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Sophie Conran: Born to Design

With a gene pool like hers it must have been almost inevitable that Sophie Conran would forge a career that combined a taste for good living with an impeccable design sense.  After all her parents are widely acknowledged to have introduced the concept of La Dolce Vita to England, forever reinventing the way we live. Brothers Sebastian and Jasper became well known designers, while Tom and Ned are famous restauranteurs.

An interior decorator since the age of 20, Sophie recently launched Sophie Conran, a one stop online shop showcasing her designs, everything from artfully curved crystal tumblers to a wonderful, slightly misshapen salad bowl. It's clear looking through this covetable range of homeware that she has inherited the family talent for design - these are classic pieces but always with an unusual twist to set them apart. Sir Terence Conran was building up the Habitat brand when Sophie was a child while her mother Caroline was writing cookery books and introducing Britain to the concept of leisurely, family food. Sophie says: “My Dad was obviously massively into design, especially Scandinavian design and my Mum loved the French and Italian way of good living and wanted to introduce that to England.” When she was eight the Conrans moved from Regent's Park into a dilapidated old school in Berkshire and spent years lovingly restoring it. This, Sophie says, had a profound impact on the way she would choose to live as an adult. "Those were the days when my Dad was building up Habitat and turning a sad old school into a lovely family home. We always had interesting people staying and fun stuff arriving - bed linens, lamps, furniture samples - because the catalogues were shot at home.' Much of her spare time was spent playing with her dolls houses, not just one but three and all highly customised, a pre-runner to her obsession with interior design. She says: "I had a shop which I used to window dress according to the seasons, a simple Georgian house which I wallpapered with wrapping paper and one my brothers Jasper and Sebastian made for me out of an old beehive." Like Jasper, Sophie was fascinated by fashion and briefly flirted with the idea of being a milliner, working for the hat maker Stephen Jones. "It was great fun and I loved it, I just wasn't very good at it!" When Sophie was 20 her father gave her and her siblings Habitat shares with the proviso that they should either buy a house or start a business. Sophie adds: "He had always shown us that hard work can also be a source of great enjoyment." Sophie used her money to buy a 3 storey flat in West London which she still lives in today. She gutted it from top to bottom, ripping out walls and floors and by the time she was finished, friends were queuing up for private commissions. And so began a lifelong career in interiors. Later, a working mother with two young children, Felix and Coco, Sophie reinvented herself again, setting up Sophie Conran Pies. She says: "I had one of those lightbulb moments when I was lying in the bath, thinking about what I was going to cook and leave in the fridge for the children's lunch the next day.  I thought 'I could make a business out of this'." Being a Conran, pies in nasty foil containers were never going to do, so she designed a beautiful porcelain dish to hold them. A friend showed her pie dish to Portmeirion Pottery and a new line of china and glassware followed, now sold in 55 countries. You get the feeling that things always happen organically for Sophie. From the best-selling line of chinaware came wallpaper, garden furniture, casserole dishes, tea towels and candles and now she has launched Sophie Conran, an online umbrella store selling a broad range of designs all with her very distinctive and Conranesque USP - functionality combined with elegance, beauty with form.

sophiepies   These are pieces with a subtle, understated appeal, never flashy or showy, but the kind of thing you will want to treasure and hand on, the exact opposite of the all too disposable IKEA. I love this measuring jug (below) which takes the useful and transforms it into something rather beautiful - in fact I'd be tempted to fill it with a bunch of Spring flowers. 

 When she begins a design, whether a gardening glove, a mug or chopping board, she tries to visualise the emotional connection with each object to conjure up a mood. Colour is also key for her. Though much of the Sophie Conran collection is in appealing soft pastels and muted creams, she adores warm, strong colours, especially pink, 'the navy of India,' and turquoise.  A trip to India when she was 17 , driving around the whole country with her aunt who was buying director for Habitat, was hugely inspirational, she says. "It was a real eye opener seeing the incredible craft and hospitality and colour and culture of that country. It left me with a sense of wonderment." One of her favourite pieces in the Sophie Conran collection, and also a best-seller, is the salad bowl which she says: "set the bar for the rest of the designs. It is hand thrown and has a quality of uneven-ness which I like." When she decided to design a range of cutlery for Arthur Price Sophie she spent weeks researching the visual history of British cutlery eventually choosing a reinterpretation of 18th century and 1950s shapes that were amalgamated. These are functional, every day items which are also quietly beautiful. This is true of all the pieces, whether the egg cups or the casseroles.                       

Glass is sleek and contemporary but with a luxurious feel, like these crystal champagne coupes (photographed on the website filled with individual trifles). Her trademark mis-shapen bowls come in glass and various sizes - the large one would make a perfect fruit bowl.


Sophie Conran are offering a generous 15% off to Country Calling readers - simply go to www.sophieconran.com and enter discount code COCAL15 at the checkout.

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