Terence Conran’s Designer Guide to London

Terence Conran’s Designer Guide to London

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a name as ubiquitous as it is influential. Identifiable
as dapper, amiable and hard-working, Terence Conran is renowned in
Britain as the man who democratised good design. In London
his home – it seems there is no borough (or business) that he has
not successfully dominated – or at least dabbled in.

Backtrack to a newly graduated textile design student, Conran
set up a furniture design, ceramics and fabric workshop in the East
End with his friend, Scottish sculptor and artist Eduardo Paolozzi
at the beginning of the 1950s. By 1953, he had opened his first
restaurant, The Soup Kitchen, just off the Strand, with a menu
offering French bread, coffee and soup served in mismatched mugs. A
year later he launched The Orrery, a Parisian-style brasserie in
Chelsea. Then, in 1964 Habitat opened shop on the Fulham Road and
the rest is history. Catering to a young and happening clientele,
the shop was modern, colourful and affordable, selling everything
from woks to duvets. Mary Quant designed the staff uniforms and
Vidal Sassoon did their hair. Going from strength to strength, fast
forward to 1989 and Conran launched the Design Museum (then in Shad
Thames, now in Kensington) with Stephen Bayley. Safe to say, his
career had reached stratospheric levels.

It’s plausible that nearly every inch of the London map has been
infiltrated by Conran and his designs – be it by way of a futon
delivery or museum outing. So who better than the irrefutable
ringmaster, restaurateur and retailer to show us the ins and outs
of his home town?

You started out in a workshop in East End with Eduardo Paolozzi
making furniture in the late 1940s. What’s the best thing about the
area, both then and now?

Then? The only thing to commend it was the exceptionally cheap
rents and the access to raw materials! London was a desolate and
grim place in the years after the war so materials and equipment
were scarce and we scrounged old bits of metal from building sites
and textiles from stalls on Petticoat Lane. The East End today is
unrecognisable from those early days. The whole world is alive and
thriving there; it is probably the most exciting part of our city,
oozing creativity.

Where in London are the best places to go furniture

I know I’m biased, but I really think The Conran
is the best place for contemporary furniture in London.
I’d also doff my cap to Russell Pinch – an excellent furniture
designer who has set up a store called Pinch in

For fabric shopping we should head to…

London has such a rich history of textiles and fabrics. There
are some excellent places in Soho, such as the Cloth House on
Berwick Street and Macculoch & Wallis on Poland Street. If
you’re serious about fabrics then Goldhawk Road and its eclectic
selection of about 20 stores is a must-visit destination.

Where should we go to shop for one-off objects?

Antique Market
. It’s a veritable treasure trove and a great
place to pick up a design classic. I could lose myself in there for
hours on end. I love the mix of people too – seasoned antique
hunters bustle side by side with curious tourists unlikely to buy
anything in a million years.

What’s your favourite museum in London?

The Soane
provides such a personal experience that not many other
museum’s offer. The V&A still takes my breath away whenever I visit,
it is an incredibly inspiring place to walk around. It’s over 70
years since my first trip there.

Where are the best places in the city to see contemporary

The big hitters – Tate Modern, Saatchi
and the Royal Academy– will never disappoint. I also
very much like the Serpentine Gallery, while the Institute of Contemporary
and the Hayward Gallery have been putting on some spectacular
exhibitions recently.

Best spot for Sunday lunch?

I don’t think there is a finer spot for a spring or summer meal
in London than the The River Café where I have happily wiled away many an
hour in their garden eating the simple, unpretentious food they
serve. The key to its success is the mantra of Ruth Rogers and the
much missed Rose Grey – “sourcing, sourcing sourcing”. What would I
eat? Who knows, because the menu changes twice a day every day
according to what is best in the market that morning but I know it
will be delicious and that the star of the dish will be the
inherent quality of the ingredients. There will also be a glass or
two of Italian white from their excellent and extensive list.

For an important dinner book a table at…

Quo Vadis is one of the classic Soho restaurants and
remains an absolute delight to visit and a pleasure to eat in. It
won’t let you down.

For a business lunch head to…

Sweetings in the city is perfect for an excellent
lunch to discuss business.

Three of the best pubs in London are…

near Earls Court, the Queen’s Head &
near Regents Park and my favourite, The Cow in
Westbourne Park.

What about some great local cafés to try out?

London is absolutely awash with great little neighbourhood
cafés. I absolutely adore Clarke’s on Kensington Church Street.

Some of your favourite buildings in London are…

is my favourite building in London. I also love
Leadenhall Market, Butlers Wharf, the Barbican and Foster’s

Favourite borough in London?

Oh, that is so difficult to pick… Yesterday I may have said
Southwark for its beautiful architecture that you are unlikely to
see anywhere else in the world and the restaurants by the river.
The day before I may have said Chelsea for its shops, restaurants
and gardens but tomorrow I might say
for its artistic creativity and energy, with new
things happening all the time.

Tell us a secret spot in London

The Chelsea Physic Garden is a very seductive place
for an early evening stroll. It is intimate and inspiring and
encloses you like a secret world which is rare in a city like
London and a special place. Secrets are hard earned in London but
it is such a wonderful place, you see something new and surprising
every day.

Where should we go to buy a present?

For books my number one destination is John Sandoe’s
store, it is a stone’s throw from Sloane Square and since the late
1950s is has been one of London’s foremost and best-loved
independent bookshops. The shops in the Design Museum and
V&A are also great, while I have bought
some excellent work from the graduate show at The Royal College of

One misconception about Londoners is…

We may be derived from the outside as unfriendly, impatient,
arrogant and greedy but there is an energy, creativity and love of
life that exists within the people of London that makes our city
one of the most special in the world.

What are you working on at the moment, and what’s next?

I’ve got lots of design projects on the go that are keeping me
busy and cheerful. I’ve done a range of furniture for The Conran Shop
in Japan – it has just shipped today, in fact. I am working on a
wallpaper collection due to be released in the autumn and we’ve
designed a bar for Remy Martin in Michelin House. My favourite
project so far this year was creating the RED Suite in the Andaz Hotel– that really got my creative juices

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