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Sebastian Conran on a life in design + creating antiques of the future

One of the UK’s most prodigious designers, Sebastian Conran brings his engineer’s training and artist’s eye to creations from furniture to robotics. He speaks with Effect Magazine’s Charlotte Metcalf about the ideas that have driven his life in design.

I am in Sebastian Conran’s ‘man cave’, high up in his Bayswater house. He is enthusing about the glories of the Amazon recyclable polypropylene shoe boxes, in which he stores his tools and bits and pieces he needs to create his designs. It’s also where he has installed his three 3D printers, which he’s delighted with, as teaching himself Computer Aided Design [CAD] was a major lockdown achievement – so stimulating that he admits to getting up and going to his computer for hours before realising he’s still in his pyjamas. “Previously, I employed people to do the CAD and assumed that at 65 I was too old to learn,” he grins.

Trying to define Conran is pointless because he smashes through every mould. As Sir Terence Conran’s oldest son, his flair for design is a given, but Conran has combined this with an aptitude for maths and science to become one of Britain’s most prolific and unusual designers.

Intelligent, sensitive humans will always be analogue. They will crave beautiful hand-finished items that have soul and will last for generations.

Sebastian Conran

He studied Industrial Design Engineering at Central St. Martins and he’s a trustee of the Design Museum, Chairman of Conran & Partners, a judge on numerous international design awards, and continues to lead Sebastian Conran Associates, the design studio he founded in 1986. He’s also a founder of Consequential Robotics, on a mission to bring emotionally engaging, aspirational robot solutions into our homes to improve the quality of our lives as we age. Already MiRo, a robot which looks like a cross between a puppy and a bunny with endearingly big ears, is inspiring children as young as seven to code.

Conran’s range of talents is so prodigious that he’s like the Brunel and William Morris of our time rolled into one, with strong opinions on aesthetics and technical solutions for absolutely everything. He could have coined Morris’s most famous quote: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Everything in the Conran household works, from kitchen implements he’s designed to the Zoom office he’s created with soft side lights, his newly invented adjustable laptop table and a Venetian blind on poles and wheels as a backdrop. For his wife Gertrude, a voice over artist, he’s built an ‘anechoic’ recording studio under the stairs.  If Conran spots a problem, however small, he’ll find the solution using CAD. He shows me the miniscule 3D-printed pieces of block and tackle he designed to fix the delicate model wooden sailing ship that graces his front window.

Antiques of the future: the traditionally crafted Sebastian Conran Gifu Collection

Conran has clients all over the world, from Swaziland to Japan. He was even designing rugs in Afghanistan before the Taliban put an end to such a frivolous, free-market activity. His urge to invent is such that he often publishes his innovations online without bothering to patent them – as recently happened when Conran was Designer in Residence at Sheffield University. He and his colleagues came up with a lightweight cycling helmet that could be 3D-printed to fit the skull exactly, “like a hand-made pair of shoes.”

Without creativity there is no culture, without design there is chaos.

Sebastian Conran

The minute Conran posted the prototype online, it was copied. “Well, you can’t lead without people following,” he says, and then shows me designs, first for an adjustable wheelchair, made to manoeuvre tight spaces and then a bicycle saddle with flexible sides to help posture and strengthen hips.

His versatility is what makes him impossible to pigeon-hole, but whatever he turns his hand to, the result will likely satisfy as much for its practicality as its beauty. Looking back at his design legacy, it’s hard to imagine a world without him. His influence is everywhere, from the early posters and record sleeves he designed for The Clash and his inventions for Mothercare (godsends for new mums) to the curvaceous, egg-shell blue, sell-out range of kitchenware he made for Nigella Lawson. Recently, his Smartcafe Cafetière Hot McGraphite (an unbreakable, unleakable, unspillable coffee cup) featured in the movie Avatar, giving Sebastian a great thrill.

He pauses briefly to tell me a story about meeting someone he’d been at school with. “He told me he hated me,” laughs Conran, “because I invented paint for Airfix models that actually made the tyres look like real rubber.”

Then we’re back to the present again and he’s telling me that he’s designing air purifiers, baby-ware recycling systems, and a donning machine called Thumbs Up for putting on surgical latex gloves. “The exciting thing about societal change is that it creates a need for new design solutions,” he says. “Ultimately, all design is about giving people a satisfying experience and creating outstanding value. Quality really means performance based on how well made it is and the materials used. Everything has to be ultra-safe too – I learnt that from Mothercare. Quality’s no longer about price but, with the omnipresence of Amazon, about convenience, sustainability and ethos. People need to know your product is ethical.”

Conran’s designs are sought out by luxury brands like Mayfair-based Connolly – leather specialists with 140 years of heritage. His recent design for a 007 cocktail case, containing cocktail shaker, Martini glasses, flasks for vermouth and tins for lemon and olives, is made with Connolly Vaumol leather, and it’s even ergonomically designed to fit against your leg while carrying it.

The Sebastian Conran Gifu Collection, the result of an ongoing collaboration between Conran and 16 Japanese makers based in Gifu, comprises over 150 products from lighting and furniture to hand-glazed ceramics, stationery and kitchen tools. The collection represents Conran’s constant opposition to our disposable, digital world. “Intelligent, sensitive humans will always be analogue,” he says. “They will crave beautiful hand-finished items that have soul and will last for generations whilst sustaining the endangered nature of artisanal craftsmanship.”

Like Steve Jobs and James Dyson, a Sebastian Conran product showcases technical mastery and a distinct, recognisable aesthetic. Conran believes a product of true value should always be well-made enough to be an antique of the future. Some years ago, Conran tweeted: “Without creativity there is no culture, without design there is chaos.” As I leave, he laughs and tells me that the word ‘Conran’ in Japanese means chaos and a confused mind. Perhaps it’s why he’s so intent on designing and creating such exquisite order.

Effect Magazine is brought to you by Effetto