Grey houses, Spam fritters: Terence Conran saved Britain from so much

When my mum came to visit me in my council flat in the mid-80s, she looked around disapprovingly. “It may be all right when it’s furnished,” she acknowledged. “It is furnished,” I told her.

This was the difference between her generation and mine. I did not have the mandatory three-piece suite, dinner table and chairs all crammed into one room. There were no china figurines on display. My knockoff Habitat sofa she found sad. It was all “unhomely” and bare. She wondered why I couldn’t even get a nice lampshade. I had, as everybody had then, the cheap white paper globes. I still like them.

For those lampshades, for the wok I never use, for my fake Le Creuset, for the revelation that drinking out of good glasses is gratifying in itself, I thank Terence Conran, who died last week.

We all have a little bit of Conran in our lives, whether we think about design or not. He instigated a revolution in taste that changed our ideas about what our homes could be, about what eating out should be, about what matters. Of course, everyone thinks their taste is personal rather than structured by the mores of the time, but Conran understood you could give people what they didn’t know they wanted until they saw it.

He brought the sensuality of “abroad” home. When my mum went to Spain in the 60s, she would bring back those marvellous flamenco dolls and some castanets. Conran’s great insight was to bring back something to recreate the sense of light and space and flavour of foreign sophistication: something to cook a chicken in or even a daring ratatouille. Good knives. A coffee machine. Remember, those were the days when garlic was considered dangerous.

Like Elizabeth David, he had seen vegetables in gorgeous piles in markets, wooden chairs against slate floors, herb bundles drying. He knew a perfect omelette, a fresh baguette, a fine wine. He understood the Bauhaus philosophy that design is not an intellectual idea but “part of the stuff of life, necessary for everyone in a civilised society”. This design for living was not just about modular sofas and Scandinavian tables, but about a notion of the good life that Conran embodied. Your surroundings, your food should be part of everyday pleasure and available to all.

This was his rebellion against the drabness of the postwar years, the grey houses, the Spam fritters, the colourless mackintoshes. When he worked on the Festival of Britain in 1951 he was trying to open up to a thrilling kind of modernism, a sense of space. By 1958 he had designed and was living in an open-plan house that horrified visiting journalists. How was anyone meant to read a newspaper when their wife was cooking their dinner in the same room?

Conran never stopped. Habitat became a mecca for those who wanted to create something other than the suburban style they had grown up with. It was affordable for someone on a teacher’s salary. What now seems ordinary because of our Ikea-fication was new and desirable at the time. People started talking about materials: wood, copper, clay. Conran would throw something exotic into the mix, such as a kilim. It worked.

Critics said he was a magpie, a plagiarist, not himself a top designer. That missed the point. He had an eye, a whirring mind and a passionate belief that life should be pleasing to all the senses. He innately understood design was intelligence made form. Without Conran there would be no Jonathan Ive.

I went to his place in Butler’s Wharf – again he understood long before most people that life in London, indeed in many of our cities, would be revivified by the water, in remaking old derelict docks. At the entrance of his flat was a huge table covered in coloured glass bottles. Just a beautiful thing.

In person, he was bombastic, with charm on tap that could be abruptly turned off. Lunch with Sir Terence in one of his many restaurants was a privilege once you got over the monologues and of course the Cohiba cigars he loved. He told me what to eat – there was no question I might order for myself – and went on for ages about girls in stockings (remember the cigarette girls he installed at Quaglino’s, which were his idea of sex and glamour?), but there were also conversations where you could see his restless mind in flight. He once told me he wanted to redesign the entire countryside, as it was messed up by road signs that could be streamlined to look much better. I asked him if he winced at chintz – but no. If he went into someone’s house and they found joy there, so did he. Joy was his mission.

He made in money in Thatcher’s heyday, but hated her, and was a Labour donor. But he broke with Blair over Iraq and detested tuition fees. He was a patriot who loved Europe, a wealthy man who wanted to democratise the finer things in life. His restaurants were huge theatrical fun until they toppled over into corporate mediocrity.

In these dark times when folk are struggling, it is important to celebrate someone, however flawed, who knew what the dolce vita was and wanted us to have some of it, too. Sure, that was his business; but that we might aspire to find pleasure in the day-to-day, in our homes and at our kitchen tables – that quotidian hedonism’s quite some legacy, isn’t it?