THE TIMES – May 25, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Sir Terence Conran has designed a Peace Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. Now he wants to do a Jamie Oliver on our “horrid” homes.

SIR TERENCE CONRAN has been intent on making his own political waves in recent months. There was his letter to The Times applauding Jamie Oliver’s campaign to improve school dinners and asking whether “our rather lethargic politicians” could be similarly jolted into doing something about “our appalling housing”.

He was one of three prominent Labour donors who refused to sign a letter supporting the Prime Minister — whom he refers to these days as “George W. Blair” — in the run-up to the election. And in designing the Peace Garden at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show — commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War — he also takes the opportunity of stating his fervent opposition to the war in Iraq.

Today he seems becalmed and saddened but mainly by personal rather than political events. The sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, a great friend and early mentor of Conran’s, has finally died after a lingering half-life following his collapse five years ago: “We never quite knew whether he’d become completely brain-dead. You’d go and see him and he’d sit there and you’d talk to him and talk to him and talk to him and sometimes you’d get a sort of flicker of something but . . .”

Directly after our interview in his Butler’s Wharf office, Conran and his wife, Vicki, and his son, Sebastian, are off to the funeral and “I shall be dreadful, pouring tears . . . I’ve got two large white handkerchiefs.” He pulls them out of his pocket like a mournful magician.

We started by talking about David Blunkett — Conran had come to see the showcase of the musical I’ve been involved in writing — and how he’d cried during some of the songs (Hasn’t He Done Well For a Blind Boy), despite not having had much sympathy for the new Work and Pensions Secretary before. And his eyes start to water again: “It’s very interesting that your emotions should connect to your tear ducts, isn’t it? Vicki ’s the same. If there’s a sad ending to a play or a film, we’ll both sit there and . . .” dab-dab with one of the handkerchiefs.

He seems the same old Conran behind his vast desk, reclining in one of his stylish chairs, puffing away on his cigar, in his pale blue shirt, elegant navy suit jacket to one side. There’s a loose arrangement of blue sweetpeas in a clear vase with a blast of sunshine lighting up the water; terracotta pots of lavender on the ledge outside his window.

But when I say that he looks thinner than when I last saw him a few years ago (and a bit older, at 73, which I don’t say), he tells me that he’s got a burst blood vessel in one eye which is “rather uncomfortable, especially as this is the only eye I can see out of.”

This was the first I’d heard of Conran’s semi-blindness; an arresting affliction for someone whose world revolves around the visual: “I was turning metal on a lathe at the age of 13 and a bit flew out and stuck in my eye — which got me out of National Service,” he says. “But I think an eye for two years’ National Service is a fair exchange.”

It’s probably inevitable, with the death of such a dear old friend pressing on his mind, that our conversation keeps returning to the past. There is something comforting — a form of resummoning — to recollect incidents with someone you have loved when you first knew them. Paolozzi was Conran’s teacher at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, as it was known then, when he was just about the only male student among “33 virgins from the suburbs”.

Conran and Paolozzi lived close to one another and shared a workshop; the young student taught his tutor how to weld and, in turn, was inspired to transform junk metal into his own fledgeling innovative designs.

“Eduardo was also really the first person who got me interested in food,” says Conran, who is slightly dismayed that he’s known these days as a restaurateur rather than as a designer. “He’d cook things like squid-ink risotto which, in the 1940s and early 1950s, was unheard of. I can remember him teaching me how to slice an onion; the manual dexterity that was needed to do it properly.

“He was a most generous man. If he came to stay with you, he’d arrive with an armful of stuff: prints, pieces of cast sculpture. His pockets were always filled with every sort of little, interesting object that he would pick up. He’d sit down with my children and they’d make heads in clay together.”

As a boy, Conran was a dreamy, rather solitary child who liked nothing better than to wander through country fields with his butterfly net; collecting flowers and pressing them. His mother, Christina, was convinced that her son would grow up to be a botanist or lepidopterist. During the Second World War, his family moved for safety from London to Liphook, Hampshire, where there was a large arms dump which the Germans discovered and bombed. The young Conran was evacuated to an aunt who lived near Plymouth, and the bombs followed him.

Meanwhile, back in London, his father’s gum copal business — not far from the Butler’s Wharf area that Conran has colonised and made fashion-able — was bombed along with the family home. “Anybody who was involved in World War Two, certainly as a child, felt ‘Never again’,” he says. “So probably this is partially why I feel so strongly about Iraq. I mean, who am I to say, as George W. Blair did, that I have any sort of right to go and get rid of somebody else’s dictator?” Conran’s first “rather facetious” suggestion for the Peace Garden: “Two big green burial mounds, one with a plaque on it saying T. BLAIR, the other with GEORGE W. BUSH… Yes, it’s peace because we have got rid of two warlords.”

He feels a great deal of fury towards T. Blair, something almost akin to the cold intensity of a duped lover. “It is complicated because I had made a television film for his ’97 election and was initially very, very, very enthusiastic about what new Labour could do for this country.

“In the early days, it was rather like the young Kennedy coming to power in America. You felt an energy and a hopefulness and a freshness . . . and then it started to wane away.

“And the other thing that I was really upset about was the university top-up fees. How can you stand on a platform of education, education, education and then make it that much more difficult for people to get that education they so desperately need?”

Incidentally, he adds, this is not the first time that he has made a public stand against England’s involvement in a war: “I was very, very, very angry with Thatcher at the time of the Falklands and had been asked to some lunch at Downing Street and publicly said, ‘I’m not going’.”

The Peace Garden call from the Imperial War Museum came last year, just after he had completed another garden. The challenge for him, as someone so opposed to war, was how to use the garden as a way to provoke people to think. “How to come up with the appropriate symbolism when it’s a garden of remembrance, really, not celebration . . . quite the reverse,” he says.

Conran was sitting at the dining table of Barton Court, his Georgian country home in Kintbury, Berkshire, gazing absent-mindedly at the plate in front of him, when he realised that the symbolism he was searching for was staring straight back at him. It was his family crest, going back to his paternal grandmother “whose family was quite nobby at one time”, a dove with an olive branch in its beak standing on twisted serpents and the legend In pace ut sapiens. “From peace comes wisdom, and I thought, ‘That’s it!’” he recalls.

So his Peace Garden has an olive tree, and white ceramic doves made by a student at the Royal College of Art (where Conran is provost) emerging from an interesting triangular dovecote (“I would have loved to have live doves but you’re not allowed livestock”), a new frothy white rose called Remembrance, more white flowers with a scattering of scarlet poppies, water flowing with a pool at the centre for reflection, “about half a million pebbles to symbolise all the lives lost by the UK and Commonwealth countries during the war”; a large wall at the back with Peace carved into the stone in about 40 languages and Thinking Men’s Chairs, an early design by Jasper Morrison, who happens to be the son of the sister of Conran’s most recent ex-wife, Caroline.

Although he is famously frugal and believes in using food (at home, I presume, rather than in his restaurants) which is well past its sell-by date — another legacy of the war years — Conran is also generous with his time and his charitable foundation (the Design Museum; an Indian charity set up to protect street children and give them schooling; teaching at colleges in deprived areas such as Peckham).

One of his recent ventures is coming to the rescue of Embassy Court, a Thirties Modernist masterpiece designed by Wells Coates, which was languishing dangerously — “a complete death trap” is how Conran describes it — and disfiguring Brighton’s seafront. He was approached by an indomitable group of women who live there, known as Bluestorm, and agreed to do all the initial work (calling in surveyors, concrete specialists, meetings with Brighton council and so on) free. And, of course, where Conran lends his support, investment tends to follow.

I told him that one of the Bluestormers had mentioned some story about Conran becoming entranced by the building, years ago, when he was in Brighton on a dirty weekend. First of all, he asks: “Who told you that?” And then: “ Oh really . . . I have absolutely no memory of it. I think I’ll have another cigar.” Which may be the closest Conran gets to blushing.

What does Conran make, I wonder, of the survey that found Ikea to be Britons’ favourite shop? “Yuh, and they have fights in it as well,” he says. “I think what it says about us is that maybe the work I did in the early years of Habitat [which opened in 1964 and was sold to Ikea in 1992] — my belief that if you offered people things that were nicely designed and available at a price they could afford, that this has percolated down to the mass, mass market . . . which is where I always hoped it would.”

Conran has a nice line in gentle character assassination. I think this has more to do with an odd social ineptness arising from his shyness — he once described the most striking note of the scent on my wrist as “sweat” — as well as a slightly detached, absurdist response to the world. However his statements sound in print, in other words, I don’t believe they are meant to be snide. Of Marco Pierre White, for instance, with whom he had dined the previous evening, he says: “It was lovely. He talks and talks and talks, very enthusiastically . . . so it was quite a restful evening.”

Of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea (which Conran pronounces, correctly, one presumes, as Ick-ee-ahh), he says: “He’s an extraordinary man, quite apart from being one of the richest men in the world.” Didn’t you tell me that he was rather frugal? “I would say that was a totally insufficient description. He’s totally demented about frugality. He would never ever spend money on anything for pleasure.

“Part of his frugality is that he doesn’t believe in paying tax — which is why he lives in Lucerne. So he has this enormously complicated structure in this enormous business which is all to do with avoiding paying tax. Not in a dishonest way,” he emphasises.

He recalls taking Kamprad and his wife out to lunch a few years ago and “Ingvar came in chewing tobacco — because he’s still quite peasant stock — and he took it out and placed it on the side of the table [pulls a face] . . . and I said to his wife, ‘So, are you having a good time in London? What are you doing?’ and she said [sing-song voice], ‘Oh yes, I’m buying silver,’ and Ingvar said, [crossly] ‘No you ’re not! You’re buying silver plate.”

When I tell him that I own a Conran Burnham sofa [the dimensions of a ship] and now an Ikea sofa of more or less the same size and shape but at a fraction of the price, Conran sounds genuinely amazed and impressed. “Really! Really! Ikea’s doing one the same size! Well, you know, I keep saying to Ingvar, ‘For God’s sake, Ingvar, put another 5 per cent on the price and give service.’ Because the service is so bad.”

Jamie Oliver’s success with his school dinner campaign has fuelled Conran’s long-term concern about transforming the way in which people live. It’s not nearly enough for him that the swollen ranks of the middle classes — or even Ikea’s “mass mass market” — are able to assemble “plain, simple and useful” furniture (his William Morris mantra) to fill their houses, if those houses are so woefully ugly and inadequate for most people’s needs.
“We should have a public debate about why the average developer’s houses are such appalling, ticky-tacky little boxes.”

For many years Conran has wanted to make a film, taking the average family on a low income and looking at how they live: “The horrid visit to their bathroom first thing in the morning, down the stairs to this terrible kitchen, going on terrible public transport, taking their children to this terrible school . . . how it is, actually, for most people in this country,” he says.

“And then showing how it could be if thoughtful, intelligent design was used in every way. What public transport could be like, what a local school can be like, what an office can be like. To show the contrast. This is how it is for most people . . . and this is how it could be at the same sort of price level.”

It is hard to think of anyone who would not wish Conran well in this campaign, but it is — of course — an expensive one to fund. He is in talks, as they say, with the BBC, with one particularly enthusiastic producer keen to create a BBC model house. Architects, such as Norman Foster, have been contacted. And he has been trying to persuade James Dyson to design an all-purpose domestic unit that produces hot water, cool air, refrigeration, all the services you need for a house which would then significantly reduce the cost of building it. “We’ve been talking to a company in Japan about it,” Conran says. “But the investment to make it happen is enormous.”

I get the feeling that if T. Blair could rise to this challenge, Conran might even be able to forgive him. “We know in our gut how much we are all affec- ted by our surroundings. How we feel on sunny day, for instance, and when it’s grey and gloomy out.

“If you’re constantly frustrated by the way things work, then it obviously has an effect on you mentally and physically. We know this but I don’t think it’s ever been said to Government, ‘Look! You are responsible for the welfare of the nation. Why don’t you pay more attention to this subject?’

“This is what I’ve been trying to do all my life: to put things in front of people that are a thoughtful alternative.”

Conran once said that he loathed the expression “lifestyle”, which is interesting since he may well be considered the inventor of it.

I wonder what he thinks of Martha Stewart: the antithesis, I would have thought, of the most successful (in her own career) of his three ex-wives, Shirley Superwoman Conran. While her most famous line was “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom”, Martha’s reply would surely be that life is all about the stuffing of a mushroom. “Actually, they’re very similar,” Conran says. “I know Martha a little bit. Both of them are deeply ambitious. Basically Martha fuels her ambition by stuffing mushrooms. But what she’s really interested in is ‘Martha Stewart: the powerful, influential woman with her own television station and magazines and money’.”

So would you be appalled to be called the Martha Stewart of England? “Oh, I have been,” he says. “Don’t worry, and it doesn’t please me in the slightest. But where she has made teaching the American middle classes something which I suppose she believes in, I’ve never seen it as my role in life to be an educationalist. I’ve just done the things I enjoy doing.”