An Interview with Terence Conran
1. Why did The Wish List project appeal to you?
Because it is a project that looks to the future in so many ways – supporting young design talent, promoting the importance of craftsmanship and practising sustainable, ethical design. I have always supported and encouraged the importance of education in design – it is one of the key reasons I founded the Design Museum. Young people are our future, the lifeblood of our future economies and cultures. Hopefully, in some small way, this project can help.
2. I understand you were instrumental in selecting the designers who act as ‘commissioners’. Can you explain how you set about this?
I’m not sure how instrumental I was – with the calibre and experience we were looking for, the names practically picked themselves but I suppose it must help that I know them all personally. But it has really raised my spirits that this extraordinary cast of characters saw the value in our big idea and shared our passion for encouraging the next generation of talent – it really does make a big difference.
3. It is a fantastic list of names. What is it about the project that you think caught their imaginations? After all, they are all very busy people.
First and foremost, the name of the project is a dead giveaway – who could turn down the opportunity to receive the thing they had always wanted but never been able to find?! But I think the importance of the project does capture your imagination, everybody involved has played a huge part in shaping the world around us but they also have a deep understanding of the importance of giving something back, of helping to develop the future designers and give them an extraordinary opportunity to create something special and learn new skills
4. How do you feel about the selection of young designers who are working with the commissioners?
Of course we will know more next week when the real work begins but I am absolutely delighted so far. There is a really good mix of talents and backgrounds but they have taken on their work with gusto and brought real energy to the project and to the big idea.
5. How important do you consider the making part of the project – the young designers working at Benchmark?
I actually think it is the most important part of the project and where the youngsters will learn the most. Craftsmanship really is at the heart of The Wish List.
6. Benchmark makes its own designs but also the designs of other talented designers – but they are not usually this hands-on. Do you think that experience of physically making pieces is essential for designers as they establish themselves?
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for young designers to get practical experience and learn a craft so you understand how things are actually made and how different materials shape the design process. I have always concerned myself with what one may call the practical aspects of design and tried to relate my work to the manufacturing process. I have never designed any product that I wouldn’t know how to make myself.
7. What is exciting you most about The Wish List?
Usually my favourite part of the design process is finally seeing my products on the shop floor – that’s where the greatest satisfaction comes. But this is very, very different. I am looking forward to the making week most of all – seeing the pieces evolve, watching the young designers learn their craft and pick up new skills. I expect there will be a great deal of energy and vigour around Benchmark that will get our pulses racing. There is already a great atmosphere in the grounds with tents being erected and a terrific buzz about the place, almost like a carnival or festival. If people haven’t got tickets for Glastonbury this weekend then Barton Court might be a pleasant alternative!
It is such a terrific idea – in some small way I wish I was one of the young designers creating something beautiful for one of my own heroes – perhaps the Eames or Saarinen.
A. RE YOUR PERSONAL WISH LIST COLLABORATION
1. How did you come up with the object for your wish list? It is a cocoon-like desk – if you had always wanted one of these, why didn’t you design it yourself at some point?
I have designed thousands of objects and pieces of furniture during my long career in design but, while I have had the occasional piece customised, I have never once had the opportunity to design something purely and selfishly for myself. As a designer you cannot afford to be selfish because there are so many factors to consider. The only time when people made something just for me was when my dear friend Eduardo Paolozzi had a bowl made for me by the Japanese potter Kawase Shinobu. So, like all the great names involved in this project, this is that rare opportunity to be selfish and say – make something purely for me! I like the idea of being cocooned away happily designing or writing in blissful peace – and it will save me going in to the greenhouse in my garden which is currently my favourite place for quiet time.
2. The idea (I have not yet seen any drawings) immediately makes me think of the Antonella da Messina painting of St Jerome. Are you hoping for something like that?
Good grief, you’ll frighten poor Sebastian to death putting such grand pressures like that on him! It is an interesting idea though and I like the thought of sitting in my cocoon as a modern day Saint Jerome working on my latest designs, but hopefully I have more to smile about than he does in the painting. I’ve also just read that the peacock in the foreground symbolises immortality so we’ll have to find one in deepest darkest Berkshire!
3. Did you specifically choose to work with Sebastian Cox? ( I know some of the designers were the choices of the commissioners, and others were allocated).
Yes, he was brought to my attention by Sean Sutcliffe at Benchmark with tremendous enthusiasm. He has worked with Sean at Benchmark very recently creating a beautiful Chestnut and Ash range that has proved very popular. I think it is a perfect fit for me, I really do think he is a very talented young man and my great wish is in very capable hands.
4. How do you feel about his work?
I am really impressed – he has a lightness of touch that gives his work a sense of elegant beauty. He is very much a craftsman and I like how he gets deeply involved in the making of his work to produce beautiful work that is effortlessly both traditional and contemporary. It is also very refreshing to hear him talk so passionately about creating sustainable pieces of furniture which is increasingly rare among young designers. He’s a thinker, a hands-on problem solver and I very much admire his imaginative use of woods such as coppiced hazel.
5. How is the collaboration going?
I have to say it is going brilliantly. We had a fantastic meeting about what I am really looking for and he just “got it” while also making some interesting observations and suggestions himself. He has a quiet, amiable confidence about him and I like that. He has already been in the workshop at Benchmark with his team and floating strips of red oak in the river at the end of my garden to get that beautiful supple quality he needs for weaving. I can’t wait for the next week and seeing it all come together.
6. How important is wood to you as a material?
It is probably my favourite material of all, ever since my early passions for Shaker furniture and Scandinavian design. I love its character, the feel of the material as you run your hand along a quality piece of it, the structure and the way it develops a beautiful patina over time. I am filled with pride by how at Benchmark a piece of raw timber comes in to our workshop and a beautiful piece of furniture comes out finished at the other end – it is quite a rare thing in Britain these days. And, perhaps most importantly to all of us, when developed in the right way it is a hugely important sustainable material that will play a very important role in all our futures. It is certainly at the heart of our own factory at Benchmark where we are world leaders in sustainable development.
7. Have you worked with American hardwoods before?
We have, on a wonderful project called ‘Out of the Woods’, which launched at the London Design Festival in 2012 and then travelled to the Stockholm Furniture and Light Fair in February 2013. It was a very important project that combined design and sustainability with RCA students designing and creating furniture using American Hardwood here at Benchmark’s workshops .
8. As a designer yourself, is it difficult to cede control to somebody else?
I’d like to think not but I am sure the many people I have worked with down the years as a restaurateur, retailer and businessman would tell you a very different story. I am very hands on in everything I do and always trusted my own instincts, but I like to think as I have matured I have been able to trust in the talented people I have around me. I certainly have a great deal of trust in young Sebastian!
9. How involved are you going to be in the making process of your piece?
I am going to enjoy being very “hands off” and allow Sebastian and his team to get on with things as they are more than capable. Of course my door will always be open and I’ll be on hand with some practical suggestions if they are needed. But I have made my wish now and I feel very relaxed that my dreams will come true.