The Adventures of Sir Terence pix
An action-packed new chapter of the Conran story
Susan Welsh -- Interior Design, 1/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
The chairman of Conran & Partners.
A guest room at his Great Eastern Hotel in London.
Stainless-steel and aluminum saucepans from his bY collection for supermarket chain Sainsbury's.
The lobby atrium of the Great Eastern Hotel.
His recent book, published by Conran Octopus.
Meza, his Spanish restaurant in London.
Terence Conran is having a much-needed cup of coffee. The man who presides over design firm Conran & Partners, 10 shops, and 33 European and U.S. restaurants, among other things, has just returned to London on an overnight flight from New York, where he celebrated the publication of his Designers on Design. He's also been jetting off to Tokyo to work on a group of restaurants he hopes to launch in Japan in 2006.
Things aren't exactly quiet in London, either. The Soho space that once housed his vast Mezzo restaurant has reopened as three separate establishments: Floridita, modeled after the Havana bar where Ernest Hemingway famously guzzled daiquiris; La Casa del Habano, a cigar store and bar; and Meza, a Spanish restaurant. Then there's a traditional British eatery, Paternoster Chop House, in a new development next to St. Paul's Cathedral, and a revamped Bluebird Dining Rooms, Chelsea. In addition, Conran and Sainsbury's supermarkets have introduced a line of housewares, starting with a kettle, a toaster, saucepans, and some 130 other items.
Sitting behind a desk piled high with papers—framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows in his Thames-side office—Conran lights a cigar and reflects on his continuing mission to bring good design and good food to the widest possible audience.
Many of your restaurant interiors reference the history of the site.
At Paternoster Chop House, we didn't reference St. Paul's particularly but rather Paternoster Square's history of English "eating establishments" in the old days, before the war. At the moment, I'm very interested indeed in presenting good, traditional British food properly again. I've realized that it's exactly the same in its ethos as good, traditional French food. For instance, we would have a pork pie, and the French would have a terrine.
How did you come up with the decorative details that tie the restaurant together?
We had a lot of discussions before my daughter gave me a painting of some fish on a newspaper, and I said to her, "That's exactly the sort of gentle, slightly amateurish thing I want, so it doesn't look like Designerland." And she found us a stack of these damaged, old still lifes cheap. Though they weren't very cheap by the time they'd been restored.
How did the original Floridita affect the new one?
A team of people—management, chefs, designers—went to Cuba on three or four occasions to absorb the atmosphere. We weren't interested in simply doing a pastiche, but we tried to understand what makes Floridita tick out there and how it could be repositioned as modern and energetic for the London market.
With restaurant design, are there certain things you always do?
We always have a debate about whether our kitchens should be open or closed. Personally, I prefer an open kitchen, because I like to feel that staff are actually involved. I can't think of anything more discouraging than plugging away in a greasy basement, never actually seeing the restaurant. Equally, for the customers, food preparation is a bit of theater. It adds a busyness. And I know that chefs in the public gaze run their kitchens better—and cleaner.
Anything you avoid?
I wouldn't, as I say, do a pastiche, but I might use a mixture of old and new. With the Great Eastern Hotel, which is a Victorian building, we took details like the stained-glass dome in one of the restaurants and reinvented it with modern furnishings and so forth.
Why did you go into partnership with Sainsbury's?
In all my years in retailing, I've never had the opportunity to design things that are really mass-produced, at a terrific price. And we'll be able to sell them in our own shops as well as at Sainsbury's, so it will increase our own range, too. The question is: Which of us will sell more?
Do you have a personal favorite project?
At my house in the country, there are farm buildings. And 20 years ago, a chap called Sean Sutcliffe came to me and said, "I've just left furniture college, I'm looking for a workshop, and I know you have these buildings here." So we started a little business called Benchmark, which has grown quite a bit since then. We built the interior of Norman Foster's Swiss Re tower, for instance, and most of Floridita. We also make furniture.
The fact that this business is sitting there on my doorstep, employing 40 guys who've been mainly trained as apprentices, is incredibly satisfying for me. I love the process of making things and getting involved in real, practical solutions.
At 73, have you thought about retiring?
No chance. Look at my desk!