Author: Sadanandan, Smitha
Date published: November 29, 2010
Journal code: WNFS
London (Women's Feature Service) - Sophie Conran is designer par excellence. This ability combined with a fine business mind makes Sophie one of Britain's most successful design entrepreneurs today. Of course, Sophie's immense talent is not surprising considering that she is the daughter of British design heavyweight and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran and influential food writer Caroline Conran. But a string of successful ventures has ensured that she is a force to reckon with in her own right. The last five years have seen Sophie write popular cookbooks and launch a gourmet pie business (though it has now been discontinued); her range of tableware, wallpapers and cutlery are coveted by the rich and famous worldwide; and her exquisite hand-crafted pottery is simply irresistible. How is it that Sophie gets it right every time? As the designer puts it: By putting "your heart and soul into whatever you do," a trait she has picked up from her parents. "My father inspires me endlessly. He is incredibly talented and works harder than anyone I have met in my entire life," she says. In fact, most of what Sophie has learned is from her family. Mealtimes at the Conran home were always fun. "We always had a lot of people at home. I used to help my mother in the kitchen and there was a lot of creativity all around me," she recalls. Sophie would hang out in the kitchen while her mother cooked and experimented with recipes. Often, she would accompany her father to his factory. "There were many things that inspired me as a child. I was exposed to new ideas all the time," she says. And this is the reason for her deep love for both food and design. "I started my gourmet pie business; I worked very hard and it was a success," she says. She also considers herself lucky to have worked for her brother, Jasper, a well-known fashion designer. "He has a fantastic knowledge and I learnt a lot from him," says the vivacious designer. All that she picked up from home was put to good use to expand her work prospects. Take Sophie's pottery collection she has developed for Portmeirion Company. "I was nicely surprised when I started working on pottery. Clay is a fluid and intensely creative medium to work with and I loved its sensitivity. I wanted to design pieces that did not look like they were machine-made. It had to have a hand-thrown effect; that way it would have more fluidity in its shape," she reveals. Her White Oak collection has been inspired from the numerous trips to her dad's carpentry workshop as a child. The sides, rims of her pieces in the collection are wavy, uneven and it seems like a conscious effort on her part to add a slight imperfection. "Yes, it is done to give it a hand-thrown feel. The grooves in the porcelain mirror the carving that Michael, the master carpenter [in her dad's carpentry], would make in wood with his chisel," she reveals. Though the collaboration with Portmeirion happened by chance, her kitchenware range for the company ended up winning the Elle Decoration Design Award in 2006. There's something about Sophie's designs - they are modern and yet reflect traditional ideas and techniques. Explaining the process of designing and producing a pottery collection she says, "Each original [piece] is hand-sketched. I work on the designs and discuss it with the potters. Together, we go through the process of getting hand-thrown pieces done. We make changes so many times, sometimes even 10 to 15 times before the piece is finally sent to be sculpted and mass produced at the factory. We dye the clay in soft shades and to get the glaze, the dyed clay is fired in the kiln at extreme temperatures." For the Portmeirion kitchenware Sophie favours the colours green - "a very traditional Japanese colour" - and white - "a pure, clear colour" - though she and her team create new shades for every collection. Currently, White Oak is available in celadon, cornflour, bisquet, sage and white. "We now have a lovely pebble shade too," she adds. But Sophie's not all businesswoman; she loves to cook and likes to have decent, functional tools to work with - sensibilities that helps her in designing kitchenware that's every woman's dream. "I modify my designs accordingly. Most are based on what I like to use or need to cook with at home," she says.
The Portmeirion range is currently available in over 55 countries and her team is working on expanding the product base. "I am doing new pieces every now and then. I am doing glassware too for Portmeirion. Every Spring and Autumn, we do new launches and introduce six new pieces," she adds. Every new collection starts with an inspiration and Sophie looks towards nature, particularly the English countryside, and all the places she visits during her travels for her ideas. "Whenever I go abroad, I attend fairs to see what's new. I also step into shops selling kitchenware; I attend trade shows - it is really amazing to see how people do different things. In fact, I recently attended a trade show called the New Designers and the Business Design Centre in Islington, which showcased the very best in graduate design. I was humbled by the quality of the students' work in textiles, applied arts, fashion, ceramics and glass. The show was full of originality and ingenuity. It was wonderful to see all that creativity under one roof," she says. The biggest perk of her job, feels the designer, is being able to do what she loves. "I am doing what I am passionate about; no two days are the same. I get to be involved with a lot of things like cooking or designing. On a typical day I am at work I sometimes travel to attend trade shows, fairs, conferences. Some days I am busy cooking and working on new recipes; I write columns; I am at photo shoots. Life is just fantastic; I get to do so much," she says. Sophie has a hectic schedule and her "fantastic team" makes sure that she is at the right place at the right time. "If not for them I really wouldn't know how to manage everything," she says, chuckling. "They just make all the appointments and jot it down in the diary and I am good to go." Though her father, she says, works even on weekends, "I try not to. Occasionally, I do work if I need to meet deadlines." But most times her husband and their two children, Coco and Alex, get her undivided attention during the weekend. Sophie is all about heart, soul and a lot of hard work. And for all budding entrepreneurs, especially women, she has just one piece of advice - hard work. "There is no substitute for hard work. Don't take 'no' for an answer. People may prejudge you or your work; they might not be interested in what you made, but keep persevering. Try not to get distracted by what the world thinks of your work. One day, you sure will succeed." For now, Sophie is busy with her collaboration with Arthur Price - makers of classic English cutlery - on an exclusive range. Someday, she says she would love to design cutlery for the queen. "Wouldn't it be rather nice?" she adds on a dreamy note.
* Her wallpaper range for Arthouse won The House Beautiful Award in 2009.
* She has collaborated on a luxury travel destination, Temple Guiting, in the Cotswolds.
* Recently the newspapers splashed pictures of American First Lady Michelle Obama and her British counterpart Sarah Brown drinking tea from the Sophie Conran for Portmeirion mug.
(© Women's Feature Service)