I want to share with you my interview with Sir Terence Conran which took place last week and was tremendously inspiring — Sir Terence was in New York for the launch of his new book, The Eco House Book, which focuses on his biggest concern: good design for the planet.
Sitting down with friend and colleague Micheal Cannell, we had an unprecedented amount of time with him and our conversation covered many topics. In all of them he was straightforward, blunt even, and refreshingly aspirational and practical in the way that only a self-made person can be.
Has the recession changed design?
Sir Terence's basic answer was "yes." In England he saw that it had really changed people's thinking for the second time in his life. The first time, and what it reminded him of, were the post war years in London, when people got used to rationing, pared down and returned to the "essentials" of living. "That," he said, "was a real eco-period."
"America did amazing things for design in the '50's"
He kept returning to the notion that scarcity inspires design and that America's greatest period (and the period that inspired him the most) was the California design flowering after the war. Case Study, Eames, Nelson, Neutra et al really focused on design for the quality of life and represented the American equivalent of the Bauhaus.
Who inspires him now?
Sir Terence is a huge fan of James Dyson. He felt that he's doing some of the most exciting work in design right now, and pointed to his new Air Multiplier Fan. What he particularly likes is that Dyson is really a "designer," in that his innovative designs come from technical design breakthroughs. His fan, for example, he said is only possible because Dyson has made the fastest electric motor in the world.
Quality of Life is what is important & Restaurants
I love the fact that Sir Terence kept coming back to this. He spoke about the importance in his life of restaurants, which have been a part of his business since the very beginning. Restaurants combine food and environment, both of which, when they are good and healthy, contribute to a high quality of life.
He spoke at length about his first restaurant, The Soup Kitchen, which he opened in London in 1953. It was intended to provide simple, good food at fair prices, and it cost him only 147 pounds to open. Serving soup, French bread, apple flan and the best coffee in London (he had the 2nd Gagga espresso machine in England), it was an immediate success and caused, as he said, "a restaurant cockroach to get into his bloodstream." He has never wavered from his belief that people want simple, affordable solutions.
His latest restaurant is also an English cafe and no dish costs more than 10 pounds.
Where do you go when you come to NYC?
He loves the Meatpacking District and the High Line.
What about Cuba?
Interestingly, Sir Terence is very involved in plans to help in developing and restoring Cuba as soon as the doors open. He says that the time is near and that everyone is waiting for Obama to lift the ban.
His love of Cuba comes from the fact that Cuba is one of the special places on earth that were seized by Modernism in the 1950's. He loves the architecture there. His plans, should they proceed, would be in helping to preserve and reuse this old architecture within new development.
His biggest concern has now to do with the fact that he says we've been overrun by "disposable culture." Our market economy, he said, has created an engine for growth where jobs and economies are tied to the production of products that are not meant to last long. Planned obsolescence would be the term for this, and he mentioned stores like Top Shop (fashion) and IKEA (furnishings) as contributing to this trend. He is interested only in designing products of long term value now.
What furniture do you have in your home?
In the city: a mixture of modern classics, including Prouve, Thonet, Poltrona Frau, Eames, and Conran.
In the country: old furniture. It's much more complicated there." he said. :-)
His taste has changed, however, and he is more drawn to old furniture which he finds in flea markets and mixes in with his modern pieces.
Will Conran be bringing more shops to the USA?
He'd love to, but he says, they still have to crack New York City. They're thinking about moving to a new location in NYC before they add stores elsewhere.
Finally, we discussed his new book, which he has sent to Michelle Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicholas Sarkozy. Working on preserving our environment is what everything boils down to now for him, and it's particularly personal for him, since "homes are the biggest contributors to the carbon footprint."
His new book is a full of resources and inspiration with which to chart a new course, and he's afraid that the world's leaders will balk at signing environmental legislation in Copenhagen next month. "Particularly Obama," he said, "I'm afraid he's not going to do it." That's why he sent Michelle his book.