see a ceramic tureen which is symbolic of the way he meant to go on: it has a circular lid, a four-cornered bowl and a criss-cross design in yellow, green and blue. It’s pretty, yet practical: it’s attractive but won’t empty its contents in your lap. In 1964 he opened Habitat, the shop where the denizens of ‘Swinging London’ could get furniture which was both bright and business-like, a world away from the dark, heavy stuff on offer in the average store. The products looked good whether they were in a bedsit, a suburban semi or a Victorian house being done-up by pioneering (and, eventually, profitable) gentrifiers in the backstreets of inner London’s tougher areas.
Some have said Conran’s work has been influenced by Modernism. This view is understandable: when he started-out, Modernism was still the god before whom the arts establishment bowed-down. Its beliefs and achievements were yet to be given a good roughing-up by the likes of Sir John Betjeman and architectural historian David Watkin. Even now, in some circles, criticising Modernism has to be done with a certain amount of nervous, apologetic throat clearing. In its architectural incarnation Modernism was a paternalistic, secular version of German Protestant Puritanism dusted with a coating of Victorian progressivism.
When Conran was establishing himself, its practical application within post-war British reconstruction was yet to foist onto the public (with, allegedly, the aid of mutually-beneficial relationships between builders and local government planning departments) the tower-blocks which would blight inner cities and housing estates. But did he follow this ethos slavishly? We only need to look at such things in the exhibition as the fabrics by Susan Collierand Sarah Campbell with Native North American-style patterns, the Habitat blue and white floral teapot from the 1960s, the blue jug with thin yellow bands by David Phillips, who worked with Conran during the period 1967-1975, and the red coffee pot with its manageable size and hand-comfortable handle from 1971-1980, to see that Conran - arguably- used Modernism’s simplicity but rejected its stylistic austerity. He made – to adapt Tom Wolfe’s famous book title - the work of the Bauhaus look presentable in our house. Later on, this domestic flair would be evident in the chain of successful restaurants Conran established, and we see plates and cutlery from his eatery empire such as Bluebird, Quaglino’s, Albion, Lutyens and, from Paris, Alcazar.)
The exhibition has significance, not only in its individual exhibits, but in its venue. For the Design Museum is the latest phase in Conran’s drive to spread the gospel of good design. In the 1980s he established the Conran Foundation, an educational charity focused on promoting a better understanding of design. The Boilerhouse Project - based in a gallery under the Victoria and Albert Museum - was its first undertaking. Under the directorship of design guru Stephen Bayley, exhibitions took place there. In 1989, Conran and Bayley opened the Design Museum at its present site in Bermondsey. At both locations, Conran has attempted to educate people to see that design and business go together, have a mutually beneficial, not exclusive, relationship.
And this is vital: arguably, since the 19th century, science and technology - both intrinsic to design - have been regarded as being somehow inferior to the arts by Britain’s cultural and educational policy-makers. They have been given a bad name by the Romantics (because of the poverty attendant upon the Industrial Revolution) and some greens and feminists (who see science and technology as cold, masculine, not touchy-feely). Britain may have been regarded as the workshop of the world, but little was done by education to strengthen this brand. Public schools concentrated on producing gentlemen rather than scientists and entrepreneurs, grammar schools offered a watered-down version of this ethos, while secondary modern schools churned out fodder for factories little changed since Victorian times. Thus, British industrial planning after the Second World failed because it was carried out by amateurs rather than - as was the case in France and Germany – properly-trained experts. The link between science, manufacturing, and the production and development of the day-to-day technology - such as the internet and computer games, cars and aircraft, which we take for granted and whose loss we would note very quickly, is not widely recognised. Because trade has been regarded in artistic circles as essentially philistine (except when it comes to the art market, of course), its role in driving forward not only science but also design - artistic presentation being a vital ingredient of advertising – has been consistently overlooked.
Conran, with his reputation for artistic and profitable practicality as his calling-card, has a vital role in combating two centuries of neglect. And if he comes over to some as being a bit too pleased with himself to fulfil this role – false amateurishness being a sine quo non for anyone who wishes to be seen as a contender for achieving anything in Britain- well, with his track record he’s entitled to be. Meanwhile, the Design Museum is due to relocate in 2014 to the Commonwealth Centre. Situated in Kensington High Street, this building embodies, in both its architecture and its intentions, aesthetic and socio-political ideals which have proved to have chequered track records. Conran’s ideals seem set to give the place a new sense of relevance.
All this being recognised, it is unfortunate that this exhibition is not without its faults. The layout feels confined, maze-like, and a wider range of exhibits would also have been welcome. But these are minor points when viewed against the larger canvas of what Conran has achieved. Because there is a constant hunger for good design, and a current need for economic revival. This small exhibition is a timely reminder of the work of a man who is a dab hand at contributing to both.