Terence Conran – The Way We Live Now at his Design Museum in London

By Jennie Gillions | 16 December 2011
A photo of a man in a suit sitting in a swish brown leather chair smiling in front of a red backdrop
© Neil Wilder, John Parkinson Agency
Exhibition: Terence Conran – The Way We Live Now, Design Museum, London, until March 4 2012

Half-way around this vast exhibition my friend stopped and asked: "Is there anything this man hasn't done?"

She has a point. Conran has packed a lot into his 80 years, and as a designer and entrepreneur he has unarguably had a unique impact on British domestic life.

He also set up the Design Museum in 1989, so this exhibition is either appropriate or sycophantic, depending on your standpoint.

The Way we Live now charts his career, influence and inspirations in an appropriately elegant space.

A black and white photo of a man in a suit side on during the 1960s
Conran set up the Design Museum more than 20 years ago
It starts with family photographs and mementos donated by Conran's sister Priscilla, progressing chronologically through Conran’s time as a student at the Central School of Art and Design, his early days making furniture and textiles and then employing 80 factory workers to do it for him and his rise to prominence as a designer in the post-war austerity of 1950s Britain.

These are interesting exhibits and show visitors how little our design aesthetic has moved on since Conran arrived on the scene.

Many of his iconic 1950s designs, like the cone chair and the terracotta planter, are so familiar that many people will be surprised they were his.

However, it is when we get to the opening of Habitat, in 1964, that the nostalgia really kicks in.

Habitat was an instant success, and it was so influential on the interiors of British homes that most people brought up in Britain since the 60s will have a piece of furniture either from Habitat or designed in the style of Habitat.
A photo of a design for a mottled shopping bag during the 1960s
Habitat bag (1964)
Habitat stores were the first places where consumers could get inspired by whole "looks" in-store.

The catalogue became an indispensable lifestyle magazine, full of detailed advice on everything from armchairs to wallpaper. Habitat introduced the duvet into the UK, and gave other designers their big breaks.

The curators have done a lovely job of showing visitors just how important Habitat was to the British high street.

Re-creations of home interiors sit alongside original fabric designs, posters and catalogues; we are given the opportunity to admire Conran's brilliance shortly before learning how a failed merger with British Home Stores and Mothercare meant he lost control of the business in 1990.

This is the only part of the entire exhibition that is explicitly a failure. Post-Habitat, Conran turned his hand successfully to consultancy services, designing, among other things, hotels, airports, cutlery, pushchairs and razorblades.

Two iPads (icons of modern design) scroll through some of his office and restaurant designs before we see examples of how Conran cornered the restaurant market.

Displays explain how Conran opened his first cafeteria in the 1950s, following up with his first high-end restaurant, the Neal Street Restaurant, in 1971. David Hockney designed the menus.

The restaurant section leads into a display of wooden furniture and designs from Conran's Benchmark furniture business, and a fun re-creation of his study and photographs of his collections.

The final section talks about Conran as a philanthropist and supporter of new design talent.

Conran creates items that are "plain, simple and useful". Therein lies the secret of his enduring success – designing things that people want.

The Design Museum has complemented Conran’s approach and career with a plain and simple exhibition which, despite Conran’s involvement in the Museum, is interesting and inspiring without being fawning.  

  • Open 10am-5.45pm (2pm December 24, closed December 25-26). Admission £6-£11 (free for under-12s).

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More pictures:

A photo of a cabinet from a home design unit full of books, records and ornaments
Book shelving unit (1963)
© John Maltby, RIBA Library photographic collection
A black and white photo of a young man lounging in a cylindrical chair during the 1960s
© Ray Williams
A photo of a businessman in a suit behind a modern desk smoking a cigar in front of a chalk board
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