Sir Terence Conran looked out at the Manhattan skyline from the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and was understandably drawn to a Norman Foster-designed tower on the Upper East Side.
Conran's intellectual curiousity is undiminished after a 56-year career as a designer, retailer, writer and restaurateur. He believes in the power of design to make people's lives better.
On Tuesday night, Conran even endured a United Nations General Assembly-induced 90-minute taxi ride to check out his friend Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel. He also used the stopover in New York to promote his latest book, "Design: Intelligence Made Visible," written with Stephen Bayley, as an opportunity to give his recently remodeled Manhattan store the once-over.
There are eight Conran stores around the world, hotels, more than 30 restaurants and, of course, books. His architectural and design practice, Conran & Partners, is developing buildings for athletes and back-office staff for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Conran & Partners is also redeveloping Greenwich Pier to create restaurants, a cruise terminal and public space in time for the Games.
In addition, Conran, who was redesigning the Concorde's interior before the supersonic jet was grounded for good, is sprucing up Alitalia's business-class cabin. He is also lobbying with the Save Concorde Group to bring the plane out of retirement for the 2012 Olympics' opening ceremony.
Asked about any unmet challenges, Conran was blunt.
"I'm quite eager to see what dying is like — the final exit,'' he said. "I'm 76 years old next week [Oct. 4]. When you have a back as bad as mine, you have to think, 'It can't be that long now.' It makes you think of so many things that you want to achieve. I'm not in any way in a despondent state. I want to cram in as much as I can before the inevitable happens. I've got a very interesting solution to the final goodbye to my friends. It's to give a great party in all my restaurants along the Thames and to have the most fantastic fireworks display with my ashes going up inside the biggest, noisiest fireworks."
Meanwhile, there is much to do. His own boutique hotel, The Boundary Room, will launch in April in London's East End, and there are six hotels being built in India, including Calcutta. "The construction is fast [in India] but they usually have to redo it three times,'' he said. "But they do it without any incrimination — there might be a bit of a sigh, but there are no battles."He remains centered in design's global reach. Noting how this month's London Design Festival piled up 500 events, he said, "I think people realize that intelligent design can improve the quality of people's lives. And creativity in its finest sense, whether it's art, design, music or whatever, is vitally important in the ways we improve our lives. It's been a long time coming. It's always been there in the fashion industry. Now its spread to domestic design as well."
Asked why design has such cachet now, Conran said, "It's also due to innovation and the realization that scientists and engineers working with designers can create solutions to enhance people's lives."
Conran now employs 3,000 people — compared with 30,000 in the mid-Eighties after he merged his Habitat store chain with Mothercare in the U.K. His eldest son, Sebastian, "will certainly take a fairly major role in the company" once the mantle is passed, Conran said, adding that his five children are creative and his wife, Vicki, also has a good eye. Jasper is a fashion and homeware designer, Sophie is a product designer and author, Tom manages restaurants and Ned is an artist and restores old cars.
Conran, who also is a provost at the Royal College for Art, singled out one of his former students, Thomas Heatherwick, for having "a huge amount of talent." The London-based designer has created unusual pieces such as a rolling bridge that curls up like a "C" when not in use, a seaside cafe whose exterior resembles a conch shell and Longchamps' flagship with what looks like a gigantic ribbonlike steel form that serves as staircase. With a slight salute to his left temple, Conran said, "He has no lack of thinking and is full of imagination."
Tokyo and London's East End stand out as more progressive pockets for design. "Designers and artists always go where there is cheap property and a place to make their mark on buildings and old industrial buildings," he said.
Dutch cities seem to have a lot going on fashion-wise. But in general, the opinionated Conran finds Dutch designers' preoccupation with jokes in their work to be irksome. "It's a bit cynical. I like humor and charm in design," he said.
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