If there is one thing that Sir Terence Conran knows about, it is what makes a good design. After all, the man has been credited with revolutionising how we view home decor and the role it plays.
The long list of his innovations include the first flat-pack furniture in Britain, the second espresso machine, the promotion of open-plan living, the terracotta chicken brick and loads more.
As well as founding the Habitat chain and the Conran Shop, he opened scores of restaurants and written (or co-authored) books. He also founded Britain’s Design Museum, an establishment dedicated to product, industrial, graphic, fashion and architectural design.
His practice, Conran and Partners, has worked on hotel and restaurant designs, as well as urban regeneration projects – of which, span the globe from London to Tokyo. Yet, at 88 years old, he is not slowing down.
Recently, the Conran Shop worked with KEF to design the LSX Soundwave. This new look provides a tactile and visual uniqueness to the iconic design, echoing Conran’s early work as a textile designer.
A colour accent in Conran’s trademark blue gives an attractive personality to the LSX. This is in addition to stylised “soundwaves” that weave their way through the grey fabric, giving the speaker a breath of fresh air.
Here, we speak to Conran himself about taking on the monumental task of designing the speaker. He speaks of his inspiration for the look, as well of his views on the elements of sound and music.
Joining in the conversation is Daniel Schofield, a young designer who has worked closely with Conran over the years. With his pared-back aesthetic, Schofield is being hailed as a designer to watch out for.
What immediately came to your mind when you laid eyes on the LSX?
Sir Terence: I was fascinated by the LSX. I’m from an older generation where technology was not such an integral part of our lives, but when I saw the speakers, I instantly thought they can really be a beautiful object in a room – as much as any art work on the wall or vase of flowers on the table. They have an aesthetic quality that earns the right to be a feature displayed in a room.
How did you approach designing the LSX Soundwave?
Sir Terence: As designers we have worked all over the world so we know it is very difficult and a little daunting to design a product that has already achieved so much success. The brief was a very open one too, which is actually harder for a designer than you may think! So you use your creativity and draw on your own experiences to offer something fresh and new while maintaining the integrity of the product.
I also remember a terrific design meeting very early on where the creative juices really were flowing. We were sitting in my apartment in Battersea looking out over the Thames and it was a beautiful sunny day but quite blustery too. I looked at the ripples of water on the river and thought how beautiful and entrancing the movement was. I imagined waves of sound flowing across the room and that became integral to the pattern we created. I have no idea if our design is what sound waves look like but when I closed my eyes and used my imagination, the pattern on the LSX was what came to mind.
I’m very proud of what Dan and I have achieved and I hope our design does justice to the exceptional quality of sound that emanates from the LSX.
How do you think the pop of blue works to really give the LSX a new personality?
Sir Terence: It would have been so easy – and lazy – to have just said let’s use Conran blue for the whole design. Except it really wouldn’t have worked. I love to use a dramatic flash of colour in my work, I really do thinks it adds something intriguing and can bring that elusive magic ingredient to any design. I like how the blue draws the eye to the functional parts of the speaker, it feels very Braun-like or even Bauhausian. I think it lifts the overall look of the speaker while not being overtly showy.
Daniel: We chose the sandy colour palette to give a sort of soft, understated confidence to the design, and to compliment the print pattern. The Conran blue was used as a reference to Terence but also as a visual highlight and focal point of some of the functional, engineered areas of the design.
Do you believe that fabric design is something that is often under-appreciated?
Sir Terence: It isn’t under appreciated by me at all! I trained as a textile designer at Central Saint Martins and my first grown up business back in the early fifties was called Conran Fabrics so I am passionate about fabric design, pattern and textiles. In fact the first ever book I had published in 1957 was called Printed Textile Design. So it is a keen area of interest and I passionately believe that colour, pattern and texture are an instant way to transform the aesthetic quality of any product.
I love the texture that our fabric brings to the LSX, it is a pleasure to run your hands along and really think it has a dramatic impact on the product. This may also sound crazy absolutely crazy but when we first opened Habitat I remember somebody coming to me and saying how surprised they were that we sold our furniture range which was very different to anything else sold on the high street at the time. Then they said that rather like cows in a field, the more they brushed past our furniture on their way through the shop, the more they began to like it and the more friendly it became. It was a strange conversation but it developed into somewhat of an unofficial motto for us – brush up against the furniture like cows until you get used to it!
In your opinion, to what extent can fabric change the way we look at a product?
Sir Terence: Oh it changes the way we look at a product tremendously. Technology and its associated products are an integral part of modern living so you have to decide whether you want to hide the products, have little black boxes on display all over the room or perhaps try something a little different. Which is why it is a pleasure to work with companies like KEF who are open to new ideas and using the creative process and design to alleviate their product.
Daniel: Tech is always changing and becoming ever present in our lives, at the moment I think we are seeing it try and become more approachable and comforting, so it needs a softer body to allow this. Fabric seems like an obvious answer. As a result the design of the actual fabric, and also what is printed on it is an interesting area for exploration.
How do you see the LSX Soundwave fitting in aesthetically within modern homes?
Sir Terence: Well I am pretty sure it will chime with our Conran Shop customers for starters. I think it will fit in perfectly in any modern home although I have always said don’t be afraid to put modern objects in traditional spaces and vice versa. I suppose that is the trademark of Conran design. The LSX doesn’t scream for attention though, and has a quiet, subtle beauty that I am confident people will appreciate. As I have said before, it really does earn its place as an object to be on display. I love the organic shape and I hope our work has done that justice.
Daniel: When working with Terence the aim is to always try and keep the design simple to appeal to the largest audience and with the hope that with simplicity it will make it last. Maybe that approach will inform you the type of person who will live with them, someone who likes quality, and wants things to last and grow old gracefully.
What's your preference when it comes to music? What can we expect if we were to go through your playlist of everyday songs?
Sir Terence: Oh good grief, I really don’t even know what a playlist of everyday songs is! At this point I am probably very much “off message” but at 88-years-old I think I have earned the right to be bemused by younger generations. I do enjoy classical music and some traditional jazz and a visit to Glyndebourne is always a highlight of my year. What I do know is that when we first met with KEF and they played Dan and I some music, I was stunned by the pure clarity of the sound, even at unfeasibly high volumes. That was the moment for me, for all its aesthetic qualities it is the sound quality that matters most of all and that is what utterly seduced us to get involved this project.
Daniel: It’s such a random mix, if I flick through my next three songs we get – Caribou, Kano and BadBadNotGood.
Does music or sound factor into your creative process as a designer?
Sir Terence: When designing I like to sit in the garden or have the windows open and have the sound of nature as my backing track. I’m a traditionalist though and my creative process is still a pretty basic, almost Shaker-like utopia where I am happiest with a HB pencil and a sketch pad. That’s where our design for the LSX began and I believe that “eye to hand” is still the most important part of the design process and is where creative ideas begin.
Daniel: Music is on in the studio most of the day, unless I’m writing something important when sometimes it can distract me. But all the time I’m designing, music is on.
Cover Image: Sir Terence Conran