Sir Terence Conran Speaks Out on Plain, Simple, Useful Living

As someone who’s spent way too much time asking herself: If I could afford anything, what would my home look like? I have found great comfort in rediscovering the work of legendary designer Terence Conran, that would be Sir Terence Orby Conran to us.

In his 88 years, Conran, considered one of the world’s most influential designers, has started a design studio and two international retail chains of home furnishing stores (Habitat, The Conran Shop), launched several restaurants, established a publishing house, founded the Design Museum of London, published 50 books, married five women, fathered five children and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to design.

I call that a full life. His latest accomplishment, a new edition of one of his classic books “Plain, Simple, Useful: The Essence of Conran Style,” arrives next week, courtesy of Conran Octopus Publishing.

Given that I stand transfixed at the intersection of beautiful living and prudent spending, I appreciate knowing that, despite his immense wealth, Conran is deliberately unpretentious. His home and this book reflect Quaker-like restraint.

“[O]bjects – and surroundings – that are plain, simple and useful are the keys to easy living.” writes Conran in his introduction. “By grounding us in reality and performing well over time, they are as much the antidote to pointless complexity and superficial styling as they are to the shoddy and second-rate.”

Loaded with design basics, and punctuated with charming digressions on products he favors and their provenance (The Kilner jar, Duralex glasses, The Trestle table,) “Plain, Useful, Simple” holds forth on every room in the house, as well as the yard. Here’s a taste:

On kitchens: An appliance that takes longer to clean and reassemble than it does to operate…is often more trouble than it’s worth… Whatever you display should ideally be used on a regular basis.

On work areas: If utility areas are not scruffy afterthoughts, daily chores will seem less of an imposition. Even the smallest working areas, such as broom cupboards and linen closets, can have a certain down-to-earth charm if they are fitted out with care.

On bedrooms: Nothing should stand between you and a good night’s sleep – no distracting clutter, no overflowing wardrobes, no dust-catching knick-knacks…[C]oncentrate on getting the basics right: the quality of light and air, the bed linen that goes next to your skin, and the bed itself.

Because I had questions that went beyond the pages of this book, I reached Conran at his home in the English countryside, where, with the help of his long-time assistant, he fielded my curiosities via email:

Marni: Why this book now?

Sir Terence. Homes and our relationship with them are changing all the time, and I felt the time was right to create something useful and fresh for contemporary living. To people of a certain age I am perhaps best known for “The House Book,” but that was an in-depth, almost encyclopedic manual for living, appropriate for that time. Here, I wanted to create something more informal – a house book for relaxed modern living. We have also included a terrific section on outdoor living, which surprisingly I haven’t really covered too much in my previous books, which is crazy really as people love to live their lives in the fresh air as much as possible.

Marni: What do you wish more people understood about better living?

Sir T: I have always believed that most people crave simplicity, and don’t want to live in complex, overly designed homes. That theme runs throughout my book, and is more important now than ever in these quite demented times we live in. If I close my eyes and imagine my dream room right now, I’d be sat on a comfortable, well-used sofa with plump cushions, linen curtains fluttering in the breeze from open windows overlooking a wild meadow. Nothing complicated, you don’t have to spend vast sums to live a comfortable, happy life.

Marni: You have left such a big impression on the design world. What do you hope your legacy will ultimately be?

Sir T: Nothing grand really, that I was a good designer of plain, simple and sometimes beautiful products. I also hope that through my designs, The Conran Shop and The Design Museum I have demonstrated that design can have a profoundly positive and long-lasting influence on the way we live.

Marni: I love to remind readers that you don’t have to be rich to live well. You echo this in your book. What are your top tips for living beautifully without spending much?

Sir T: I am a child of the Second World War and the subsequent years of rationing, so I am naturally thrifty. Nature will always be generous with her gifts. If you look hard enough, cuttings from the garden will provide flowers for your home most of the year and give you an even greater pleasure than flowers from a store. Likewise, growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs is tremendously satisfying.

Natural light is absolutely free, so think of simple ways of flooding a room with it. Candlelight is also very seductive.

Keeping a room tidy, clean and free of clutter is also a free, if time-consuming, way to make any interior more pleasant. The key to this is being organized and understanding your home and how it works. Spending time on this will give you an uplifting sense of breathing space.

Marni: What is your favorite room in the home and why?

Sir T: I have always said the kitchen, although I have a terrifically painful back injury at the minute, so the bathroom and the luxury of a hot, deep and soothing bath runs a very close second. The kitchen though is a terrifically social place at the heart of family life where the joys of cooking, entertaining, drinking and eating can all happily merge.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home — What to Save, What to Let Go and the just-released Downsizing the Blended Home — When Two Households Become One  (Sterling Publishing, Dec. 2019). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.

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