Sir Terence Conran may be the grand old man of British design, but even now, heading into his late seventies, he still finds his best ideas and inspiration at home and is happiest there, performing the simplest of tasks, whether it is picking his own vegetables, cooking for his family or doodling a new design with a 3B pencil on a pad of layout paper.
- © Ken Kirkwood/Conran Octopus
- © Andrew Lawson/Conran Octopus
- © Chris Tubbs/Conran Octopus
This is hardly surprising, given the beauty of Barton Court, where he has lived since 1971. The handsome 32-room redbrick 17th century manor house in Kintbury, west Berkshire, sits beside the River Kenet, surrounded by farmland.
But it is not just the landscape, or the house — with its perfect exterior symmetry and long rooms — that captivate. The interiors — all pure Conran — are the repository of a lifetime's collecting of objects, furniture, pictures and ideas, from its owner's earliest days at Habitat to the present.
Born in Kingston upon Thames in 1931, Conran attended Bryanston School in Dorset before studying textiles at Central St Martins.
In 1964 he opened his first shop, in Fulham Road, called it Habitat and filled it with his personal take on modern, affordable homeware and furniture. The shop quickly became a Saturday morning meeting place for the hip and "with it".
Conran's passion became a cause: to convince the world that "good design is good for you" and need not be beyond the pockets of the general public. Within a decade Habitat had 18 branches; Conran shops followed and then a string of chic restaurants.
© Ken Kirkwood/Conran Octopus
'I had to organise a major rebuilding programme. The roof was falling in and the whole place was seething with horrible dry rot'
In his latest, aptly titled book, Inspiration, Conran describes how he finds his inspiration everywhere, and in the smallest details.
"I often find that a reflection or a shadow is the inspiration for the shape of a product or part of the interior of a building, or, indeed, the building itself," he says.
"I slightly fight against modern technology because, for many people, it doesn't allow them any time for contemplation.
Taking a moment to notice small details — like the angle of sunshine coming into a room — is such an important part of our creative connection to the world."
Every room and corner of Barton Court contains objects that reflect Conran's lifelong design philosophy — and, as such, each is given its own space; clutter would be out of the question.
The house, dating from 1690, had previously been a prep school and left empty for years before Conran bought it; its restoration was inevitably daunting and expensive.
"I had to organise a major rebuilding programme," he recalls. "The roof was falling in and the whole place was seething with horrible dry rot."
© David Garcia
Ironically, this proved an advantage. Damage to the property's original features was so extensive it freed Conran from the obligation to restore them.
"I wanted [the interior] to be simple and modern," he says. "The proportions of the rooms and the space made a perfect 20th century home."
As in so many households, the kitchen, part of a Victorian addition to the house, is where Conran and his fourth wife, Vicki, gravitate. This is the hub for family lunches and birthday celebrations.
'Cook within sight and sound of the eating area, have comfortable chairs, an easy-to-clean table and a glowing fire'
Conran and his second wife Shirley (author of the bestselling lifestyle book Superwoman) had two children, Sebastian, a product designer, and Jasper of fashion-label and Debenhams fame.
The couple divorced in 1962, though they have remained friends. Conran married Caroline Herbert the following year and they had three children, Ned, an artist; Tom, a restaurateur, and Sophie, a designer for Portmeirion and Bhs.
Conran believes that the key to a successful family kitchen is "cooking within sight and sound of the eating area, practical but comfortable chairs, a generous and easy-to-clean table, plenty of light, plain neutral walls and floors, and a glowing open fire."
But it is the kit in the cupboards that excites him most. Sturdy, functional equipment and utensils — and most of all a good set of sharp knives — rate well above any complicated gadget.
© David Brittain
He says: "Basic kitchen equipment is all that most of us really need and, of course, it is the simplest tasks of chopping vegetables, beating eggs and sifting flour that make cooking enjoyable and rewarding."
As a boy, Conran developed a love of gardening, producing vegetables for his parents' table.
"Growing is like designing," he explains. "You start with a small seed, which then draws on everything around it — sun, water, minerals from the soil — and the care and attention you put into it.''
At Barton Court — with one of the best vegetable plots in the county — the pantry is stocked with the home-grown produce, likewise, fresh flowers from the garden fill the house from spring, late into autumn.
Spacious bathrooms with generous baths are also important to Conran, who believes the bathroom should be a sanctuary for relaxation.
His own bathroom, lined with travertine marble, has storage concealed behind mirrors and an open fireplace close to the cast-iron bath. Towels are fluffy, thick and white.
© David Brittain
Conran adds, that, similarly, the bedroom should be a place of tranquillity and rest, which is only possible if there is lots of storage space.
A good-quality mattress and white percale cotton bed linen, or sundried pure linen, are, he believes, the key to getting a good night's sleep
One of his favourite things is staying in bed late on a sunny Sunday morning reading a book or watching television — especially since he designed the bed himself.
Getting the look
A trip to a Conran shop or Habitat is all you need to begin to get the look, of course.
Find Conran shops at Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, SW3 (020 5789 7401) and 55 Marylebone High Street, W1 (020 7723 2223), or visit www.conranshop.co.uk.
For your nearest Habitat, and to see this season's range, visit www.habitat.co.uk.
To order Terence Conran's Inspiration (Conran Octopus, £40), visit www.octopusbooks.co.uk/conran.