5 February 2012

Terence Conran at the Design Museum

The Design Museum had been on my list of places to go to for a while but its slightly out of the way location (it's to the East of Tower Bridge on the south bank of the Thames) had kept me away.

Then an evening at the theatre gave me an afternoon in London and the opportunity to explore a part of the city that I had only been to fleetingly before.

The current exhibition, Terence Conran: The Way we Live Now, was of interest because the Conran name is well known in the design world, especially for Habitat, and in my younger richer days I had bought some furniture from his flagship store in the Fulham Road, Chelsea.

Conran hit my consciousness in the 70s, that is when I bough a large black ash desk from Habitat, but he started work long before that (he worked on the Festival of Britain in 1951) and this is reflected in the exhibition where some of the work looks interesting but seriously dated.

The 50s feel to the furniture and fabrics is unmistakable yet the nearest pattern also has a touch of the modern about it.

The furniture is just horrible but must have seemed revolutionary at the time when most houses had little furniture in them other than the basic table and chairs. Wall units were new once!

In telling the story of Conran's life, the exhibition reveals much about his approach and philosophy.

My main learning here was regarding his interest, background and skill in the manufacturing side of the process, as summarised in this quote.

One of the exhibits was a large chest of immaculate woodwork tools and there were several photographs of the furniture factory that was Conran's first major enterprise.

It was interesting to see that some of this was flat-packed which must also have seemed revolutionary once.

Habitat features heavily in the exhibition and has a large area dedicated to this period. Some of the more eye-catching displays include a selection of Habitat mail order catalogues (I remember getting those) and a pile of bright red tea-pots.

And this sofa.


I used to own a sofa something a little like this but not as impressive. The Bauhaus influence is strong, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

The other fabrics in the Habitat room were nice too.

Again the Bauhaus style can be seen in some of the geometric shapes and some of the other motifs look familiar too.

To be fair, I am not sure if that is because I remember them from the time, they copy designs that I know or other designs that I know copied them.

The chicken and egg problem is a real one in design and it is often impossible to be certain where a particular idea started. Who wore the first stripped, hooped or flowery outfit?

There is some real furniture as well as pictures and this chair is simple and very attractive.

Unfortunately it is an exhibit so sitting on it is not allowed but it looks comfortable though it may take some getting used to something as low down as this.

It might also be hard to get in to and out of, much like a sports car that is only a foot off the ground.

More practical are the wide arms while the Mackintoshesque cuts in the back make it beautiful too.

I knew that Conran had been involved in restaurants though I have never been to one and do not expect to either.

What I did not know is how many restaurants he had been involved in or the extend to which the design extended, e.g. it included all of the crockery and glassware as well as the furnishings and furniture.

There is a simple but effective cameo of each restaurant which has a place setting, a dining chair and a photograph of the interior.

I found this to be a neat way to present all of the designs and, as a result, I spent more time than I expected looking at forks.

The Conran exhibition was an informative and rewarding experience and was a fair reward for the walk from Tower Bridge to get there.

I may well head back there for another exhibition before too long but in future years this will become easier as the Design Museum is moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building on Kensington High Street.

That's just a tube ride away from me and it's close to the V&A too. That makes it a good move.

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