What is architecture and design really about? Is it as the Grand Old Modernists would have it: the analysis and masterful resolution of form, driven by the articulation of the programme and the opportunities of the site? Is it, as the current generation of students and graduates believe: about social justice, climate activism and carbon neutral design?

Or is it, as we secretly wondered all along but were afraid to admit: just a matter of taste?

We have one man to simultaneously thank, and blame, for that. The recent passing of Terence Conran reminded me that when I first moved into my own flat, I discovered a shortage of stores to buy decent furniture from. At that point, the Habitat in Aberdeen had long since closed – but they still had a store on Shandwick Place in Edinburgh, so I drove down with my Dad riding shotgun to help manoeuvre boxes through the car’s tailgate. We parked on the bomb site at Haymarket and picked up an Anglepoise “90” lamp, a stainless steel bin and a few other perquisites.

 

In time the flat was furnished from Alastair Jamieson’s bric-a-brac shop on the Perth Road in Dundee, the furniture recyclers in Meadow Mill, the John Lewis store in the St. James Centre in Edinburgh and that Habitat shop. Some of it was cheap, some second hand, some expensive and new. Despite the cost, I was determined to buy a particular design of knives, forks and spoons: a half-set of Alessi cutlery which is out of production now. It will either be forgotten and worthless, or collectable and worth a fortune. Either way it doesn’t matter, I enjoy using it every day and that’s the main thing.

But I realise the matter of design preference is also a demonstration of taste, and that’s what Conran nailed from the very start of Habitat in 1964. His mission was to offer everyone well-designed furniture and homeware, such as the MacLamp and Crayonne storage set.  He didn’t resort to cheap tricks, such as the old ice cream van which used to drive around the Kreuzberg area of Berlin playing the Can song, “I Want More”.  A not-so-subtle encouragement to consume.  Conran was subtler but his mission was clear, and as a 1986 review of one of his books puts it, “Terence just wants everyone to have a better-designed salad bowl”.

 

Yet modern design, also championed by people like Marion Dorn, Kenneth Grange, Lucienne and Robin Day faced barriers in post-war Britain. As Colin Ward wrote in “New Town, Home Town”, “The older the house you inhabit, the higher your social prestige, and the biggest of the huge imponderables since the 1940’s has been the shift in perception that changed the British from a nation of neophiliacs, welcoming the new post-war society that would sweep away the shameful legacy of poverty and deprivation, mean streets and smoky skies, into a nation of antiquarians, cherishing the past and an imaginary “Heritage”.

Conran challenged that: he was a Modernist. Just like George Davies, who started Next in the late 80’s and changed the way people thought about High Street clothes, Conran was also a tastemaker. Yet it took years for me to realise that Conran did much more than simply run furniture stores, like some hip 1980’s version of Grace Brothers.

 

For example, when I wrote for another magazine about Bravo, Aberdeen’s brilliantly-conceived but unbuilt Oil Experience Centre, I discovered that the architects were Conran Roche. Same Conran. Looked along my bookshelf, a couple of titles are published by Conran Octopus. Same Conran. The Design Museum and several fancy restaurants in London were started by him – and eventually the Conran Shop, which is a sort of upmarket Habitat Mk2. Same Conran once again.

Conran's publishing projects (he's listed on Amazon as author or co-author of over 30 books) also highlight one solution to an endless problem: that of the supposedly “design elitist” press. When architects and designers write about their work, do they inevitably see themselves as their own audience, using jargon which puts off the casual reader?   Alternatively, does appealing to the lay person mean ‘dumbing down", to use that horrible cliché, rather than condensing complex ideas into clear and straightforward copy, which is what good journalism should achieve.

 

Terence Conran, as writer and publisher, found a third way.  He saw books in exactly the same way as his Habitat shops: a means to democratise good design (and make money whilst doing so).  If his greatest achievement was to popularise contemporary design in Britain, the second was to expand its audience well beyond a small coterie in London who shop at Heal’s. You can sum up his philosophy from the blurb on one of his many interiors books:
 
“I have always believed that objects - and surroundings - that are plain, simple and useful are the key to easy living.  By being practical and performing well over time, they are as much the antidote to superficial styling as they are to the shoddy and second-rate. Applied to the home as a whole, this discerning approach results in interiors that are effortlessly stylish, confident and timeless, with plenty of room for the expression of personal taste.”

Habitat was no longer Conran by the time I went to Shandwick Place, but the lighting was still a design-led halfway house between Ikea and Artemide. The crockery was a bit rustic, perhaps reminding Terence of holidays in Provence and Tuscany but making the rest of us feel slightly diminished as we realised what we were missing out on. And of course the Anglepoise lamp plus the Brabantia swing-top bin, into which ideas in bad taste which never make it to the Urban Realm blog are crumpled into a ball and hurled – was bought from Habitat.

There it is again, the taste factor.

 

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