Considering Sir Terence Conran has supplied more people with more pieces of modern furniture than any other shopkeeper in history, one might have expected him to live in a modern house surrounded by nothing but modern objects. In fact, Conran is one of the rare designer-manufacturers of our time whose passionate involvement with contemporary forms and materials has not eclipsed an abiding appreciation of earlier styles. Always ready to see how the convolutions and filigree canework of a nineteenth-century bentwood chair will look alongside a severely angular bedside table, or whether a gaudily brilliant kelim is a civil partner for a chrome ‘Arco’ lamp, Conran has been wholly consistent in exercising his talent for solving the challenge of combining the best of the past with the best of the present.
Not only has he continued to display this flair for aesthetic coexistence in the Conran Shop in Fulham Road – unique in the Conran chain in that it sells antique items alongside beautifully made modern pieces – but also in a series of homes, whether in urban Camden Town, Regents Park or Belgravia or in rural Suffolk or Berkshire. He seems to find in these aesthetic juxtapositions a series of agreeable challenges to his ever-active sense of design. A friend has claimed that Conran is a ‘solution looking for a problem’. Perhaps these minor problems of contrapuntal arrangements are a therapy for the somewhat larger problems that attend his daily merchandising life.
The Conrans’ country house, Barton Court, was built in 1772 for Admiral Lord Dundas: a typical, red-brick, early Georgian house of five bays with a projecting central open-pedimented entrance front, enhanced by round-headed windows in the upper storeys. Barton Court is neither a stately home, demanding ceaseless expenditure for its upkeep, nor, on the other hand, a country cottage too small for the lively Conran circle(s).
The Conrans have added to the visual pleasures of the immediate landscape by making a raised garden of some considerable extent. Set within a brick wall with cantilevered corners, ideal as tea-time out posts on summer days, this garden overlooks that most desirable of all attributes in a country retreat: an expanse of water.
But this is new. When the Conrans bought the house a dozen or so years ago, Barton Court was well nigh a ruin, the roof collapsed and dry rot rampant. As if these daunt ing thumbs-down attributes were not enough, the house was also burdened with additions, relics from its earlier days as a boys’ preparatory school. Only someone posses sed of far-seeing eyeballs, an adequate and expanding imagination and budget could have considered transforming this derelict structure, with its sombre encumbrances, into the delightful house shown in these pages. Two hundred years after its construction, as if these interim assaults upon its fabric had never been, the house stands, once again, serenely assured above the surrounding countryside.
Although Barton Court is decidedly more tranquil than in its days as a boys’ school, it still e compasses a lively mouvementé life. for this is home for five Conran children between the ages of twelve and twenty-seven (the two eldest from Sir Terence’s earlier marriage to Shirley Conran, the novelist) as well as a meeting-place for friends and colleagues who readily bridge the so-called generation gap, and visiting international business contacts. After all, the Conran connexions are now world-wide. The mere recital of his business commitments can make a nine-to-six mind boggle, ranging from overlording eighty-seven Habitat shops to the Mothercare group, with its four hundred plus branches on both sides of the Atlantic, and Heal’s, which he acquired about two years ago. He is also Chairman of Conran Associates and the Habitat-Mothercare Group Design Office, together the largest design organisation in Europe, responsible for graphics and packaging, stores and offices. His latest venture is Conran-Octopus, a joint publishing venture, and Richard Shops.
The Conrans’ comprehensive and eclectic interest in design and decoration of all periods is made clear to the visitor from the moment of entering the house, both in its planning and possessions. In earlier days a stone-flagged hallway ran from the door to the stairway between the enclosing walls of adjacent rooms. These rooms have now been gutted to provide a combined hall and living room of vast area: over a hundred feet in length. The waxed floorboards on either side of the original hallway give a lively and unexpected visual contrast, and also define the activities of the areas of the living room as they have come to pass. If inclined to work, members of the family are apt to migrate to the trestle at one end of the area. If inclined to chat, watch television or listen to music, they move to the other end. A massive table from the regional town-hall, discarded from its erstwhile official stance, and found in a local antique shop, is now the cenrepiece of the hall, invariably enlivened by a flower-filled blue-and-white jug. An eighteenth-century mahogany bureau, a terrestrial globe and a doll’s house half-way between a French château and a Hudson River mansion are the other objets trouvés in this entrance to further pleasures.
The relaxing end of the vast living-room offers other demonstrations of the Conran touch. An enormous Habitat sofa is partnered by an iron-framed Victorian day-bed with equally deep-cushioned comfort. This end of the room also demonstrates a continuing motif in marriage Conran homes of earlier days: shelves spanning the full width of the room, loaded with the spoils of travel, whether parochially or nationally. Examples of folk art, toys, paintings, prints, records and the rest.
Upstairs, another facet of the Conran design philosophy is exemplified: a preference for austerely furnished bedrooms, colourful but basic. Yet the main bathroom once again shows signs of that passionate interest and indulgence in design with bright kelim, circular pal ewood table, bentwood rocking chair, sofa and bureau as background to the old-fashioned bath.
Lady Conran, once upon a time an editorial assistant at House & Garden, has continued her journalistic career throughout the years of marriage and motherhood and is now one of those half-dozen advisers on cooking whose recipes and menus are followed by millions. She is cooking correspondent of a variety of magazines, and is the author, with her husband, of The Cook Book. Needless to say, the Conran kitchen is the perfect setting for so authoritative a pair of advisers on pleasure for palates. Once upon a time the billiard room, it now houses a vast table with Aga at one end and open fire and deep armchairs at the other.