The Unlikely Peripatetic, or, A Postscript to the Paperclip

He meets your eye from the book’s broad flyleaf, a vivid figure on a ground of flame blue. Piercing through a quizzical squint and the flash-fixed vapor of a cheeky cigar, the gaze is more forward than one expects from such age. Facing the title page’s monoglyph—Design—the portrait reads like a dare. In a way, it is.

A household name in his native UK, Terence Conran is a designer, restaurateur, and businessman, knighted in 1983 for his service to good taste. The best-known of his ventures is probably Habitat, a retailer of sleek yet practical home goods that first appeared in London in 1964, a sort of small-scale precursor to IKEA. The Soup Kitchen, the earliest of the more than 50 restaurants in which he’s had a hand, opened in 1953. Its mission: to bring the post-war British palate under the salubrious influence of French cuisine, without abandoning Anglo-Saxon simplicity. In 1989, always equal parts practitioner and critic, Conran invested several of his millions in the Design Museum, a free-admission London institution showcasing the complex modern intertwinement of artistry with industry.

The career spans dozens of ventures across a handful of fields, but it’s undergirded by a single conviction: “design” shouldn’t be a cosmetic affair, synonymous with “luxury.” Rather, design is an essential human activity, indissociable from the quality of life.

The book whose thick blue binding and bold orange titling first kindled my love for the public library’s non-fiction section, Terence Conran on Design, incarnates this thesis. Thoughtfully organized by domain (work, leisure, food, etc.), it makes its impression thanks as much to the clarity of its graphic design as to the cogency of each section’s critical essay. Like a good Aristotelian knower, the author works from detailed analysis of designed objects, places, and practices, and only from this historically rich, photo-documented brew does he dare distill abstractions. As a result, the reader gains an expertly curated introduction to the last few centuries of design, while discovering the lens through which Conran views it.

And why should we care about this lens? Why does this designer-cum-gourmand warrant the attention of thoughtful post-moderns? Conceptually consanguine with the design-heavy modern era, commercially successful in a market-run world, Conran’s work stands as a distinctly resilient challenge to the entropic forces of postmodernity. Aristotle guided the way for a people deeply rooted in the natural world and habituated to dialectic. For us, capitalist consumers in a man-made world, Conran’s oeuvre, designed, sold, and written, designates a credible path to maintaining contact with the nature of things while acting fruitfully in the world.

If modern philosophy disastrously severed “is” from “ought,” modern design, at least in Conran’s vision, persists in uniting them. Modernity presents man, the making animal, with a dilemma. Failing faith in transcendentals casts him back on materialism, which dictates an uncritical, documentary approach to art, a deliberate suppression of judgment. But the human spirit, irrepressible, revolts against brute matter to produce “art for art’s sake,” a mode of fabrication freed from its old slavery to function. Our options in a post-death-of-God world appear to be: surrender to matter, or deny it altogether.

Conran’s career vaults the horns of the dilemma with the panache of a frescoed Minoan. Looking at our built environment through his eyes, we may have reason to hope that Aristotelian metaphysics is alive and well in the heart of our commercialized society: smuggled past the Enlightenment sentries in the belly of the industrial revolution’s Trojan horse. The horse’s name? Design.

The illustrated timeline embedded in the Design Museum’s permanent exhibit tells the story. As the advent of mechanized mass production reframed the relationship between the form and function of manmade objects, it created space for the question of that relationship to be posed explicitly. Because achieving pure functionality in the manufacture of everyday objects was more feasible than ever in a world of steel and factories, beauty became “ornament,” fiscally (and for some, existentially) unjustifiable. The age of concrete-block architecture and tupperware dishes was not far away.

However, as the factory freed manufacturing from the traditional constraints of handicraft, with its natural tendency toward intricacy and ornament, beauty did not disappear entirely. Conran’s appreciation for classics of modern design such as the Volkswagen Beetle and the Anglepoise lamp is as much aesthetic as it is practical. But it’s an aesthetics whose deep connection to function is newly apparent.

In Conran’s vision, the beauty of a manmade object arises from its achievement of its telos—the equivalent, in Aristotle’s ethics, of virtue in a human being. Having discerned a need that arises from the the givens of human existence, a designer endows his creation with a function. But as, in Aristotle, this “fittingness” does not lead to a natural determinism (that is, the fact that the human being has a nature does not dictate that each individual’s history unfold with mathematical necessity), so for Conran, the successful incarnation of this function in form retains something of the character of a miracle.

Uniting the logic of function with the beauty of form remains a quantum leap, an echo of ex nihilo. “Good design is 98% common sense,” Conran likes to say. It’s the remainder that makes for the unpredictability of winning design, the miracle of creativity. To borrow from the philosopher Henri Bergson: to be able to predict, with precision, what a designer will design is nothing else than to be that designer in the act of designing.

But if we were to try… If, as ambitious young things, we were to look back at this particular designer’s past for clues to his future, and take them as clues to our own, we might note two patterns. Born in southern England in 1931, Conran made his first biographable move by studying textile design at the Central St. Martins School of Arts and Crafts. In the rest of the Encyclopædia Britannica article from which I’m cribbing my facts, you’ll watch the unfolding of a terribly diverse career in business, design, culture-making, and even a fair bit of theorizing, but the kid started in textiles. Although animated by a universal delight in manmade things, young Terence began by embracing a single craft.

He didn’t specialize for long, though. While studying textiles, he started making furniture in a corner of his prof’s studio. At the ripe age of 19, he ditched school to work for an architect in the lead-up to the 1951 Festival of Britain. By the time he was my age, he’d opened a furniture workshop, a French-style restaurant, and a coffee shop; by age 25, he consolidated these efforts under the aegis of the Conran Design Group. The career continued, and continues, through the array of commercial, gastronomic, and curatorial projects outlined above—all, I daresay, in very good taste.

To what do these facts testify? To the second pattern I want to note. Conran’s rapid-fire career has the morphology of a design process in the macro: open-ended, iterative, increasing in actuality through serial finitizations of the spirit behind it. What, one wonders, is that spirit? The write-up of a 2011 retrospective exhibit at Conran’s Design Museum states that as a boy the man was a collector. Kid must have closed the loop early between admiration and emulation, jerry-rigged a motivation mechanism that metabolized his delight in designed artifacts into autodidactic, progressive practice.

That is to say, he noticed a thing, he studied it, and he invested himself in a single project that would respond to that delight. And so for the next thing, and so for the next. The arc of Conran’s career should encourage similarly omnivorous youths to add a linear dimension to their dreams. While you can love everything, you can’t do everything, all at once. So how do you respond to a delight this far-ranging? Project by project, not fearing finitude but knowing that the limited scope of any one project is the condition for the possibility of your approach to the whole.

Conran is not an industrial or social technician, nor a one-dimensional commercialist, nor an anarchical arts-advocate. He’s a humanist, insisting on the natural symbiosis of human intentions and the material world. He takes it as a given that we’re makers, set in a world whose intrinsic order leaves it ripe with the potential to be coaxed into the products of our ingenuity. He’s a realist, maintaining that this ingenuity takes its cue from the surrounding natural order and from the given exigences of human life. All along, he’s refined his offerings in the crucible of the market economy, and crusaded for the democratization of good design. And he’s an optimist, for he finds the products of this activity to be beautiful, delightful, and—to tap Bergson again—genuinely new.

The Hillsdalian who has yet to encounter Le Corbusier; the aficionado of medieval symbology who’s not sure what to make of Andy Warhol; and the would-be Middle Earth-dweller who’s perplexed by her appreciation for concrete would all do well to take Conran as a Vergil-like guide to our industrialized world. Conran’s cosmos is neither the tragically fixed mechanism of materialist determinism nor the unbridled flux of l’homme revolté. It’s an ordered world, asking to be understood. It’s supple, inviting improvisation. It’s historically conditioned by the humans who inhabit it, waiting for its storied grooves to be traced out. Conran the designer and critic presents us with a robust moral universe, touched with wonder at the miracle of the paper clip.

Madeline Johnson graduated in 2017 with a degree in philosophy and currently lives in northern France. 

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