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The homemakerOn the eve of a new exhibition exploringTerence Conran's contribution to modern-daylife, Hannah Boothreports on the man whoreinvigorated Britain's domestic landscapeTerence Conran is one of the best-known names in modern design,but few of us appreciate how muchour living, eating and shopping habits oweto his vision and varied business ventures.To mark his 80th year, the Design Museumis staging a major exhibition that exploreshis impact on modern life in Britain. Called The Way We Live Now, theshow's premise is spot-on: Conran hasprobably done more than anyone torevolutionise our daily lives. "It's often saidwe're a literary nation, but not a visualone," he said in 2001, when he turned70. "I've been trying to redress thebalance all my life." Terence Orby Conran was born in 1931.He studied textile design at London'sCentral School of Art and Design, andafter leaving, set up a furniture design,ceramics and fabric workshop in the EastEnd. He would weld steel chairs anddesign textiles and ceramics himself, andsome of these early works form theopening part of the exhibition. A few yearslater, in the early 1950s, he worked on theFestival of Britain on the South Bank.Photographs of Conran show a dapperyoung man with a slick of black hair.Around the same time, while travellingin France and experiencing its simple foodand rustic kitchenware, Conran had anepiphany: staid, post-war Britain, hedecided, needed a sniff of this appealing,French lifestyle. In 1953, inspired by thecontinent, he opened his first restaurant,The Soup Kitchen, just off the Strand incentral London. It sold what were thenexotic wares: French bread and cheese,espresso coffee and soup served inmugs. With its quarry-tiled floor and canechairs, it was also a design statement.Conran's love of France remains today. A year later he opened The Orreryrestaurant in Chelsea, a Parisian-stylebrasserie that took The Soup Kitchen'sconcept further and would transformBritain's eating habits. Archivephotography shown at the exhibitionreveals simple black-and-white checkedtables and functional lights that wouldn'tlook out of place in a restaurant today. Orrery was followed in 1956 by thelaunch of his design practice, ConranDesign Group, which covered interiors,furniture and graphic design - it wasresponsible for many of the new boutiquesspringing up all over the capital and eventhe interior for Terminal One at Heathrow.It was into this cool new world thatHabitat was born in 1964, on London'sFulham Road, then a workaday corner ofwest London. Colourful, modern andaffordable, with white walls, cut flowersand quarry tiled floors, it sold unstuffyfurniture, bean bags, duvets andJapanese paper lanterns to an excitedBritish public. Mary Quant designed thestaff uniforms, and Vidal Sassoon did theirhair. Examples of Habitat items at theexhibition include the Chesterfield sofa,Rodney Kingsman T1 Chair, ChickenBrick and the Charles and Jane DillonButterfly Light.Its catalogues from the 60s and 70s,styled with homewares and youngcouples, were legendary, paving the wayfor Ikea to do the same: theexhibition features a reconstructionof a room set from this era. It alsolooks at the work of otherdesigners Conran commissioned towork on Habitat's iconic identity, fromgraphics to shopping bags, while arecreation of Conran's study from hishome in Barton Court offers a glimpseinto his private world.The success of the store led to a high-profile growth spurt: Conran establishedThe Storehouse Group; design projectsincluded interiors and cutlery forConcorde; and his restaurant empireexpanded with the opening of Mezzo,Bluebird, Quaglino's and Le Pont de laTour in the UK. The Conran Shopopened, designed to be more exclusiveand expensive than Habitat, selling sleekmodern furniture and quirky objects. In 1989, at the end of the decade inwhich modern design really found itsfooting in British life, Conran, with others,opened the Design Museum in London. Itwas the first in the world devoted to thepromotion and examination of design. In2014, it relocates from its riverside perchin Butler's Wharf to the former site of theCommonwealth Institute in Kensington. Conran may not have been involvedwith Habitat since 1990, but he is stillpassionate about selling good design tothe mass market. He has just launched acollection of stylish and affordablefurniture with Marks & Spencer, andoversees two other furniture businesses,Benchmark and Content by Conran, withpieces at the exhibition including theMatador Chair and 59th Street sofa. "I've realised as I turn 80 that I need towork a lot harder," he said in October,only half jokingly. "Having a warm home that looks goodand works well and that you, yourfamily and friends enjoy mustbe one of the mostworthwhile things in life,"wrote Conran in theintroduction to The HouseBook, first published in 1974.The man himself woulddoubtless stand by thatmaxim today. The Way We Live Now,16 November 2011 -4 March2012. Contact: 020 7940 8790;www.designmuseum.orgAbove:Thestylish 59thStreet sofa willform part of theexhibition at theDesign Museum Below:A youngConran strikes apose back in 1950 Left: The OrreryBar originallypublished inArchitecture and Building,March 1955 DESIGN REVIEW / WINTER 201157Photos: Photographer Ray Williams; Content by Coran Collection.The Orrery Bar originally published in Architecture and Building, March 1955. Courtesy of University of Brighton Design Archives