WWhen Terence Conran died in September 2020, his former employee and friend Stephen Bayley wrote an obituary for the Guardian that was floaty, but also sweet and funny, rightly recognizing his former boss as a revolutionary in taste and design. In post-war British homes that were 50 shades of sad and brown, Conran infused verve and color and persuaded people to see objects—a wine glass, a sofa, a rug, a salad bowl—as something beautiful and useful. England looked better because of him. He later opened a series of restaurants that transformed dining in London in the 1990s and became almost symbolic of the prosperity of the fin-de-siècle.
That obituary expresses in about 3,000 words what? Terence incontinent spends over 300 pages. Bayley has a co-author in ad executive Roger Mavity to reminisce about his time as Conran’s CEO – he seems thankful he only breathed the same air as “Terence” – but it’s essentially Bayley’s project, with his initials underneath. floating most chapter titles. Bayley confesses his debt to Conran, who catapulted him from oblivion at “a provincial university” into a glamorous life of expense lunches, fine wine, fresh flowers, Cuban cigars—the 1980s in short. And like so many who have an edge, the protégé has never really forgiven his mentor.
His book provides a strange mixture of sentimental respect and cold-blooded reckoning. On page one, he calls Conran “a mean, selfish bastard”; on page three, he admits that few have made such a difference to ‘British material life over the past 60 years’. It’s like watching a man angrily shake his fist when he can’t get off his knees. It certainly tells us as much about Bayley’s personality as it does about his subject. For example, pointing out that after a workshop accident Conran could only see with one eye, he adds, “but that one eye was a very, very good eye”. Fair enough. So why does he feel driven to keep making ironic jokes about his “monocular” vision and his “one eye for a bargain” (where he presumably meant “singular”)? Does he see himself as Odysseus, who justly kills the Cyclops whose brooding captive he has been for so long?
The shame is that Conran’s story is interesting, and would have some authority here if Bayley could resist his retrospective one-upmanship. I was absorbed in the early years, by the suburban boy (born Esher, 1931) who came to London as a cabinetmaker and set up a budget restaurant near Charing Cross, he called The Soup Kitchen (out went Brown Windsor, came in vichyssoise, split peas and minestrone). I knew nothing about his life-changing ‘grand tour’ of France in Michael Wickham’s Lagonda in the early 1950s, nor that he had married a third time at the age of 32. And bliss must have been that dawn on Fulham Road in 1964 when he opened Habitat, a shop aimed at “young modern people with a lively taste”. I didn’t feel the reverberation myself until 10 years later, when I first popped the eye on a duvet, or “continental quilt” as we called it – who would ever go with bedding again? Conran’s grandiose claim that he imported it and thereby changed Britain’s sex life has never been verified, as Bayley points out in a funny comment, “although the role of the contraceptive pill and the liberation of women may have been underestimated”.
When Conran hires Bayley to oversee the Boilerhouse Project at the V&A – an exhibition space devoted to design – their court of two is established. You wonder if the king suspected what trouble his little dauphin might cause him later. Their association initially flourished, however, and in time the Boilerhouse gave way to the larger ambition of the Design Museum, set up in what was then the nearly dilapidated Shad Thames. Whose idea was it? Bayley, no paragon of humility, claims it belonged to him and that Conran only paid for it.
Sharing an office allows him to get close – too close – to the boss, whose flaws in great and small come to the fore, such as his complaining about the extravagance of Earl Gray tea bags, or fretting that every time the office elevator was used. , this cost 54 pence . His character’s contradictions spin through the book with maddening repetition: he was a generous host and a penny-pincher; a lustful and a puritan; a tyrant and a democrat; a promoter of talent who skimped on crediting his peers.
Conran’s restlessness for the next big thing, at the expense of taking care of what he already had, was widely regarded as his downfall. His takeover of British Home Stores in the mid-1980s was a hopeless mismatch; BHS’s medium-weight product didn’t match Conran’s gospel of good taste. His golden touch failed him and he lost Habitat. After another business partnership failed, he also lost the restaurants. His disagreements with Bayley had to be resolved by a letter from a lawyer, and the couple did not speak for years.
The repetitive story becomes quite a grind. A good editor could have made this book half as long and twice as entertaining. Bayley begins to wrap things up around page 263, then fills another 50 with a conclusion, two “epilogues,” and the reprinted obituary. It seems he just can’t bear to let the old devil go.