Anyone who has worked for a nightmare boss will appreciate the tension that rippled through Sir Terence Conran’s Covent Garden headquarters each morning as the great man’s heavy footfall was heard coming up the stairs.

After having a good cup of coffee, and smoking a cigar, the master designer would move on to letters. The master of design would write formal letters, then send off explosive, informal missives to harass and motivate employees. 

The Conran Design Group’s senior managers feared finding an envelope with blue Pentel rollerball writing ‘Strictly private’ on it.

Stephen Bayley was the author of Conran’s Design Museum. Bayley recalls being hired by Conran in early 1980s. [with Terence], carelessly opened such a communication and found the words ‘jumped up’, ‘little’ and ‘p***k’ in the very first sentence.’

 He decided not to take the insult lying down: ‘Soon afterwards, I said to him in circumstances I cannot quite recall: ‘Terence, don’t be such a c**t’ . . . He spontaneously warmed up to me.

Anyone who has worked for a nightmare boss will appreciate the tension that rippled through Sir Terence Conran¿s (pictured) Covent Garden headquarters each morning as the great man¿s heavy footfall was heard coming up the stairs

If you’ve ever worked for a boss who was a complete nightmare, then you will understand the tension felt in Sir Terence Conran (pictured) Covent Garden headquarters every morning as his heavy step came up the stairs

This sparky exchange sparked nearly forty years of friendship and rivalry, before Conran, 88, died last year. This is the foundation of Terence: The Man Who Invented Design, a new biography.

Bayley was joined by Roger Mavity as his coauthor. Roger Mavity spent seven years at Conran Holdings’ CEO. Conran lost and built businesses and made friends. He also lost and gained new ones. Conran lost his fourth marriage.

Conran, to the rest of the world was the epitome of genial elegance. Conran was a hardworking taskmaster, demanding unforgiving standards from his workers, as well as his families. He alienated those who loved him, and left a trail that was shattered egos.

Many of the abusive letters to department heads were written on old notepaper. Despite amassing an £85 million fortune, Conran was almost comically penny-pinching and would rescue screwed-up bits of paper from the office waste bins at night to re-use, even for design drawings.

One time, he calculated that 54p was the cost of each lift ride at Butler’s Wharf offices, which are near Tower Bridge. Mavity got irritated that he used Earl Grey teabags. He was told he needed to be more economical with his employees, so he used PG Tips.

Conran with fourth wife Vicki  (pictured) in 2005

Conran with fourth wife Vicki  (pictured) in 2005 

Conran lived by perfection. Bayley remembers Conran shouting at Doreen (his long-suffering secretary): “Gypsophila’s fine.” Beautiful daffodils. But not in the same f*****g vase!’

Conran used to brag about how he made Britain sexier by getting us the duvets in the 1960s. However, his effect went well beyond the bedroom. BC (Before Conran), chairs had been used as a place to rest, a way to consume, and a desk to do work. They were made into beautiful and useful objects by Conran.

If your kitchen includes a simple but artful butcher’s block or your local pub serves paté, you probably have Sir Terence to thank.

Bayley points out that Conran was an educated student at Bryanston School in Dorset and he became a furniture designer following his studies at the Central School of Art and Design.

First, we saw that “design” wasn’t just something for artists but also something everyone could purchase.

A second step was to realize that new generations wouldn’t be content with the sofa Mum and Dad inherited.

Habitat was Conran’s groundbreaking shop that opened in Chelsea, 1964. This year, The Beatles first made it to America. Conran belonged to a trendy new group that was able to get rid of the old, dreary London of post-war London. Mary Quant was the one who gave London young the mini skirt. Conran made it modular shelving, beanbags, and the director’s seat.

Pictured with second wife Shirley in 1955

Photographed in 1955 with Shirley, his second wife

Conran was not just a furniture seller, but he was also a man with a mission. One time, Conran said that he felt like he had a “sort of God-sent mission to disprove” the idea that only the middle and upper classes are able to have taste while the workers don’t. Bayley observes that this was not just patrician arrogance, Conran was an ex schoolboy and was no class warrior. It was also a mix of ‘boggling grandiosity.

Conran accomplished almost all of his tasks on a large scale. His accomplishments included furniture manufacturing, retail, restaurant owner, teacher, and patron. He married and separated from four women, fathered five children (Sebastian, Jasper, Tom, Sophie and Edmund), flew in private jets, had a huge house in Berkshire and smoked more than £1 million-worth of cigars. In 1983, he received the Knighthood for his services to design and was named a Companion of Honour. Habitat grew into Storehouse Plc in the 1980s. This included BHS and Heal’s as well as Mothercare. Conran’s ambitious attempt to take over the High Street ultimately failed — but undaunted, he went on to create a string of glamorous restaurants, including Bibendum, Quaglino’s and Le Pont de la Tour (where Tony Blair entertained Bill Clinton during a presidential visit to London).

Although he excelled in his chosen field, he didn’t hesitate to take on the challenge of culinary competitors. He walked up to Jeremy King at The Ivy one night and told him: ‘You know my dear Jeremy. The food is getting better.

King became politely furious: “That man could compliment and insult you in one sentence,” he said to Bayley.

Yet almost everything Conran did was on a grand scale. He was a furniture manufacturer, retailer, restaurateur, educator and patron

Conran accomplished almost all of his tasks on a large scale. Conran was an educator, patron, furniture retailer, restaurateur and restaurateur.

These are four things Terence taught us 

Hiring the most talented people is a great way to take credit for their accomplishments 

 Hire the best people and take credit for their achievements.

You should always tear basil using your fingers. Never use a knife. 

At the extreme limits of our human potential, ordinary tasks can be done extraordinary well.

A glass of good white Burgundy is a great choice, Chablis makes a wonderful breakfast wine.

Stephen Bayley


Bayley and Mavity had an idea to write a book on Conran about five years ago. The book was intended to be honest and fair, with Conran’s friends and open to sharing their thoughts. Conran got the manuscript and was given an opportunity to rectify any mistakes. Conran’s lawyers followed up with a letter that was ‘terrifyingly hostile’.

Bayley maintained that the entire book was accurate, however, this did not appear to be enough protection against legal sanctions. Thus, the project was put into limbo.

Bayley was asked to thank Conran for his death last September. He was again struck by Conran’s temperament and began to wonder about his former boss. . . could also, from time to time, be a mean-spirited, selfish b*****d,’ he writes, as he and Mavity finally prepare to publish their biography next week. “How is it possible that someone who cares deeply about helping people live better lives could also show such a lack of compassion for those closest to them?”

A sad observation by someone close to him suggests that there may be a hint in the fact that he “does not have love” in his heart.

Conran life reminded Mavity of a royal court.[Terence]Courtiers were constantly around, and they slipped in and off of favor at an alarming rate. Family members were involved with courtiers, and at equal risk of being accepted one minute then dismissed the next.

Mavity says of his ex-boss: “While he might be relaxed, he’s certainly not at peace. . . Terence acts like a predator in the veldt and is always ready to strike at any opportunity.

Conran, who was considered the cornerstone of modern Britain’s history, didn’t use either a laptop or mobile phone before his discovery of the iPad. He could see out of only one eye, having lost the sight in the other in a workshop accident — but as Bayley notes, that single eye was a very, very good one.

Conran was bored and didn’t pay enough attention to his customers in the beginning, which led to some of Conrans failed businesses. However, he worked hard.

Bayley remembers Conran returning to the studio late after dinners out in 1980, during a period of high multitasking. For example, he claimed that Mrs Thatcher once placed her hand on his knee, and said, “You know Sir Terence it can be lonely to be prime minister.”

He also returned from another meeting with Robert Maxwell who owns the Mirror newspaper. On this occasion, he declared Maxwell ‘the rudest person I have ever encountered’.

Bayley privately thought that he was in Pot-and-Kettle territory.

Author Stephen Bayley, (pictured) who was hired in the early 1980s to create what became Conran¿s Design Museum in London, recalls: ¿I once, early in my association [with Terence], carelessly opened such a communication and found the words ¿jumped up¿, ¿little¿ and ¿p***k¿ in the very first sentence'

Stephen Bayley (pictured), author, was hired to establish Conran’s Design Museum, London in the 1980s. He recalls, “I once, very early in my association.” [with Terence], carelessly opened such a communication and found the words ‘jumped up’, ‘little’ and ‘p***k’ in the very first sentence’

Conran was quite vulgar. One time, Conran was bored at a party and asked another guest, an experienced banker, “Why do you have tassels on the shoes?”

When an accountant was sounding off at a meeting, Conran said: ‘If you’re so f*****g clever, why aren’t you as rich as me?’

His brooding belief that there was nothing good in this life wasn’t enough extended to the workplace, which was even more destructive. His second wife, Shirley — author of Superwoman, the modern-life handbook which famously told women that ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’ — left him because she couldn’t stand being continually undermined. She discovered that he had an affair while she was pregnant.

She later said that it wasn’t the infidelity. It was constant criticism. This ‘could do-better voice. It makes you feel as heavy as a brick. He would say that the egg was slightly undercooked, which meant the breakfast had been spoiled.

Shirley was a wonderful person to interview a few years back. Although she was in a lovely apartment in an Art Deco mansion, home felt like her last place of refuge. She had moved to Conran in 1962 with ‘just my handbag’.

After their split, he fired her at Conran Fabrics leaving her only with two weeks of money. He refused to help her with anything, except paying Sebastian and Jasper their school fees.

In an exquisitely fitting revenge, Shirley went on to make a successful career in journalism (as launch editor of the Daily Mail’s Femail) and write Lace, the first of a string of racy ‘bonkbuster’ novels that earned her more than £10 million.

Conran and Shirley split shortly after. He married Caroline Herbert in 1993. A few years later Caroline had written the first Habitat catalog. Bayley claims that Caroline also was an investor in the project. Terence didn’t want to admit this, and even later at court.

Conran’s beautiful Georgian country home was the setting for many business meetings. Caroline became an internationally renowned cookery author.

Conran was clearly upset when she became disillusioned, and left after nearly 30 years. Bayley caught Conran telling Bayley at lunch that he had missed her birthday. “But I didn’t forget. It was simply that I was too busy.

Conran suggested to a friend that he take over the most famous restaurant in his area for one night and then treat Caroline alone to dinner to express regret. Bayley said that it was an elegant and chic idea, which might have even worked. Conran, however, rejected the suggestion as being too costly.

It was a difficult divorce, emotionally as well as financially. The judge estimated Conran’s fortune at £80 million and awarded Caroline a then-record settlement of £10.5 million.

Conran complained that Conran’s figure was a fanciful one. “Just because she wrote some books and cooked a few meals every now and then. It was me who taught her to cook.

Conran was a difficult parent to his kids. Jasper, fashion designer, once said that Christmas presents were a difficult subject because his mother was generous. Let’s just say that my father was extremely busy.

Bayley points out that Terence was a good-natured man, but not one who is quick to help others. Conran complains that Sebastian, his youngest son, was not focused when Sebastian worked temporarily for him.

Jasper was anointed heir to the company when he joined it in 2012. Conran claimed (in a newspaper again) that Jasper’s ‘never, hardly ever, talks with me. . . “I have the experience and knowledge.” I continued to say it. You don’t know what I do. In 2016, Jasper resigned.

Conran’s back problems became more severe as he grew older. This was due to a car accident that had occurred in India many years before. Bayley asked Conran about his spinal surgery. He said it to Bayley just before going into the hospital. There are some things I regret.

Bayley prepared to be sympathetic to Conran’s insensitivity towards his family members and friends. Conran responded, instead saying: “I wish that I would have started to use private jets sooner.” . . Flying commercials have ruined my back.

Bayley says Conran lived an extraordinary life, but it wasn’t always one of contentment. He was a very sad man in his last years after separating from Vicki, his fourth wife. Bayley said that Conran’s sharp brain began to drift after he was treated with medication.

Terence wanted the entire world to enjoy a better meal. This was the problem, according to one friend. Bayley believes that his greatest flaw was the way he loved himself more than others. 

Terence: The Man Who Invented Design, by Roger Mavity and Stephen Bayley, will be published by Constable on November 11 at £25. © 2021 Roger Mavity and Stephen Bayley. To order a copy for £22.50, go to or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Offer valid through November 20, 2021