Terence Conran on Design’s Past—and Its Future

Terence Conran has spent half a century showing that design, rather than a rarified expression, can be an experience in which all might partake. In his many guises—industrial and interior designer, publisher, author, restaurateur, property developer, town planner, retailer, and arts philanthropist—he has introduced beautiful, practical objects to mass audiences. Recent examples include three new London restaurants—El Floridita, Meza, and Paternoster Chop House—as well as a cigar boutique and lounge, all of which opened in October; a line of kitchen and cookware utensils for British grocery chain Sainsbury’s; and a luxury bed and bath line, Bed by Conran, which is to debut in January.

On the occasion of Designers on Design (Octopus Publishing Group USA), a compendium of interviews with 110 leading product designers, the éminence gris and the book’s co-author, journalist/curator Max Fraser, discussed the buying and selling of design. Topics included how countries are marketing design as an exportable commodity, as well as the current controversy at London’s Design Museum, which Conran founded.

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In Designers on Design, you highlight the “globalness” of design; in fact, you ask designers if their work is representative of their country. Why did you decide that was an important question to ask?

Terence Conran: Well, we once did an exhibition in the Design Museum called “National Characteristics,” and most of the designers there who answered said, “Oh no, we’re not worried about the national characteristics.” And yet I think, personally, it’s one of the most important things that happens in the world—that you can tell the nationality of a designer. I hate to think of a world where everything is global. To be able to recognize a national characteristic is very important, although none of the designers put it in on purpose. But it comes through, their genes show up.

Max Fraser: At the moment, I think it’s a dangerous idea, the globalness in the industry, because it doesn’t allow any niches to really mature and simmer, because things are picked up instantly and regurgitated.

I was really hoping that when I was interviewing designers for the book, a lot more would say, “Yes—national design characteristics are important to me, very important.” But very often the response was, “No—this is a global business, with global products.”

Yet in this global marketplace, countries are increasingly branding their designers, trying to promote some national design characteristic, be it real or forced. For example, at London trade fair 100% Design, Norway had a booth highlighting the work of over a dozen Norwegian designers, while Germany’s Nordrhein-Westfalen region did a similar thing, even calling the region a “design state.”

TC: Hurrah! The fact that lots of other nations came to exhibit in London was really great. But I’ll tell you partially why [they came]: Because governments have realized how important design is to their economies.

For example, in 2001, the U.K.’s Department of Culture, Media, and Sport—I don’t know why Sport is in there—did an analysis of where London’s income came from. The biggest was the financial services, which was bringing in 31 billion pounds a year. But shock—horror—surprise, the creative industries in London were producing 21 billion pounds a year. That’s an enormous amount, and it’s growing more rapidly. They reckon that by 2006, it’s going to be 32 billion pounds a year.

That increase in commercial interest and volume: What kind of effect does that have on the design retail business?

TC: Fifty years ago, when I first started [in the design business], it was really difficult to find a piece of modern furniture or furnishings—practically nothing existed. So I’ve just seen in my lifetime this enormous expansion. And the most interesting thing to me is what’s happened in America.

When I was a student, I used to long for Arts and Architecture—that magazine that’s produced on the West Coast—to arrive, because it covered Charles Eames, Alexander Gerhard, George Nelson, case-study houses. So I thought when I came to America—I had never been at that time—I’d find shops absolutely crammed with fantastic design.

I came here and I found nothing—absolutely nothing. And of course it had all gone underground into contract showrooms, into decorator centers and so forth, and the shops had distressed reproduction furniture in them. To a large extent, of course, they still do.

But just now in America, you’re suddenly beginning to find again your enthusiasm for modernity. People like Design Within Reach make it available. People’s taste is formed by what they’re offered, and if they’re not offered it, how do they know that they might like it?

Doing a book like Designers on Design suddenly again opens people’s eyes and they see. They can go into a shop like this and say, “Oh I could have these things in my home.”

Is that why you decided to write Designers on Design now?

MF: In this book, it was important to me that the personality of the designers came through, [because] often the character behind a product is anonymous. By interviewing those people and finding out how they got there, how they’ve grown into this position of becoming a successful designer, and what their big break was, we can learn a lot.

Do you think that some place like the Design Museum, of which you, Terence, are a founder and board member, can accurately represent all of the design that’s out there?

TC: Do know about the little discussion that’s going on about the Design Museum?

James Dyson [who has since resigned from his role as Chairman of the Design Museum’s Board of Directors] and I were concerned that the Design Museum is a bit too superficial at the moment. We’ve called for a better balance amongst the exhibitions, as there is a tendency for it to be the styling aspects of design without the real guts. Serious industrial design is a great deal more than just the shape of something—it’s how it works, how it’s made, ingenious use of manufacturing methods, new materials, how things can be used better—and certainly some of the trustees would like to see more of that in our exhibitions.

MF: Such as a display of a chair and its actual building process, from raw materials to this to this to this. That process is fascinating to most people. For example, this Eames chair here: It’s a world-renowned chair, but how the hell do you make it?

TC: And Eames is an appropriate example, of course, for his invention of plywood bending, use of aluminum, and use of fiberglass and plastics. He is the perfect example for many designers: somebody who was really innovative and creative.

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