A business hero of mine has just died: Sir Terrence Conran. The current Prime Minister, when still a mere journalist at the Daily Telegraph, once headlined an article about this man’s design for the set of a summit between Tony Blair and the French President, Jacques Chirac: “I’ve seen the fuchsia and it works”. A witty pun on the designer’s choice of vivid pink as a motif wrapped up in the infamous quote from a US journalist on visiting the fledgling Soviet Union. (The Soviet Union had more claim on the future than its chosen colour scheme, but you get the gist.) This line is more than just a pun. Conran really did see the future. And it really did work. He offered a blueprint for the domestic, retail and public aesthetic we all live and work in now. As The Guardian said: ‘The influence of Sir Terence can be seen in pretty much every contemporary kitchen in the land, in the products of IKEA and in restaurant menus all over the country.’ He influenced our taste as a nation, both with what we eat and what we surround ourselves with at home, in the office and when we go out on the town.
Conran’s philosophy of design insisted that objects should be ‘economic, plain, simple and useful’. He was, he said, “a Bauhaus-educated chap”, and everything he created was true to their principles – form followed function, resources were used cleverly and materials were ‘true’. As a nation we owe him a lot. He inverted the worlds of Upstairs Downstairs style, making the simplicity of Downstairs design and materials the sign of a modern outlook in life. He liberated the post-war generation from swirly carpets, dark, heavy mock Georgian furniture, chintzy curtains and elaborate wallpaper, and replaced them all with stripped wooden flooring, light wood, pull blinds, paints and exotic textures. He introduced Britain to the duvet – which radically transformed the nation’s sex life. You are probably sitting on a Conran inspired chair as you are reading this article.
Conran’s design ethos is a good metaphor for how business could be done better in this austere, Covid economic climate. Our business landscape is bleak at the moment – grey, difficult, uncertain, post-war-like. We are facing the largest economic depression in history. We need to reset the world of work to generate revenue. We need to forge new ways of doing business more appropriate to our changed circumstances. We need to be less wasteful and use precious resources more sustainably. How should businesses go about this task? For inspiration, we can look to Sir Terrence. Conran design is accessible, simple, utilitarian, economic and colourful. Vibrancy, energy and quality are built in. It chimed with a society ambitious for new solutions and a more egalitarian future. Nothing is fussy, nothing is over-engineered. Everything is stripped back – his was a philosophy of utility and beauty. For businesses now, the same principles must apply. Keep things simple. Focus only on that which is necessary. Do not compromise on quality. Anticipate what customers have a hunger for, even if they don’t know it yet – trust your instincts and try. Conran discovered people were ready for his aesthetic by experimenting. He created a brand new market.
Conran was also a colourful character. So much of business has become bland and grey. Mired in jargon, a culture of spreadsheets and arse-covering. We need colour, bravery and imagination now more than ever. Most of all, Conran made good taste accessible to everyone. He won’t be remembered for a specific piece of furniture, kitchen implement, seminal chair or recipe, but he created a vision that was both exciting and democratic and which transcended the contribution of more elite designers. He was a visionary, and if we need anything right now, it’s visionaries. Let’s hope his legacy inspires the visionaries out there to take the platform he created and build a future that works for all of us.