As part of our series of pieces on luxury design, we put a question to our Chairman, Sir Terence Conran:
“What makes a luxury product, and is our notion of luxury changing?”
He sent us this in response:
When I opened my first restaurant in 1953, at the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, rationing was still in force in Britain. The average Briton was more likely to have eaten a spam fritter than a bowl of pasta, and the shadow of austerity loomed large.
Over the next six decades, growing affluence transformed British society. Travel was gradually democratised, and Brighton’s hotels and Bath’s spas suddenly seemed old hat. We became accustomed to eating meat every day. Just as we had once clamoured for mahogany and Camp Coffee, now we wanted real coffee, or a glass of wine; pinewood, oak and foreign holidays.
But the appeal wasn’t just about expense, nor about scarcity. These things were appealing because they offered a taste of the good life.
I had my first taste of such a life when I went to France in 1952. The experience of seeing ordinary country people living well led me to open The Soup Kitchen, where we sold bowls of soup for a shilling, and served cups of coffee from London’s second-ever Gaggia machine.
Those cups of coffee felt extremely luxurious to me – just as did Ray and Charles Eames’ lounge chair, released at about the same time. Though their price tags were worlds apart, they shared something important.
If you wrap something in ebony and ostrich leather, or drown it in Château Latour and truffles, you will make it very extravagant – but not necessarily very luxurious. To do that, it has to improve the quality of people’s lives. An egg is plain and beautiful. A Fabergé egg is suitable only for oligarchs.
To me, the Mini Cooper is perhaps the greatest luxury product of the 20th Century. Though born of utilitarian ideals, the Mini brought an unprecedented level of comfort and ease to the British motorist.
At its most basic level, that is all luxury is about: the experience of good living. That hasn’t changed in the 60 years I’ve been designing things, nor is it about to.
Terence Conran, July 2012
Conran Singh hosted a panel discussion on how digital mixes with luxury at The Conran Shop last week, following on from their series of articles on the topic. We’ll have a report later this week.