Terence Conran, British tastemaker who popularized modern design, dies at 88

A restless entrepreneur with a sometimes volatile personality, he took his ideas around the world and once owned an empire of 90 stores with annual revenue of more than $2 billion. Calling himself a “hard-working hedonist,” he opened more than 50 restaurants, wrote more than 40 books, ran a design studio and later an architecture and urban planning firm.

All of it was built on the simple idea that good design leads to better living.

“No one has done more to change the way that Britain looks, or the way we look at things,” Deyan Sudjic, the onetime director of London’s Design Museum — another of Mr. Conran’s creations — told the Telegraph newspaper in 2011. “He’s changed the way our living rooms look, what we cook, where we go on holiday, our restaurant habits. . . . His influence has been enormous.”

Mr. Conran died Sept. 12 at Barton Court, his country home in Berkshire, England. He was 88. His family announced his death in a statement but did not cite a specific cause.

“In my heart I have always considered myself a furniture maker,” Mr. Conran once said. Early in his career, when he had a studio in London, he sold two of his chairs to Pablo Picasso.

But it was a journey to France in the early 1950s that changed the way Mr. Conran looked at everyday life. After the dreariness of postwar England, it was like seeing colors for the first time. He worked as a dishwasher in Paris, while absorbing the style and spirit of France: the food, the wine, the shape of chef’s knives, window boxes filled with flowers, the busy village squares.

“When I saw the way the French were living in their market towns, it was so different” from British life, Mr. Conran told the BBC in 2011. “The markets were piled high with fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish and charcuterie, and I thought: ‘Why can’t we be like that in this country?’ It gave me a guide to what I could aim for.”

In 1953, he opened a then-revolutionary restaurant in London called the Soup Kitchen, which served soup, salad and French baguettes — at the time, a daringly exotic item. He drove to Italy to buy an espresso machine, the second one in London.

He later opened another restaurant that specialized in omelets, followed by a fabric store and, by 1956, a studio that produced designs for modern furniture. In 1964, as London was becoming the center of a youth-driven revolution in music and fashion, Mr. Conran opened a store called Habitat. The store’s employees wore outfits designed by Mary Quant and haircuts by Vidal Sassoon.

The Beatles and fashion model Twiggy shopped at Habitat, as well as actors Peter Sellers and Michael Caine. The store was stocked with an assortment of wares never seen before in one place: Japanese paper lampshades, Scandinavian tables and chairs, French crockery and copper pots, German coffee grinders and stereo components, Austrian duvets, handwoven Persian kilims.

For Mr. Conran, the harmony of life contained many chords.

“There is no difference between the choices you make about the furniture you buy, the clothes you wear, the flowers you have in your home and the food you put on your plate,” he told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 2003. “It’s all a reflection of the same thing.”

He opened a branch of Habitat in Paris in 1973, then one in New York four years later and others around the world. (The U.S. stores were called Conran’s.) By the time he sold the stores in the early 1990s, Mr. Conran had been responsible, in no small measure, for popularizing a new sense of design and style.

In 1974, he published “The House Book,” which was something of a manual for how to furnish a home according to his principles. It was followed by “The Kitchen Book,” “The Bed and Bath Book,” “The Soft Furnishings Book” and others on cooking, gardening and more. Perhaps inevitably, Mr. Conran saw an opportunity in his books about fine living and created a publishing company.

“Terence Conran changed the way an entire generation looked at design, and he’s relentless and has never stopped,” Marian McEvoy, then editor in chief of House Beautiful magazine, told The Washington Post in 2002. “He loves to live, and he knows food, furniture, wines and gardening. He lives on all levels.”

Terence Orby Conran was born Oct. 4, 1931, in Kingston upon Thames, a London suburb. His father imported materials used in paint, and his mother was a homemaker with a strong interest in gardening and furnishings.

While attending a boarding school, Mr. Conran was hospitalized after a burst appendix, and he began to make and sell furniture for dollhouses. At 13, while he was working at a lathe, a piece of metal struck him in his left eye, damaging his vision.

He studied textile design at what was then called the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, then worked for an architect who was helping present an international design festival, which introduced Mr. Conran to international design concepts. One of his strongest influences was the mid-century modern look from California.

He favored simple, functional designs with minimal ornamentation. He freely mixed items from different cultures — African or Islamic textiles, say, with Scandinavian furniture and European pottery — and placed new items next to antiques.

He opened and closed several incarnations of design stores, some bearing his name and others not, and had dozens of restaurants, ranging from coffee shops and bars to dining halls seating hundreds of people. In 1989, he founded an architectural firm that planned high-density housing for urban settings.

Mr. Conran published an unconventional autobiography in 2001, in which he responded to questions from 150 friends about various aspects of his life. He was an unabashed bon vivant, enjoying fine meals, wines and expensive cigars until the end.

“I begin drawing with my first cup of coffee and my first cigar,” he told Vanity Fair last year. “I feel relaxed then.

His net worth was estimated at more than $100 million, and he spent millions to restore a once-crumbling 18th-century manor house and estate.

In his design offices, he could be demanding and thrifty to a fault. He went through workers’ wastebaskets, retrieving papers that hadn’t been used on both sides — and leaving them on the offenders’ desks. One of his colleagues said Mr. Conran had “the most inflated ego on the planet,” and others joked that France, artichokes and chairs did not exist until he invented them.

His marriages to Brenda Davison, Shirley Pearce and Caroline Herbert ended in divorce. His second wife published a novel, “The Revenge of Mimi Quinn” (1998) that was a roman à clef about the couple’s breakup. In 1997, Caroline Conran received about $18 million when she and Mr. Conran were divorced — the largest British divorce settlement up to that time for anyone not in the royal family.

In 2000, Mr. Conran married Vicki Davis, who survives him. Other survivors include, according to the Guardian newspaper, two children from his second marriage; three children from his third marriage; a sister; 13 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Mr. Conran was often asked for advice on home decorating.

“First take everything out of the room, put it on your front lawn and look at the room,” he told The Post in 2002. “Get the floors and walls as good as you can. Get rid of wires, make a good clean shell. And take back only what is useful. You’ll be amazed at the amount of stuff left in the yard.”

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