Nick Vaus, partner and creative director at Free The Birds, pays tribute to Habitat and Design Museum founder Terence Conran — "a creative adept at commercialising his own creativity" — who passed away last week. He also explores the designer's marketing legacy and asks if we'll see a visionary of his ilk again.
Designer. Philanthropist. Businessman. Visionary. Revered by generations of designers from Mary Quant to Johnny Ive and Tom Dixon, Sir Terence Conran’s legacy is huge. And not just in design. His marketing legacy impacts across the way we live, shop, and eat, and extends from championing human-led design to revolutionising the role it plays in our everyday lives.
A fundamental principle of his throughout his life was to look for ways to make life better for everyone.
From launch, Habitat products fused utility and style – appealing through functionality and aesthetics – and also great design and affordability. In this way, he democratised design decades before Ikea by offering well-designed goods to ordinary people – a holistic approach which he then applied to restaurant dining.
A designer to his core, he was a planner – fascinated by people, human behaviour and how over time it shifted and evolved. As an early advocate of the importance of the total experience (not just the functionality) of the products he designed, he was a brand strategist, too.
With Habitat – and then, later, The Conran Shop – he revolutionised the department store, banishing old-style stuffiness to create retail experience.
In these environments, care and attention was paid not just to stocking well-designed products but presenting them within an array of aspirational and inspiring contexts. He was also a retail revolutionary in terms of multichannel retail – an earlier pioneer of which was Next.
The empire he built was the living embodiment of what can be achieved when creativity and passion are embedded in the DNA. He wasn’t a businessman who outsourced the creativity on which his businesses were built, but a creative adept at commercialising his own creativity with the self-discipline to focus only on the aspects of life (design, eating, the home) that he cared most passionately about.
Throughout, he was true to himself – another powerful inspiration for anyone involved in any aspect of marketing. As was his restlessness and refusal to stand still. In retail, especially, his creations kept pace with changing tastes and wants and needs and shifted with the times when needed.
“I have always believed that most people crave simplicity, and don’t want to live in complex, overly designed homes,” Sir Terence said in an interview just this summer, to promote the new edition of one of his classic books, Plain Simple Useful: The Essence of Conran Style. “That theme runs throughout my book, and is more important now than even in these quite demented times we live in.”
(In the same interview, “a good designer of plain, simple and sometimes beautiful products” was his response when asked what he hoped his legacy would be, by the way.)
Stephen Bayley, in his obituary for The Guardian, described Sir Terence Conran as having done “more than anyone to enhance material life in Britain during the second half of the 20th century”. And who can disagree? Which begs an important question.
In current times of anxiety – and with the upheavals brought about by the Covid-19 crisis, especially –who will be the next visionary, and where will they come from?
As we adapt to living in a Covid world (and, hopefully, move towards the world beyond once the current crisis has passed), the need for a next generation figure who, like Sir Terence, will be a brilliant source of ideas, innovation and design – in products and all things related, in everyday human experience, and also in business – will become ever more pressing.
Considering the difficult times into which this summer’s latest crop of creative graduates will emerge, however, the immediate challenges will inevitably be great.
Yet in this, too, I draw comfort and inspiration from the Conran legacy. For Sir Terence Conran started out in the earliest, grimmest years of post-war Britain – a landscape he was instrumental in redesigning.
Good reason then, I think, to live in hope.