What is there left to say about Terence Conran? He has been hailed as the ultimate democratizer of good design, the man who popularized modernism and the person who has most shaped contemporary taste. While this praise may read like an overheated press release, all of it is more or less true.
In 1964, when Conran, now 74, opened his first Habitat store—the international chain of cheap and cheerful home furnishings (since 1990, it has been owned by the same holding company that owns Ikea)—he created a retailing template that has been copied around the globe, from Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn to Target, and launched a new era of design accessibility. Knighted in 1983, Sir Terence is now the owner of the more upscale Conran shops (there are eight worldwide).
He is also a restaurateur par excellence. Conran pioneered the use of fresh, locally grown ingredients long before it became an American obsession. He's also a hotelier (he co-owns the chic Great Eastern in London); and runs an architectural firm: Conran & Partners is creating huge housing complexes in England and Japan. He's also the founder of a museum, a furniture designer and manufacturer, a publisher and author of dozens of books.
So when he decided to renovate his home of 33 years, Barton Court, a country mansion in Berkshire that dates back to 1772, the design world took note. Conran bought the house, about 60 miles west of London, in the early 1970s. "It was in a derelict state," he says. "The house was a victim of dry rot, which gets into everything." So he embarked on a massive renovation. Perhaps his most dramatic step was knocking down all the walls that connected the building's three front rooms to create a long, light-filled living room that spans the width of the house and overlooks the gardens.
The house stayed more or less the same until three years ago when the boiler blew up. It was also around this time that Conran married his fourth wife, Vicki Davis. (His marriage of 33 years to Caroline Herbert ended in divorce in 1996.) "Divorce in one way is good," he says. "It makes you rethink your home. She takes all the things that she says belong to her; the next one brings all her things in." (One of the things that Vicki brought was her hand-operated printing press and trays of old type.)
Whatever the proximate reason for the changes, the couple seized the moment, redoing the bathrooms ("They were uncomfortable and old-fashioned," he says). They also did work on the kitchen, dining room, library and living room, refinishing the floors, installing new carpeting, repainting (mostly in different shades of white), retiling the kitchen and adding shelving in the library and dining room. Sir Terence also created a spacious office for himself where he can write and design.
"We paid a great deal of attention to the lighting, particularly the quality of light," he says. They added dimmer switches in every room, a complicated job because the wiring had been done 33 years ago before dimmers became popular. The Conrans found that little changes made a big difference. "The original doorknobs were china. We changed them to nickel; it was a small thing but it made the house feel fresher and more modern," he says.
In many ways, Barton Court is a throwback to old English landed estates; it's a completely self-contained village. Not only does Conran have an office there, most of the outbuildings house his furniture company, Benchmark, which he established about 20 years ago with Sean Sutcliffe. Started as a small studio workshop for handcrafted wood furniture in what was once the stable, the factory has expanded to several more of the outbuildings. The huge vegetable gardens that surround the property supply produce for his London restaurants. "I'm living like an old farmer," says Conran. "It's a very productive place."
The house is large, about 25,000 square feet, including the basement. But he has pointed out that when he bought the property it cost the same as a studio apartment in London today. He notes that the 27 rooms are put to good use: "I run a weekend country hotel for my kids—five of my own three stepchildren and ten grandchildren. I spend the weekends going down into the cellar, bringing up wine."
While Barton Court has gone through only one major renovation in the past 33 years, new pieces of furniture, accessories, collections and books are brought in on an almost daily basis. "Your eye moves on," says Sir Terence. But his singular style, while different in specifics, stays the same. "The changes are in the details, not the principle," he says. "In the world of design, you are always learning. Some of the things I chose 25 years ago may be great; other things are not. I think no one is going to stop and say, 'My taste is formed.' There's constant pruning."
But for now, he's more than content. "Barton Court is a wonderful and comforting place to call home."