Absolutely West

01st October 2012

We are pleased to have been featured in Absolutely West's recent issue, our interview covering notably British design and technology:

As part of the Conran family dynasty, a life and career in design was somewhat inevitable for Sebastian Conran. He has, however, made his own distinctive mark in the industry by becoming one of the most prolific names in contemporary product design. After graduating from Central St Martins with a degree in Industrial Design Engineering in 1977, Conran joined the prestigious Wolff Olins, then moved to Mothercare (where he worked as Head of Design) before setting up on his own in 1986.

Sebastian Conran Associates is an independent design and development company, perhaps most commonly associated with domestic appliances and a longstanding collaboration with John Lewis. It is with surprise, then, that I discover the Hammersmith based studios are in a wholly unassuming building set on an inconspicuous leafy side street.

Conran exudes a charmingly boisterous enthusiasm for his work and his team of zealous staff. The man himself swiftly takes me for a guided tour. The smart and deceptively small practice houses a photographic studio, workshop, meeting room and a whole floor dedicated co products and prototypes in various stages of development. The creative hub, as any should be, is littered with personality; professional accolades, sketches, models and Clash posters - Conran, rather bizarrely, worked with the band in their early years to produce promotional material, clothes and record sleeves.

Less than 10 minutes after entering the studios I find myself seated in an armchair with speakers embedded in the headrest, Conran blasting Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay through his iPhone into the impressive sound system. Apparently the chair was born from an impromptu idea; a chance to break away from client briefs and for Conran to experiment. 'I was with my son who was playing Call of Duty on his Xbox and I attached some speakers to the chair with rubber bands - it was just an idea - and he said, "Dad this is amazing! It's like I can hear the shell cases bouncing off the ground!'" Conran regales the story with animated gesticulation and I can tell that this is going to be an entertaining interview…

AW: I'm sure you're constantly asked about your family, but how did coming from a creative background influence you and when did you decide that product design was the career for you?

SC: When I was a child I wanted to be an inventor. I was good at maths, physics and chemistry when I was at school and I grew up in design - it was when I knew - so it seemed like a semi-obvious choice. I like making things and I've always had a workshop. I worked in the Habitat store (father Sir Terence is the founder) stocking shelves and eventually graduated to working in the design studio.

AW: What do you think of British design?

SC: One thing about design is that it's driven by culture and circumstances. If I talk to you about Scandinavian design, you'll probably get a little picture in your mind of quite playful, clean shapes. With German design, you think formulaic, efficient - think of BMW cars, for example - they all look the same. I would define British design as playful pragmatism.

AW: Do you think, in terms of product design, that the answer is always a simple solution?

SC: Well the route to simplicity is very complicated! We try to make things as simple as we can. How can I make it simpler, how can I make it better? Nothing designed by man can’t be made better that's why we need more women designers!

AW: Is it a very male dominated area then?

SC: Yes it is. You go to the Conran shop and 75% of our customers are female, yet it's a heterosexual, male-dominated business. When I went to college there were only two or three females on our course of 25.

AW: Given the financial climate, is it more difficult for companies and graduates starting out now?

SC: Much more difficult, yes. When I started in the mid 70s London was pretty bleak, there were piles of rubbish everywhere and everyone I knew seemed to be on the dole. In the late 80s, however, it was really easy. When I started my business in 1986 it was a great time, people were clambering over themselves because they wanted design but the trouble was that we didn't really know what design was, it was much more to do with style then.

AW: You've worked in such a variety of different designs, briefs and companies. Any that particularly stands out?

SC: I really enjoyed my time at Mothercare. That was a big project and we were dealing with products that hadn't really had a lot of thought put into them, so a little bit of effort went a long way. It was a huge success and sales of the new products went through the roof. It was a real demonstration of how good design could succeed over reckless or ill-conceived design. To succeed now, good design is not enough; it has to be outstanding design because the world has caught up. Apple is an example of what outstanding design means. We expect much higher.

AW: Are you something of a technophile then?

SC: I bought my first Apple Mac in 1988 and it transformed my business. What Apple did was they harnessed computer technology and made it more appetising than the alternative, which was the PC. I want technology that's elegantly neutral as it were, and that's what we try to do with our designs.

AW: Who are some of your favourite designers?

SC: I love Dieter Rams. He was someone I tried to emulate when I was at college. I like the old greats but I think if you asked me to pick one designer it would be Achille Castiglione. I like Castiglione because it's not a formulaic or cookie cutter style. Everything he's designed looks different.

AW: How involved arc you with everything at Sebastian Conran Associates?

SC: My view is that people don't go to college for five years to just come and carry out other people's ideas. What I try and do is work with people and focus their ideas. I might give them a grain of all idea for them to build a pearl around, or they might have the idea, and I say 'I think it should be more like this or like that', and then sometimes they have a great idea and I tell them to get on with it. From a marketing point of view what we're trying to do is sell products that are from a designer rather than from a company so that there's a face behind it. I’m hands-on with absolutely everything right down to the last millimetre. What's important is the best idea wins and where that idea comes from is not the important thing. One tries to keep the ego down to a minimum - though it's difficult for a Conran!