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Dancing on Terence Conran’s grave

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

Terence: The Man Who Invented Design Stephen Bayley and Roger Mavity Little

Brown, pp.336, 25

‘Who,’ asks Stephen Bayley, in one of the ‘S.B’ chapters of this irresistibly spiky co-written book, ‘could countenance working for a man like Terence, a man of such fluid principles, of such day-glo opportunism, of such sun-dried narcissism, guiltless hypo-crisy and Hallelujah Chorus egomania?’

Well, both S.B. and R.M. (the ad man Roger Mavity) did work for Terence Conran, in exalted positions. Both fell out with him, and both experienced at first hand all those qualities and more. In their separate chapters they take turns to express the essence of his genius and to get their own back for his disdainful treatment of them. One of his worst traits was his refusal to acknowledge the vital contributions of his seconds-in-command.

Ooh, this book is fun. I like ‘sun-dried narcissism’, redolent of the exotic item on restaurant menus of the 1990s, the decade in which, refusing to retreat into a corner after the humiliating collapse of his ill-conceived high-street-shops empire, Conran opened the Pont de la Tour, the Butler’s Wharf Chophouse, Cantino del Ponte, the Blue Print Café, Bluebird, the Coq d’Argent, Sauterelle, the Grand Café, the Paternoster Chop House, Plateau, Almeida, Sartoria, the Orrery, Mezzo, Floridita, Zinc and Quaglino’s. The energy of the man! Not that he took much interest in the restaurants once they were open. He was always on to the next project. And he couldn’t bear people telling him things he didn’t want to hear. ‘If you’re so clever,’ he barked at his accountant, ‘why aren’t you as rich as me?’

Bayley exalts in his own over-writing, and I lapped it up. Here he is on Conran’s first restaurant, the Soup Kitchen of the 1950s: ‘Terence attributed to it a Suez-like significance in the history of the nation’s alimentary canal.’ Of one of Habitat’s bestselling items: ‘In time, his Habitat chicken brick would take its place alongside the Jarrow March or the Parisian barricades as a symbol of domestic engagement in the struggle for a better life.’

There’s a great deal of evocative Habitatiana: not only that lidded, ovenproof, chicken-shaped terracotta container, but the 13-shilling pepper mill and the red enamel Polish coffee pot. Conran liked to think — and perhaps he was right — that he revolutionised the British interior for ever with his mantra: ‘Plain, simple, useful.’ He also claimed that he revolutionised the sex life of Britain by being the first to stock the duvet. Usefully, he included a ‘how to’ section on the duvet in the Habitat catalogue of 1973.

If you’re expecting this to be a biography of the man, you’ll be disappointed. Neither of the authors has the remotest intention of doing any spadework to uncover details about Conran’s Esher and Hampstead upbringing, or his being invited to leave Bryanston early, or his quitting the Central School of Arts and Crafts before graduating. They scarcely refer to his four wives. The first goes straight into the past tense: ‘A brief marriage to an architect called Brenda was over.’ The third, Caroline, gets her main mention after the divorce, when she won a then-record settlement of £10.5 million, the judge deciding that she had contributed much more to the success of his business than Conran had given her credit for. Twice within 18 pages Bayley writes that Terence could only see out of one eye, having injured the other in a childhood workshop accident — but ‘that single eye was a very, very good one’. We’re never told how the accident happened.

So, not a biography. This book is really a mixture of ‘Terence: Our Part in His Downfall’ and ‘Terence: His Part in Our Downfall’. It’s a rollicking, vengeful read. And you’ll feel vicariously hungover after the endless descriptions of good wine drunk at lunchtime, Conran having a soft spot for magnums, which ‘turn even rough vin ordinaire into an indulgent luxury’. The epitome of his career is described as a lunch with the merchant banker Roger Seelig at the Baumanière in Provence to celebrate their great high-street takeover — at which, after deliberating, they plumped for the £900 bottle rather than the £9,000 one, but the sommelier opened the latter by mistake.

Talking of vin ordinaire, both authors can’t resist lapsing into foreign languages, and not only French (beau idéal, restaurant du quartier and so on). ‘Sic transit gloria mundi,’ muses Mavity grandiosely, about the demise of the once-Conran-owned British Home Stores. ‘I saw this as a bit of meritato riposo,’ writes Bayley, of a fortnight’s break after his tireless work on the creation of the Design Museum — a holiday for which he was punished. In his absence, Conran imposed a ‘Midlands industrial designer for whom I had not much affection or respect’ to be a ‘moderating influence’. On discovering this, Bayley walked out, and went straight to a newsagents to cheer himself up with ‘a girlie magazine and a bar of chocolate’.

It’s riveting to read about the contradictions of the ‘man who invented design’. Conran could be both wonderfully generous, ending his dinner parties at his splendid Berkshire house, Barton Court, with extravagant fireworks displays, and amazingly mean. He grumbled that every trip up or down in the lift at his offices in Butler’s Wharf cost 54p, and asked the staff to use the stairs.

His HR strategy, writes Bayley damningly, ‘closely tracked the classic profile of the psychopath’. Revenge is a dished best served over a cold dead body, and the authors ladle it over his corpse here.

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