TOM LEONARD: The master of design with a very untidy love life

He transformed Britain’s sense of style, his visionary influence extending not only into our homes but also into our shops and restaurants.

Sir Terence Conran, who has died aged 88, became a byword for good taste — a visionary and business genius in whose emporia, from Habitat to The Conran Shop, Britain’s middle class first dipped a tentative toe into the heady waters of ‘contemporary design’.

The cognoscenti sneered that his designs weren’t particularly original but Conran knew how to sell an idea and make it affordable.

That perfectionist mission to brighten up drab postwar Britain started at London’s Central School of Art and Design, where he studied textiles. He was so precociously talented as a boy that, according to a family friend, he was given the largest bedroom while his parents slept in one of the two smaller ones

That perfectionist mission to brighten up drab postwar Britain started at London’s Central School of Art and Design, where he studied textiles. He was so precociously talented as a boy that, according to a family friend, he was given the largest bedroom while his parents slept in one of the two smaller ones

The British had barely slept under a duvet, cooked with a wok or made coffee with an espresso machine before the boy from suburban Surrey opened their eyes.

Objects should be ‘economic, plain, simple and useful’, he said, although the expensive fare at stylish Conran London restaurants such as Le Pont de la Tour and Quaglino’s could hardly be described thus.

Fittingly, the egotistical bon viveur was as colourful as one of his garish giant pepper grinders. He could be charming but, armed with a fierce temper, could just as easily be tyrannical.

The pleasingly clean lines of his products were hardly mirrored in a messy private life which was anything but aesthetic, including four marriages, innumerable affairs and family upsets.

An exacting workaholic, he was by his own admission a flawed father and husband. It is rumoured that his five children at one stage had to make an appointment to see him. ‘I’m not an easy person to be with,’ he once confessed. ‘I’m demanding, I’m a perfectionist.’

Eye for the ladies: Sir Terence with second wife Shirley in 1955. The pleasingly clean lines of his products were hardly mirrored in a messy private life which was anything but aesthetic, including four marriages, innumerable affairs and family upsets

Eye for the ladies: Sir Terence with second wife Shirley in 1955. The pleasingly clean lines of his products were hardly mirrored in a messy private life which was anything but aesthetic, including four marriages, innumerable affairs and family upsets

That perfectionist mission to brighten up drab postwar Britain started at London’s Central School of Art and Design, where he studied textiles.

He was so precociously talented as a boy that, according to a family friend, he was given the largest bedroom while his parents slept in one of the two smaller ones.

His father, a stockbroker and paint salesman, was prone to drinking and violence, particularly after his business failed. Their straitened circumstances didn’t stop Sir Terence going to public school (Bryanston) and having a nanny but they did instil his twin obsessions of making money and being frugal. His parsimony was notorious. He would fish vegetables out of the bin and eat them, and insist staff walk upstairs rather than use the lift.

In 1964, he opened the first of what would be 60 Habitat shops, in Chelsea, West London (11 years after his first restaurant, the Soup Kitchen). He was 33 and already on his third marriage, to food writer Caroline Herbert.

His first wife was architect Brenda Davison, whom he married when he was just 19 and she 27.

His second marriage, to writer Shirley Conran (nee Pearce), lasted seven years until she left him after wearying of his infidelity and oppressive, domineering ways. ‘He was an old Victorian,’ she said. ‘Not even Edwardian.’

Shirley, who once said he was such a philanderer that she was ‘mildly amazed he got any work done’, claimed his womanising reached the point where she gave an unsuspecting mistress a bar of distinctively scented

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