When I was a student in the 1980s, my prized possession was a “chicken brick”, a simple piece of terracotta pottery for baking chicken. I bought it at Habitat, the home store established by Terence Conran -- the man who gave us the duvet, the wok and the paper lightshade, and who has, over the last 50-odd years, become synonymous with contemporary design and good taste. To mark the eightieth birthday of Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum is hosting an exhibition celebrating his unique and lasting impact on British contemporary life, his special creative and entrepreneurial flair, and, as the exhibition introduction notes, his “particularly persuasive way of looking at things”.

The title of the exhibition, which is taken from Anthony Trollope’s satirical society novel, suggests the wide-ranging influence of Terence Conran on so many aspects of everyday life. As if to reconfirm this, a bundle of giant “Conran blue” pencils stands at the entrance, each one inscribed with one of Conran’s activities: interior design, furniture design, food and more. It is ironic, when one considers the subsequent upward trajectory of Conran’s professional life, that he did not complete his diploma at London’s Central School of Art because he felt that design was not a career.

The exhibition, which is organised chronologically, opens with some of Conran’s early pieces: photographs and ephemera which demonstrate his taste for well-designed, simple, functional, and beautiful things, including textiles, ceramics, magazine covers and steel chairs which he welded himself. There are also examples of the work he did for the Festival of Britain in 1951.

The story of Habitat, the influential home store he established in 1964 just as the Sixties were starting to swing, is told through pieces which have become modern “design classics”: modular sofas and shelving units, Bauhaus armchairs, stylish kitchen utensils, inspired by products he saw in France, and Braun electrical goods. There are quirks too, such as the classic china teapot given a cool contemporary twist with a vibrant red glaze, displayed in the exhibition just as it would have been in a Habitat store, stacked five high and ten across, the famous chicken brick, and the Italian stove-top coffee maker. The recreation of a Habitat room set brought on a rush of nostalgia, as I recognized textiles and accessories my parents owned in the 1970s, and that I had in my first flat in the 1980s. All simple in their construction, “utilitarian” in the truest sense of the word, easy to use and pleasing to the eye, these were the pieces through which Conran strove to “democratise” good design, and which helped to shape the look of everyday British life, a look which continues today, and is more popular than ever.

Alongside the displays of domestic design, there is also a section focusing on Conran’s larger commercial projects, under the remit of the Conran Design Group, and revealing his skill as both designer and successful businessman: the interior of Terminal One at Heathrow Airport; hotel, retail and restaurant designs; graphics; products; publishing; food and homewares. Another section is devoted to his Benchmark furniture business with a display of initial sketches and exquisitely crafted pieces, which exemplify Conran’s belief that “form and function” should come together as well as being aesthetically beautiful.

“Plain, simple and useful” is another of Conran’s mantras, aptly demonstrated in the place settings of his various restaurants with discreetly-monogrammed white porcelain, well-proportioned cutlery, fine glassware, and table linen -- all pure lines and muted colours. The recreation of Conran’s study at his home, Barton Court, offers a fascinating glimpse into his private world, a well-proportioned space, which is both eclectic and unfussy.

The exhibition is not overwhelming in its scale, and the attractive displays reflect Terence Conran’s taste for clean lines and simplicity. There is a strong emphasis throughout on Conran’s ongoing impact on current design and his promotion of new or innovative designers, his love of good food and cooking, and his special gift for “creating a way of life that others want to share”.
Terence Conran: The Way We Live Now, at Design Museum

An exhibition on Terence Conran brings on a rush of nostalgia for his utilitarian yet aesthetic household designs. This is the man who gave us the duvet, the wok and the paper lightshade, who strove to democratise good design, and who shaped the look of everyday British life.