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A Master of Modern Taste

For 25 years, Sir Terence Conran has shown that excellent design need not be elitist. INTERVIEW: HOME DESIGNER

`I TOTALLY believe - then and now - that people's taste is formed by what they're offered.'' Sir Terence Conran (his instant affability is perfectly at odds with what one might imagine to be the status of knighthood) has plenty of justification for such a conviction. It's almost a motto; he repeated it several times in an interview.

His Habitat stores (Conran's Habitat in the United States) look set to colonize the world with their warehouse presentations of straightforward home-assembly furniture, and their lively, ever-changing range of basic, modern (mostly), not-too-pricey domestic items from cookware and clocks to floor coverings and lighting, glass and china and bed linen.

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For a quarter of a century, Mr. Conran has been successfully offering an invigorating array of ``taste-forming'' items for the home. He agrees that Habitat is not as pioneering today as it was when it began. But this may be partly the fruit of its own success: Other places have followed its example. Also, to survive commercially, ``it has to be much more a barometer of popular taste than it had to be in those early days,'' Conran says.

Habitat should ``keep on trying to do new and different and fresher things,'' he adds. He remains a determined modernist. That, after all, is how he began.

He happened to coincide with something of a revolution in the home. He points to radical changes in family life after World War II: ``Middle-class family life was much more relaxed and easy.'' He maintains that even poor middle-class families before the war had servants who came in to cook and clean; his parents ``were certainly not at all affluent,'' but they had both.

After the war, with ``women beginning to have more voice ... they didn't want to be stuffed into a miserable little room to do the cooking.'' The kitchen became a ``family room, a center of the home.''

In a 1989 book about British design, Dutch art-historian Frederique Huygen singles out Conran as ``the most important pacesetter'' in the ``move to refine ... and bring more `design' to Britain's High Street.'' She talks of his ``modern design with the young as target-group'' as ``a crucial breakthrough for modern taste.'' She might also have emphasized that this breakthrough may well have made its most significant mark on a large number of ordinary people's appreciation of design in the home. What she dubs the ``Conran effect'' has surely exerted a pervasive influence, on a popular scale, over the character of thousands and thousands of homes.

Habitat started in 1964 as a small, but then extraordinarily trendy, place to shop on London's Fulham Road, startlingly fresh and optimistic in the prevailing gloom of postwar, design-unconscious, largely broke Britain. In 25 years, with some downs but mainly ups, Habitat has enormously enriched its founder, merged with an extensive number of other stores and chains of shops, and has extended and adapted itself to other parts of the world, including France, Belgium, Japan, and the United States., where its formula - adapted somewhat to each country's peculiar national preferences, but essentially the same - has proved widely appealing.

Conran's notion was to make ``good design'' available at reasonable prices. He rightly guessed that there was a vast, unsatisfied market out there, particularly of young people, thirsty for more interesting, more colorful design in the home - modern, functional, and made of materials both beautiful and practical. Conran's sense of design is sensible, practical, and not ``precious.'' He avoided the over-expensive, the too-luxurious. He thought to make ``good design'' available for the ``poor schoolmaster'' who, like him (and he started without money), might well be baffled by the premium prices commanded by fine design.

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``That always seemed to me one of the dottiest things,'' he says. According to Conran, excellent design is not elitist, ``because the actual process of designing something intelligently should make it as cheap, or cheaper, than the thing that hasn't had the same measure of intelligence applied to designing it.'' He has resoundingly proved his point by turning the Breuer-(or Stam?) designed tubular steel cantilever chair (the ``Bauhaus Chair,'' an incredibly expensive specialist item when get full nameKnoll held the exclusive copyright) into a wildly popular chair of essentially the same quality but at one-eighth the price.

Back in the early '60s he also guessed, rightly, that this then-untapped clientele wanted, when they bought furniture, to be able to take furniture right home and not have to wait months for delivery. He more or less invented ``flat-pack'' furniture that could fit in a small car and be put together that afternoon (theoretically at least!) by even the most fumble-fingered owner of a screw-driver.

Conran started Habitat because the furniture shops of the early '60s in Britain showed virtually no interest in the people he was certain would like his ideas. These stores had no coherent style, little commitment to the modern. ``They were deserts,'' Conran says, ``with the occasional camel or sales person languishing away rather depressedly in the background!''

His own shop had to be ``busy,'' with things and enthusiastic, stylish sales people. Habitat sold lots of home-things apart from furniture (not easy to find at the time, making Conran into an international design-hunter). It made accessible a whole ``alternative culture,'' in fact.

Conran was aware, being a passionate cook himself, of the beginnings of ``the whole cooking revolution'' in the early '60s. But there was only one small shop selling decent cookware in London, he says. So he offered solid cookware, traditional in France, previously unknown in Britain. He also copied the repository atmosphere of French hardware stores, with things stacked en masse, not displayed ``artistically.''

Sitting on the Thames-side balcony of his office in Butler's Wharfe (his great current warehouse conversion project) with the jaunty Tower Bridge just by,, and beyond it, partly visible in a jungle of buildings, the radical modernism of the new Lloydschk Building by Richard Rogers Sir Terence sips fizzy water and talks freely and frankly about design, about Habitat, about the ``old'' and the ``modern,'' about the pioneering '60s, about the traditionalist kickback of the '70s and '80s, about the taste of the rich, about the new Design Museum, yards away, which is his personal gift to the world, and about how he finds it ``sad indeed to look at a majority of architecture these days which is simply a rather weak, wet pastiche of things from the past.''

He believes we are now coming to the end of the old-fashioned backlash period. Even Habitat - notably with textile designs based on Victorian originals in the Victoria and Albert Museum - has fallen in with this Laura Ashley-type fad. ``I think we're beginning to see signs that it's played itself out.''

Conran is sure that there are still many design problems that will soon be solved, such as the need for a satisfactory answer to the way ``the television set sits awkwardly at a 60-degree angle to the redundant fireplace.'' Technology, of course, will continue to play a major part in the home.

But one thing that astounds him is a ``terrible, shattering statistic I came across the other day from a survey of schoolchildren. It demonstrated that 58 percent felt they wanted to pursue a career that was in some way connected with design!''

It's intriguing that the founder of Habitat finds this ``a pretty horrible thought.'' Maybe a mass of design buyers strikes him as preferable to a mass of designmakers.

SIR TERENCE ORBY CONRAN Birth: Oct. 4, 1931, Esher, Surrey. Education: Bryanston School and Central School of Design, London. Family: Married to Caroline Herbert. One daughter, four sons. Career: First Habitat store: 1964, London. Now over 100 Habitat stores in Europe and 23 spread among Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Iceland, Portugal, and Martinique. In the United States, there are 17 Conran's Habitat outlets, mostly in the East. Conran is chairman of Storehouse PLC, the parent company.

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