Conran Before Habitat / from the archive / issue 2

I had been living in England for only a few weeks when I found myself snooping around a charity shop in Didsbury. I have been collecting Mid Century modern pieces since 1990, and was curious to see what Britain had to offer for this period.  In the course of my searching I came across a strange item. It was a large platter with a 1950s style pattern on it, full of dynamic and colourful vegetables arranged artfully across its front and it was signed Terence Conran on the back. Of course, I knew who Terence Conran was –hadn’t I lusted after various items in his NYC Conran Shop (the one that was underneath the 59th Street Bridge arches)? I also knew of the Habitat store, which had been a British style setter since the 1960s and 1970s. So what was this piece? Surely this wasn’t a 1970s piece? So, could it be a recent reissue for Habitat in a faux retro style?

We had so little space in our tiny flat, and we were so short of cash, having just moved to the UK from the US that I couldn’t even bring myself to spend 50p on the platter. So I left it among the plates and chipped cups convinced it was a recent Conran design.

Only a few weeks passed before I realized my mistake as I was being introduced to a whole new world of mid century British design. Rummaging through a used bookstore I came across a book that included 1950s designs as a collectable category. And there was Terence Conran’s platter: the Salad Ware pattern for Midwinter. I’ve regretted that mistake ever since! Clearly Conran had a story before the Habitat shop with which I was not familiar.

conran plate.jpg

I moved to Manchester for my husband’s job at the University of Manchester. One of the joys of this experience has been to learn about Britain’s rich design history and material culture. I knew of Kathie Winkle and Clarence Cliff, but not about Poole or Portmeirion. I knew that Dior’s New Look dress style of the 1950s was a response to wartime fabric rations, but not that Britain experienced rationing until 1954. So here was new information for me to gobble up: Terence Conran had been an influential designer well before the opening of the first Habitat shop in Chelsea in 1964 and the publication of House Book in 1974.

As a young designer Conran looked to the Continent for design influences. His interpretation of European modernism was palatable to British high street shoppers. This was a softer minimalism –simple, but accessible.  Not avant-garde, but comfortable. His design was a strong visual contrast to dark and fussy prewar interiors or severe wartime designs of the Utility Scheme.

Conran freelanced for Midwinter as a recent graduate from art college in the early fifties and contributed to their fresh and optimistic palette of the postwar era. Some people might say that his designs at Midwinter do not represent his best work. It could be argued that some of his Midwinter work was too kitsch, like Salad Ware, or too staid, like Plant Life. Certainly the strong visual patterning of Conran’s Chequers (1951 as a fabric, 1957 as dinnerware) shares similar influences to his contemporary Jessie Tait’s work at Midwinter such as her Mosaic pattern. Yet, many Conran pieces from this period have become design classics. For example, my favorite of the period, Nature Study, combines whimsy with simplicity in a way not found in these other designers’ work.  It is less “cutesy” than Hugh Casson’s representational work, like Riveria, and less busy than Jessie Tait’s Primavera or Homespun. In later years, Conran himself often downplayed his work at Midwinter. When a six setting dinner service  of Nature Study sold for £1200 at auction in 1997, Independent journalist John Windsor relayed the news to Conran, “When I told Sir Terence, he thought for a bit, then said: ‘In my opinion that's considerably more than it's worth.’”

In spite of Conran’s assessment of his design at Midwinter, his 1950s work successfully combined form, colour and nature in a way previously not seen in high street British design. This combination was a breath of fresh air after the restrictions of rationing and the constraints of the utility era. The cheerful, but not fussy pottery designs at Midwinter most certainly evoke the optimism and clarity of the post-war period. Importantly, this aesthetic would later be reflected in the Habitat years of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2011, we observe the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain, which celebrated a new design direction for the country. Ironically, we will also mark the closure of Habitat stores on the high street, as the company went into administration. I have to confess I never bought anything from Habitat in recent years. Once my husband and I got settled in Manchester and were finally earning a modest salary, the furniture seemed too expensive for what you got. The design felt less like cutting edge Conran and more like an upscale IKEA (its former owners). Good, but not great, design and considerably more expensive than IKEA. The quality wasn’t there for the price, and the designs no longer felt innovative. Conran’s Habitat was in some ways a victim of its own success, being reproduced for cheaper in other high street stores, and no longer leading the way.

But no matter what happens to Habitat, Conran’s early work is still highly collectible. And a few months ago I came across some chipped pieces of Nature Study at a car boot. You can bet, this time, I snatched them up!

© Laura Gaither

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.