He bangs the drums: Sebastian Conran talks about design, his dad and playing music

British designer Sebastian Conran is full of surprises. He has played a key role at Studio Conran, worked with iconic names in design such as Tom Dixon and once shared a flat with Joe Strummer from The Clash – he even once auditioned to be their drummer. ACHICA Living catches up with the legendary designer to discuss ventures past, present and future and find out what makes his foot tap…

You come from a family that’s very influential in the design world. When you were growing up were you tempted to follow a career path that was far removed from design or did becoming a successful British designer seem like a natural calling?

I was always interested in how things worked, making things and wanted to be an inventor as a child – my dad (Sir Terence Conran) encouraged me by giving me a workshop room with a lathe. At school I did Maths, Physics and Chemistry A levels and expected to be an engineer, but Dad persuaded me that design would be more interesting. He was right.

[Image below, from left, Dad Terence and Sebastian, and brother Jasper Conran (Picture: Alan Davidson/The Picture Library Ltd]

What did you like most about studying industrial design engineering at the Central Saint Martins College and did it meet your expectations?

I had an interest in art but no formal education in the history or semantics of art, so this was a real mind opener and helped me to see in a different way and connect art, design and engineering. But probably the most wonderful thing was mixing in with all the other design students and being inspired by their work too.

If you weren’t a designer what would you be?

I seem to have design in the blood, so maybe a craftsman of some sort as I love making things, perhaps a chef too as design takes the raw ingredients and turns them into an appetising result.

From your vast portfolio of working with great names including Tom Dixon, John Lewis, Mothercare, heading up product and branding design at Studio Conran and writing a number of books on design, what has been your most exciting project to date?

Without a doubt it is what we are working on now  - Universal Expert . A series of collections of home products ranging from cookware, electricals, table-top, furniture, utilities storage – an entire store of stuff. We are also working on robotics, smart homes and other products to enhance the experience of later life, which is also very rewarding to the soul.

[Above and below: Sebastian Conran's Universal Expert range]

What item that your father Sir Terence Conran has designed do you admire the most?

My Dad isn’t really a designer in the strict sense of the word, he is more importantly Britain’s Greatest Design Advocate so I would say that his greatest legacy will be the Design Museum.

[Image below: London's Design Museum]

You designed clothes, stage sets and promotional material for The Clash. What appealed to you about The Clash?

The Clash stood out with not only their raw energy on stage, but also their musical competency, they also seemed to have an independently minded core ethos that resonated with what youth felt during the mid seventies. I learned a great deal about the importance of disruptive design and life working with them.

What song of theirs is your favourite? Did you see them play much and if so, which was the best gig you went to?

I like most of their work; Joe Strummer and I shared a house and he used to talk about the lyrics before they became music, so I have a strong emotional attachment. I used to go to watch them rehearsing and be in the recording studio so if you listen to White Riot you can hear my feet stamping. They once auditioned me as a drummer but I was hopeless.

How would you describe the style in your own home? 

21st century minimalist modernism desecrated by eclecticism.

What’s the favourite feature in your home?

The sense of space on the ground floor, with spaces merging into each other.

What’s your top design tip for anyone about to embark on redecorating a room?

Keep it light and simple, start with the ceiling and end with the floor – flexible lighting is essential, don’t try and do it all at once you can always add stuff later – I hate homes where everything is new.

What room should we start with?

The kitchen or living room as this is where we spend most of out time – a really good shower wet room is the ultimate luxury.

Who’s your favourite artist?

Eduardo Paolozzi as he was so kind and influential to me – otherwise sculptors like Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Boccioni and Anish Kapoor.

[Above: Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate - Chicago]

What’s your favourite novel?

George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London - I had read all his works by the time I was 17 and he was a major influence in my early life – it was the social conscience that was independent of political dogma that resonated.

If you were a room, what would you be?

A workshop or a kitchen because that’s where useful stuff happens.

What’s your favourite way to spend week nights?

Cooking a meal and eating it with friends.

And your favourite way to spend the weekend?

Shopping at farmers market, having Dim Sum with my sons, and maybe going to an exhibition. But generally it’s fixing stuff, changing light  bulbs and catching up on work.

Do you have any hobbies?

Work, bicycles, motorbikes and gardening.

What three products could you not live without?

My bicycle – to get around. My iPhone because it does so much, and my spectacles because I cannot see without them!

Do you have a signature recipe dish?

Crispy Roast Duck.

What are the secret ingredients?

It’s the way you prepare it that makes food really special – I steam it before I roast it and use a rub with all sorts of stuff like star anise in it.

Favourite holiday destination?

Places I have never been before where there’s lots to do – but I do enjoy skiing anywhere there is lots of snow and sun.

What exciting projects lay ahead for you and Sebastian Conran Associates in 2013/2014?

That’s secret.

What is your motto?

Elegance lies in simplicity.

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Emily Peck, Editor

View all posts by Emily Peck, Editor