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Million Pound Donors Report 2017 | Sir Terence and Sebastian Conran, his son

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“As somebody who had been lucky enough to make a lot of money, this was my way of saying thank you and giving something back to my country”. Sir Terence Conran

Sir Terence Conran and Sebastian Conran, his son

Terence Conran is a renowned designer, restauranteur and retailer and the founder of the Design Museum and the Conran Foundation. Sebastian Conran is founder of Sebastian Conran Associates and is a trustee of the Design Museum and the Conran Foundation.

Sir Terence Conran has transformed the design industry in the UK. Here he and his son Sebastian discuss how, through the Conran Foundation and Design Museum, they are inspiring generations of designers and enabling the growth of a key industry for the UK economy.

How and why did your philanthropy begin?

Terence: I went to design school at Central School of Arts and Crafts, now Central Saint Martins, and studied textile design after which I became a designer and had a furniture factory. I started Habitat in 1964 because I found it very difficult to find retailers at that time who understood the simplicity and modernity of the products that we made.

During this time I became great friends with Paul Riley who was head of the Design Council and my mentor. We had a lot of conversations about how badly design was understood and promoted in this country – and how in some countries like Scandinavia design was very much in people’s DNA.

Habitat boomed and became a public company in 1981. As a major shareholder I suddenly found myself with millions of pounds and started to think ‘what can I do?’ I didn’t want to just sit on this big pile of cash and wanted to do something worthwhile with it. So I set up the Conran Foundation to which I gave shares from the business. Luckily shares in Habitat zoomed up when we took over Mothercare.

I had a lot of discussions with people like Paul, who suggested I start a design exhibition, rather like a museum, and that we should go and see Roy Strong, then director of the V&A, and ask if there was any space available there. They found an old boiler room down in the bowels of the museum and Roy very kindly said we could have it for five years. Our design group got to work and we made a very nice white cube down there, which we called the Boilerhouse Project. We found a bright young person to run it, Stephen Bailey, and did 25 different exhibitions in five years.

As somebody who had been lucky enough to make a lot of money, this was my way of saying thank you and giving something back to my country. I never really thought of myself as particularly patriotic, but then I suddenly found that I was. I wanted to grow people’s understanding of design. It’s so important to the future of our country.

Sebastian: I joined the board of the Conran Foundation around the time there was an exhibition about the Ford Sierra in the Boilerhouse, which was a totally new shape of car at the time. Stephen Bailey and Terence thought up some amazing exhibitions, one called ‘Commerce and Culture’ that explored the whole relationship of the world of commerce and world of culture. They were very thought provoking exhibitions, and I remember coming away from some of them thinking how different and inspiring they were. Nobody had done anything like it before and they felt very new and exciting.


What happened after the five years of the V&A exhibition?

Terence: We’d hoped that we would be able to stay and find more space, but a very interesting thing happened. The last exhibition we had was about the making of the Coca Cola brand, looking at how brands were developed and built. We had a Coca Cola dispensing machine so people who visited the exhibition could have a can of Coke. At the time this type of exhibition wasn’t deemed to be the right fit for the museum, and as I was doing the Butlers Wharf development then, I decided to see if one of these buildings could be converted into an interesting little museum.

Sebastian: Terence donated the old banana warehouse to the museum, which was remodelled in the style of the Bauhaus. I remember when Terence first announced he was funding and building the museum it was very exciting. However, some of the press suggested it was another glorified shop, and people were very cynical about the Design Museum at the time. That was when I started my design consultancy studio. Everything around you has been designed in some way and design is the legacy of thought. I think Terence understood this and had an amazing insight. We and his colleagues were keen to evangelise and share with the British public.

 

“As somebody who had been lucky enough to make a lot of money, this was my way of saying thank you and giving something back to my country”
Sir Terence Conran

Now the Design Museum is in Holland Park. How did the vision for this expanded museum come about?

Terence: We employed a new director of the Design Museum, Deyan Sudjic. He said “look, your design museum needs to grow. I want to see architecture play a large part in the Design Museum of the future”. At the time, he was about to work for MOMA [Museum of Modern Art] and said the Design Museum in Butler’s Wharf was too small for his ambitions. So he set up a team to see how we could expand and looked in to a number of options, and were offered the space in the Commonwealth Institute.

Sebastian: We wanted to give the visiting public their efforts’ worth through the new, bigger museum with more content. They are contributing their time by coming to our museum, and we wanted them to go away with it having been a thought-provoking, inspiring experience that will be spiritually enriching, and will enable them to understand that discerning design leads to happier and more productive lives.
 

Up until that stage, was the Design Museum largely dependent on your philanthropy or were there others involved?

Terence: From the start of the Boilerhouse Project, the Conran Foundation has been the backbone of the Design Museum. We calculated recently that over the years it has donated £74m, in kind and in cash.
 

With the new Design Museum, other philanthropists have been involved, such as the Swarowski Foundation interviewed in the 2016 Million Dollar Donors Report. What is your experience of working with other philanthropists in realising your vision?

Terence: We are lucky that it is not me who has to do this. We have a fundraising department who use what the Conran Foundation has done over the years as an example. I don’t get involved myself. I am terribly proud of what they have achieved. It has been hard work but the museum has always had the support of the Conran Foundation.

I often get asked why it was not called the Conran Museum, but I recognise that it takes a gaggle of people to make things like that happen so didn’t want my name to be used.


What does your philanthropy mean to you and to your family?

Terence: Practically all my children are involved in design in some way or another, so I think I view this as part of my legacy.

Sebastian: I feel immensely proud and privileged, and it is one of the most wonderful things in my life. It is something that over the last 30 years I have been involved with, enjoyed, and been fascinated with. Discerning Design is my guiding passion too and I think that I too have fallen under that spell.

Terence: I don’t think any of my children have ever suggested that they should have received the money instead.

Sebastian: It has never occurred to me. I grew up to expect nothing and I never had any sense of entitlement at all – our family culture is the key legacy. Doing it yourself [making your own way] is in the ethos of our family. The joy of spending money that you have earned by your own means is so much greater and you value it more. There is an intense need for human beings to be have a sense of achievement, and feel happy and productive.

 

“The Design Museum has also inspired plenty of other design museums around the world - you see them popping up all over the globe”
Sebastian Conran

The Design Museum has influenced so many people. Jony Ive, the Chief Design Officer of Apple made an off the cuff speech recently “If I hadn’t been to Habitat or the Design Museum, I don’t think I would have been a designer”. There is no doubt that Britain and London is one of the world leaders in creativity, especially design.

Terence: It’s so exciting to see our new museum and put on a new exhibition practically every month – and the sheer amount of space we now have to excite people. We have so many school children coming to the museum and space for people to study design. At a fundamental level it gives me a lot of pride. Pride is the word to use – the fact that the money that I have earned has allowed this to happen - something that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been there to fund it.

Sebastian: I too have immense pride at being given the opportunity to be involved. I sometimes feel slightly like a fraud because it is Terence who made this happen, and although I try to be influential, work hard and be supportive, in the end it is Terence’s vision I am supporting. It is a guiding light he has lit that I want to help carry into the future.

When Terence started his career, dreary post-war Britain was probably one of the last places you would think of in terms of being a leader in design and creativity. Now London is considered a key epicentre of culture and creativity, and many people would argue the leader too, and we are certainly vying for that title.

What do you see is the role of philanthropy relative to business or the state in supporting design?

Sebastian: I’d like to see more politicians and policymakers understanding the benefits of the creative industries, which accounts for £87bn of GDP. We now have Lord Mandelson as the Chairman of the Design Museum. He is someone who understands the importance of design very well. Having design higher up the government’s agenda is very important. The Design Museum has also inspired plenty of other design museums around the world - you see them popping up all over the globe. People are beginning to understand that ‘good design’ is not enough – it needs to be outstanding design to succeed in the 21st century.

Terence: Through having Peter Mandelson involved we hope to better influence government so it understands that design is fundamentally important to the country.

The Conran Foundation has put an enormous chunk of money into the museum as I felt I could do something to make a change in this country, and make a contribution to Great Britain.


What have been your biggest lessons learned?

Terence: I think the biggest lesson I learned was to form a team of people, including some unlikely people who are leading lights in their own areas such as law and finance, who can give advice to us as Trustees of the Foundation.

Sebastian: I too have learned a huge number of lessons. I’ve been exposed to what it is like to fundraise for a project like this and build a museum. I’ve understood how important it is to make the extra effort to get exactly the right person to do a job and how important the choice of people is at different stages, and importantly how vital it is to have a clear coherent vision that is well communicated.

 

What advice would you give to someone who is at the beginning of their philanthropy?

Terence: I would say choose an area of activity that you feel needs burnishing, that you are knowledgeable and passionate about. And try to find people who share your passion and get them to get involved alongside you.
 

Find out more about the Conran Foundation here

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