The Times Magazine

11th January 2013

We are thrilled to have been featured in the Times' recent issue, where we talked to Carol Lewis about our "innate passion for cooking", the drive behind our Universal Expert range:

The British designer and former roadie for The Clash Sebastian Conran gives Carol Lewis a sneak preview inside his studio.

Sebastian Conran is thrusting and twisting a knife towards me: “we are developing this with [Quo Vadis] chef Jeremy Lee, it has flat sides so you can grip and twist it,” he says enthusiastically jabbing it forward. Seconds later he has turned his attention to a set of pans with flat glass lids: “You can use the lids as trivets, and see what’s going on when you are cooling, you can put pans on top of each other and all the lids can hang off the same hook,” he says, holding a handful of lids aloft.

“And this is a toast rack, the toast can be fat of thin and go any way around,” he adds gleefully, showing me what looks like a mini bed of nails.

Sebastian, the eldest son of Sir Terence and Shirley Conran, is showing me around his West London studio. He left the Conran Group, where he spent nine years as head of products and branding design, three years ago because he wanted to be “his own boss”. The top floor of Sebastian Conran Associates’s studio, a converted garage near Barons Court, is packed with the fruits of his three years of independence.

His design interests are eclectic, ranging from walking frames to robots, but much of what fills the studio is kitchenware. Cooking is one of Conran’s passions and the studio’s designs reflect this – a kitchen roll dispenser to be used one handed, large dials on appliances so they can be runed with greasy hands, mixing bowls shaped so that they can be held easily at one end while whisking, pinch pots wide enough to insert fingers or a tablespoon.

Conran has worked with many chefs during the course of his career including Ken Hom, Madhur Jaffrey, Antonio Carluccio and Nigella Lawson – “She was hysterically funny and would make me laugh uncontrollably like a schoolboy”. He has also worked with a range of household stores including Mothercare, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis. Conran’s business partner is Jerry Sacher, the founder of Jerry’s Home Store.

Conran’s latest designs, a set of tabletop products, will launch under the “Sebastian Conran for John Lewis” label, this spring. It has a contemporary minimalist range, in some cases perhaps a little too minimal. He points to a set of crockery that is plain except for what looks like a felt tip pen marking on plate rims. “John Lewis wanted a pattern so we put a dash on it, which I quite like, but they want more,” he says with a shrug.

The range includes snack bowls, a butter dish, measuring cups, a carving plate, a cake stand and a British egg holder – “British because it has room for soldiers”. Conran talks loudly and animatedly. The 56-year-old’s boyish enthusiasm is infectious. He scurries around the studio like “Q” in James Bond demonstrating each innovation with glee. He presents a cheeseboard set, lifting the glass cover to display two knives laid out side-by-side – “inspired by duelling pistols”, he says with a smile.

Dressed all in black except for a green silk handkerchief – designed by his younger brother Jasper – and bright blue trainers he intersperses conversation with phrases such as “functional innovation”, “craft-driven design” and “playful pragmatism”.

The range will launch in Australia, South Africa, Europe and America in the autumn under the name “Universal Expert” - a play on Universal Export, the fictional import-export company used as a cover for secret agents by James Bond. “The name is also meant to describe the functionality”, he explains. Most of the pieces are multi-functional. For example, the centre of the carving plate lifts to reveal a vegetable serving bowl and the butter dish is reversible. The range will eventually contain 300 products – 200 of which are in development.

He describes his designs as “a bit Manufactum and a bit Labour and Wait, but not retro. It is contemporary because I think that cooking and eating are sensual activities and I want to use natural materials. He adds: “I wanted this range to have a sort of 20th-century soft minimalism to it. So it is not basic, it’s high quality but actually quite pared down and not gimmicky, it has features and benefits.”

There is also lighting and furniture, much of it inspired by everyday objects. Conran demonstrates the King Pin table with three central holes (like those in a bowling ball) that can be used to grab and pull the table up to dining height. “From coffee table to TV dinners”, he exclaims.

Then there is the adjustable Radius table based on a bicycle seat post – Conran is a keen cyclist and owns six Moulton bikes, a three-legged chair called Jake (after Rolf Harris’s Jake the Peg) and computer designs for a chair with legs, based on snooker cues, which can be deconstructed.

In the corner of a meeting room is the prototype of a “sound chair” that Conran is designing with one of his sons. He began his career as a roadie with the Clash and designed some of their album covers: “I studied industrial design but I graduated in rock and roll,” he says. The large Arne Jacobsen-style chair has been adapted to include speakers in the headrest.

He has two sons: Sam, 23, and Max, 17. “I made my sons each do a stint as chefs to really focus them on what work was about and both are made keen on cooking. Cooking and music are the things we share together.:

Alongside design, cooking is a family affair – Conran’s stepmother, Caroline Herbert, was a kitchenware buyer and food writer, his father, Terence, launched a chain of restaurants while half-brother Tom is a restauranteur.

Conran says that he wouldn’t dissuade his sons from a career in design but adds that he hadn’t always wanted to be a designer himself. “When I was a little boy Professor Branestawn was my hero. I did maths, chemistry and physics and anted to do engineering but dad said ‘oh no, you want to design’ so I studied industrial design [at Central St Martins].”

Although he has previously been reported as saying he left the Conran Group because he didn’t want to be known solely as the son of Terence, he is clearly close to his parents and his four siblings – he visits his mother every Sunday, cooks her lunch and carries out chores.

“It’s quite funny because my children are going through what I went through. I remember going for my first interview at art college and being all nervous, and then the first thing they said was ‘Don’t think you are going to walk in here just because you’re called Conran’. It was the last thing on my mind but it is fantastic being part of such an interesting family.

“My parents are very inspirational and I am proud to be a Conran if that doesn’t sound too cheesy.”

He is particularly proud of his brother Jasper, who is chairman of the Conran Shop. “What Jasper has done there is just fantastic,” he says, although he is keen to distinguish himself.

“I’m interested in the manufacturing and the engineering and the making of thins whereas Sophie [his half sister] and Jasper are more about form follows fashion. I am more form follows fabrication. Design is a spectrum and at one end you have fashion designers and at the other end you have got engineers with dirty finger nails and I’ve go a bit of bandwidth in that spectrum.”

Although clearly a Conran, Sebastian has carved out a successful niche in a cookware design, driven by an innate passion for cuisine.

You can take the boy out of the Conran Group but you can’t take the Conran out of the boy.