14 September 2020

Aston Lark team mourns passing of British designer Sir Terence Conran

By Lisa Smith Executive Director
Aston Lark Executive Director Lisa Smith was one of Sir Terence Conran’s greatest admirers and shares her memories alongside a conversation with him that was published in the first issue of Aston Lark’s LARKlife magazine.

Sir Terence Conran probably had more impact than any other designer of his generation on everyday life in contemporary Britain and in November 2016  the Aston Lark team was privileged to witness him cut the ribbon at the opening of architect John Pawson’s magnificent new Design Museum in Kensington High Street.

Members from Aston Lark’s designated charity SmartWorks, which helps women get back into the workplace, were also there to take part in the day.

It was a wonderful occasion and we were all thrilled to be in the presence of such a visionary who actually revolutionised home living as we know it today. He was truly inspirational and into his 80s he explained his continual drive. He said: “When you are involved in things you are passionate about energy comes naturally.”

In 2015, he granted me an interview for LARKlife magazine in which he revealed it was his mother’s influence that sent him on a creative path. We offer our heartfelt condolences to Sir Terence’s family and would like to re-share the story we were privileged to work on with him.

Here is the story:

I can’t really remember a time when design wasn’t a serious part of my life. As a small child my favourite present was a bag of wooden offcuts and nails with a pretty basic tool kit.

After much pestering, my mother gave me a space for a small workshop and allowed me to set up a wood-fired pottery kiln. There is no doubt this was the point where I began to develop the curious mind of a designer.

My mother was a terrific influence on my sister, Priscilla, and I from a very early age. She always encouraged us to express ourselves and provided us with the means to do so and if she had grown up in a more progressive era she would certainly have been an artist or a designer.

She made sure that creatively we never wanted for anything, whether that was materials, opportunities or guidance. We really do owe her so much for setting us on a creative path.

But I also like to think I also always had an entrepreneurial side. I remember exchanging a wooden battleship I had made for a potter’s lathe and being extremely proud with my side of the deal.

I’ve always had that spirit in me and it was no different when the opportunity came to make a little bit of money and sell some of my own designs – it’s a strong instinct I have that drives much of what I do. I have ideas, passion and want to make things happen.

My lifetime in design has been the most fantastic journey I could have ever imagined and continues to give me immense pleasure. I began my career as a textile designer with aspirations to become a product designer in a very grey and austere Britain in the 1950s.

Since then our design group has designed everything from skyscrapers to cottages and interiors for anything from airport terminals and department stores to small shops and cafes. We have designed cars and teaspoons, iPod docks, lights, furniture, homeware, lighting, aircraft and boat interiors.

We have also opened and operated our own shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, clubs and hotels so I really do know how very lucky I am that my long career has offered me such a rewarding, diverse and exciting style of life.

“When you are involved in things you are passionate about you find that energy comes quite naturally.”

Despite the diversity of my interests, first and foremost I have always considered myself a designer because it is where all our activities meet and encompasses everything we have ever tried to do. It has been about using design to create a style of life that people can afford and enjoy.

Obviously, as with any designer, I have been affected by events surrounding me, but I hope I have remained true to my fundamental aim. I’m a plain, simple and practical sort of fellow.

What I’ve done all my life, and continue to do, is design and promote affordable, useful products.
The belief that my generation had is that design can improve the quality of life for everybody because good design gives you pleasure and improves the quality of life through products or buildings that work well, are affordable and look beautiful.

Timeless design that endures and improves with careful use over time is the most appealing quality and I suppose it is this belief that has driven me along the way during my long career in design – the idea that intelligent design makes the world in which we live a more interesting, enjoyable and comfortable place. Great design should be useful, beautiful and make you smile.

I know I am exceptionally lucky that everything I do in my business life I would also do for pleasure. Designing, writing, eating, drinking, shopping, travelling, visiting museums and galleries, collecting objects that I love, gardening – even smoking cigars –are all connected to my work in some way and I cannot think of anything else I would rather do.

When you are involved in things you are passionate about you find that energy comes quite naturally. And if I am feeling a bit down I escape to the greenhouse and smoke a cigar, read a good book and enjoy a glass of vieille prune – my long lifetime in design allows me that small luxury.

Sir Terence Conran who passed away, aged 88, on 12 September 2020.

A lifelong career in design

At the Central School of Art and Design in London, Conran absorbed the Bauhaus and Arts & Crafts beliefs that ‘a good design should be available to the whole community, not just to a few’ and set up as an independent designer at the age of 21.

The founder of Habitat took Britain out of the gloom of post war austerity into a vision of what the domestic world could be like. It was a particular version of modernism, based on simple forms, natural materials and a fresh colour palette.

He bought and sold Heals furniture business, set up fashion chain Next and ran British Home Stores and Mothercare. He continues to be involved in retail with The Conran Shop.

He later embarked on a career in the restaurant business and in 2008 he opened the Boundary in Shoreditch – a restaurant, rooftop bar and grill, café, bakery and foodstore with 17 individually designed bedrooms.

Conran was instrumental in establishing the Design Museum in London. He negotiated the Boilerhouse project in the V&A museum’s basement in 1982 which outgrew its premises and with Conran’s support saw its metamorphosis into the Design Museum at the Shad Thames site before the opening of the new Design Museum opening in November 2016.


Photo credit: Julian Broad

Related Articles