Globe-Trotting with Sir Terence Conran
Published: May 2009
By Alice Rawsthorn
The king of modern design takes Manhattan with the new Bridgemarket, a massive restaurant and shopping project -- and passes on some tips on how to travel lighter, smarter, better.
After five years of tussling with city planning officials and haggling with construction crews, Sir Terence Conran has helped design and open Bridgemarket, a dining and shopping complex beneath Manhattan's 59th Street Bridge. Those hurdles, though exasperating, had seemed inevitable. Opened in 1916 as a marketplace, the grand space closed in the 1930's; development has been attempted unsuccessfully for the past 23 years.
"Five years is a very long time for one project," groans Sir Terence. "It's been a struggle, but it's worth it." Before Bridgemarket, where New Yorkers can now eat modern Italian (at Guastavino's) and shop for olive oils, sofas, and bath products (in the Conran Shop), Sir Terence was barely known in North America—except to the design cognoscenti. But in Britain Conran is an instantly recognizable adjective indicating a quiet Modernist style. Think of Martha Stewart and Michael Graves rolled into one, with a fat cigar and a plummy English accent.
You could spend several days in London while barely stepping outside the Conran empire. Check into the Great Eastern, Sir Terence's new luxury hotel in the City financial district; visit the four Conran Shops; and eat at one of his 19 restaurants. Then catch an exhibition at the Design Museum, which Sir Terence founded, or just curl up with a copy of The Essential House Book or his magazine, Conran's Live It. Next year you'll even be able to fly to London Conran-style when British Airways unveils its new Concorde with interiors by, well, guess who?
The Conran phenomenon is all the more extraordinary for having lasted so long: Sir Terence, now 68, opened his first restaurant in 1953. The son of a wealthy English family, he had quit art school in 1950 and seemed destined for the bohemian life of an industrial designer; he set up a furniture workshop in a basement in then-grungy Notting Hill. But on a trip to France in 1953, he worked briefly at a Paris restaurant, and became convinced that Londoners would enjoy the tasty soups and strong espresso. He returned to Notting Hill and opened Soup Kitchen. The furniture company soon spawned the Conran Design Group. "I had a few commissions, but not enough to pay the gas bill," he says. "So I started making things myself, and became interested in the way they were sold." That interest prompted him to open the Habitat furniture shop on a desolate stretch in South Kensington. Habitat sold the beanbag chairs and Achille Castiglioni lamps that filled the homes of young Londoners. Once, when a gaggle of fans spotted George Harrison there, the staff helped the Beatle escape by bundling him up a ladder into the stockroom.
By the eighties, the newly knighted Sir Terence was one of Britain's most prominent businessmen. In 1990 he left Habitat, but rather than slipping quietly into retirement, he created a new Conran empire. After taking on Britain yet again, he opened Conran Shops in Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, and Tokyo, as well as restaurants such as Alcazar in Paris and Berns in Stockholm.
Few people are better equipped to advise Travel & Leisure readers than Conran, who flies somewhere most weeks, often to his favorite cities: Paris, New York, and Tokyo. "I get ideas from being out and about," he says. "Looking into shopwindows, looking around in restaurants, and seeing how people solve problems." Here, Conran's guide to approaching the world more stylishly:
Terence Conran on…
Luggage: I take as little as I can get away with, because I can't stand waiting for my bags to come off those carousels. For short business trips I use a small pigskin tote made in Poland, simply designed but tough, which we used to sell at the Conran Shop. For longer trips I take the larger version. I call them small pig and large pig.
What to pack: A few shirts—always blue, a couple of ties, underpants, and a sweater. Ideally, I get away with one suit, also blue, which I wear on the plane. I don't pack for myself. Vicki [his longtime girlfriend] is very good at folding shirts.
Airlines: I prefer business class—you're fussed over too much in first. Often, when I'm traveling from London to New York, I fly out on Concorde but back in British Airways' Club World, so I can sleep. I recently went to Australia on Qantas, and the food was very good. I also like Air India, because you get a good curry.
Jet-lag remedy: I take a sleeping tablet at takeoff—and snore through the flight!
Airports: I like Charles de Gaulle in Paris, because it has a sexy seventies feel, along with Fuhlsbüttel Airport in Hamburg and Munich International. There's a calm to those places, something the dreadful London airports—Heathrow and Gatwick—have lost since they were turned into shopping centers. Heathrow is my least favorite: it's grubby, tacky, and confusing.
Trains: The French TGV system is extremely nice. The Eurostar is efficient, because you can go from the relative center of London to the center of Paris or Brussels, but the train interiors are absolutely vile. We're already redesigning the Concorde, but if there was one other form of transport I'd like to redesign, it would be the Eurostar.
London: I enjoy shopping at new places—Pineal Eye on Broadwick Street or Alexander McQueen's new store on Conduit Street—and seeing the changes in interesting little shops like the Cross or Egg. And I love specialists: Davidoff for cigars, S. J. Phillips on Bond Street for antique silver. I like the Conran restaurants, of course! There's also St. John for modern British food and Sweetings for old-fashioned fish.
Paris: Paris is particularly pleasant for walking. I like exploring the Left Bank, around Rue du Bac and Rue du Cherche Midi, and visiting Marché Biologique, the organic market on Boulevard Raspail, on Sundays. Deyrolle is the most amazing shop—it's completely mad, selling beetles, butterflies, even stuffed tigers. The designer restaurants Man Ray and Buddha Bar are disappointing. I enjoy the traditional places: dinner at Lucas Carton, drinks at Café Flore. I've stayed at the Hôtel Montalembert for years, even before Christian Liaigre redesigned it. I started in 1973, when it was a fleapit. It was a favorite of Francis Bacon, so I'd meet him in the bar for drinks.
Tokyo: The fashion area around Omotesando is always interesting, as are the small shops in the Roppongi area, and Tokyu Hands in Shibuya. I used to stay at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel, which is very 1960's, but now I prefer the Park Hyatt. It's the best hotel in the world. I love coming up in the lift and seeing that beautiful grove of bamboo. The views are sensational.
New York: On Madison Avenue, I go up one side and then walk back along the other, from Café Boulud on East 76th to 90th Street. I like the idea that the Meat-Packing District is being developed, but find it bizarre that Jeffrey has been such a success. Whatever Murray Moss does at his stores on SoHo's Greene Street is interesting; he has a tremendous eye. His new furniture store, More, is magnificent—I wish it was in the Design Museum! And I love looking at the architectural salvage shops, like Wyeth. Even though it's in that vile Trump building, my favorite restaurant is Jean Georges, because of its originality and simplicity of approach. I also enjoy Keith McNally's Balthazar—it sometimes seems more French than a real French brasserie—but his Pastis is too much of a pastiche. Lately, I've been staying at the Four Seasons, because it's close to Bridgemarket. The service is terrific, but it's very expensive and a little too corporate for my taste. Sometimes I stay in Ian Schrager's hotels; my favorite is Morgans. But I love the Carlyle, despite the inconvenient location. It is the place to be.
Alice Rawsthorn is the architecture critic at the Financial Times and writes for Wallpaper.
Conran's Greatest Hits
BERLIN Conran Shop Stilwerk, 17 Kantstrasse; 49-30/3151-5320.
HAMBURG Conran Shop Stilwerk, 68 Grosse Elbstrasse; 49-40/3062-1320.
LONDON Bluebird 350 King's Rd.; 44-207/559-1000. Conran Shop Michelin House, 81 Fulham Rd.; 44-207/589-7401.
Design Museum Butler's Wharf; 44-207/403-6933. Great Eastern Hotel Liverpool St.; 44-207/618-5000.
NEW YORK Bridgemarket 407 E. 59th St.; 212/755-9079. PARIS Conran Shop 117 Rue du Bac; 33-1/42-84-10-01. Alcazar 62 Rue Mazarine; 33-1/53-10-19-99.
REYKJAVÍK Rex Bar 9 Austurstræli; 354/551-9111.
STOCKHOLM Berns Berzelli Park; 46-8/5663-2222.
TOKYO Conran Shop Shinjuku Park Tower 3-4F, 3-7-1 Nishi-Shinjuku; 81-3/5322-6600.