In honor of today's opening of the New York City Conran Shop in it's new location—at ABC Carpet & Home, the epicenter of design in Manhattan, at least at the retail level—I have decided to offer a salute to Sir Terence, who set up his first design business in 1956 and has been charging like the Light Brigade ever since. With three of his four adult children following in his footsteps, you might well say he is as dynastic as he is dynamic. (The portrait of Old Smokey was taken by Dara Flynn for The Sunday Times of London in December 2009).
I first met his Designship at his duplex atop the company's offices on Shad Thames (that's a street on the formerly unfashionable south side of the river, east of the Tower Bridge). Once upon a sailing-schooner time, this was a thriving commercial area for trade in tea, coffee, and spices, but by the mid-1990s the magnificent red-brick warehouses, with their impressive above-the-street gantries, were empty and the cobbled streets abandoned. Here it is back in its first prime:
By the time Sir Terry and his fellow investors got hold if it, "Butler's Wharf" wasn't used much, except as a location for films that were set in (a) a scary place or (b) a historic place or (c) both of the above—films (and TV shows) like Dr. Who, The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and, of course, Oliver! Dickens lived not far away in his salad days (although he probably didn't eat much salad).
Now the area is chic rather than cheap or cheeky. It's full of cafés and restaurants, high-end lofts, and the Design Museum, founded—you should not be surprised to learn—by Conran and a few like-minded artful dodgers in 1989. And here it is now, in a lovely evening photo by Luke Hayes:
Conran, as anyone who has met him can attest, is charming, erudite, witty, and charismatic. If he didn't smoke cigars, I'd want to be around him all the time. Not content to be the king of the design hill (sorry, Prince Charles, but it is not you), TC is also a restaurateur, hotelier, architect, interior decorator, author, and publisher. In fact, his best-selling The House Book (1974) is something of a Joy of Cooking for the kind of people who love to rearrange their furniture:
There have been many sequels and collateral tomes over the years, the latest of which, proving the old gent has a lot of young ideas, is The Eco House Book (2009):
Whenever I'm in London, I try to get to the Conran Shop there, the one in Chelsea, partly because it's adjacent to Bibendum, the restaurant the good Lord installed in the 1911 Michelin building on the Fulham Road. Have a look. If you haven't been there, go!
Bibendum, in case you didn't know, is the name of the Michelin Tire Man:
Here, as a relevant design aside, is a picture of the Bibendum chair, designed by Eileen Gray, one of Conran's chiefest inspirations. I think you can get why she gave it the moniker.
The first time I ever heard of Eileen Gray was from the man himself. He had a Gray settee in the entryway at Shad Thames. The apartment itself was an awakening. The natural light nearly knocked me over, and the combination of Conran designs, classic modernist pieces, and beautifully but casually displayed idiosyncratic collectibles really set the tone for a generation. The lightness, openness, transparency, and layered exposures of the design were everything (thankfully) Victorianism was not. The article I wrote about the meeting and the apartment ran in Metropolitan Home. (Have I mentioned today that Metropolitan Home is no more?)
Here now are some of the Big T's own furniture designs (lest you think he is only an entrepreneur):
Meanwhile, at the New York Conran Shop, in the lower level of the ABC Home building (888 Broadway, at 19th Street, New York, NY 10003; 212/473-3000), you can choose among and between designs by Conran himself, those by such mid-century masters as Eames, Saarinen, Noguchi, and Panton, living legends like Philippe Starck, and the anonymous craftsmen who make some of the shop's most affordable pieces. Conran was and is a pioneer of the notion that the humble may live quite comfortably among the aristocratic. Many things in the stately home outside London that he shares with his wife (Mrs. Sir Conran #4) are more common than couture. It's how they are used that makes the whole seem so swell.
To tantalize, here are some of the pieces you might find at the new store, which—like a good bistro that uses only the freshest seasonal ingredients—is featuring outdoor furniture and accessories:
In closing, I'm going to let you have a little peek at the bathroom chez Conran, a room far larger than my apartment in New York, indeed larger than the footprint of the house in which I grew up. This image (by photographer David Garcia) is from Metropolitan Home DESIGN 100: The Last Word in Modern Interiors, which will be published by Filipacchi Publishing in September 2010-ish.
And have I mentioned that the book is being written by... me?—ML