In 1999, Jasper Conran was approached by the Waterford Wedgwood Group to design a range of crystal. He re-invigorated the sector by creating a range of contemporary Stemware. His crystal collections went on to win the Prince’s Medal ‘Homes & Gardens Classic Design’ Award in 2003 and 2006. Turtle traveled to London to talk with him for ‘The White Book’. This article was published in February 2006.
“I’m gonna love you
Like nobody’s loved you
Come rain or come shine“.
Billie Holiday’s melancholy voice echoes around my head as I sit on the green slate terrace of Jasper Conran’s townhouse on Mayfair’s Sackville Street. Watching London in motion, Billie’s words seem somehow pertinent. The promise of intimate love and security, irrespective of the mixed up world beyond. But the reason I’m humming the tune is because Jasper has just launched his new collection for Waterford Crystal and he’s called it “Rain & Shine“.
As it happens, the sun is shining when Jasper strolls out to the terrace, fresh from a short holiday on a sun-drenched Greek island. The break must have done him the power of good for he certainly seems very relaxed. And, not surprisingly, he looks well too. Lean, bronzed and gym-muscled, breezy white clothes, flashing eyes and a broad white smile. Considering he’s been the talk of international design for close on thirty years, he seems astonishingly youthful too. But maybe that’s just another plus of doing what you want to do – and doing it so darned well.
Yes, maybe Jasper’s early celebrity had something to do with his father, Sir Terence Conran, London style guru and founder of the Habitat and Conran stores. But it takes much more than a famous father to maintain the sort of reputation Jasper has successfully acquired for being a constant walker on the cutting edge.
Child genius, boy wonder, kid coconut, you name it. These were the accolades showered upon Jasper when, in 1975, the 15 ¾ schoolboy kicked off his design career and enrolled at the Parson School of Art & Design in New York. Three years later he launched his first collection of womenswear and completed another collection for Henri Bendel. From an early age, Jasper evidently understood that pace, variety and a sharp focus would be pivotal to his success.
But today, Jasper is not quite so dramatic. “It was a process of elimination“, he shrugs. “Design was all I could do“.
But boy could he do it well.
In 1979, the 20-year-old was elected to the London Designer Collections. Award after award was heaped upon him during the 1980s. The British Fashion Council declared him Designer of the Year in 1986. The Fashion Group of America followed suit six months later. By 1990, his collections were being sold across the globe, affording him an opportunity to dabble in high-society wedding dresses and costume design for a series of prestigious European ballets.
In 1995, Debenham’s took the initiative and commissioned him to design a new range of womenswear. Launched in August 1996, the J by Jasper Collection became a sensation overnight and changed forever the entire concept of British High Street shopping. Suddenly everyone could get a slice of top quality brand design at a very affordable price. Further ranges of J-by Jasper menswear, childrenswear, hosiery, lingerie, bags, belts and sunglasses have been spinning onto the shelves ever since.
“Whatever anyone might think“, he says, “I’m not necessarily a fashion person“. Ten years ago, one might have written this confession off as British modesty. But Jasper’s point is that he is much more than just fashion. Indeed, his immense talent has found its way into an astonishing multiplicity of designs -wallpapers and chair covers, bone china tableware for Wedgewood, fireplaces for Chesneys and, perhaps above all, Waterford Crystal.
In August 2005, Jasper Conran became the latest big name designer to sign on with Waterford Crystal. His best selling range, previously part of Stuart Crystal, is now available within the Waterford Crystal collection, signifying an exciting redefinition by the world famous Irish crystal brand. One of the problems with crystal in recent decades has been the concept that, once purchased, such valuable ware should immediately be kept safely out of harms way lest anyone break it. Hence the peculiar but commonplace spectacle of a dinner party where everyone is drinking out of run-of-the-mill tinkity tonk wine glasses while, from behind the glass panes of a stunning mahogany corner cupboard nearby, two dozen perfectly sturdy and beautiful crystal wine glasses sparkle with understandable jealousy.
Like his friend and fellow Waterford Crystal designer John Rocha, Jasper’s aim was to make crystal glassware a part of everyday contemporary living. Actually, he very generously gave me a pair of stunning Rain & Shine crystal tumblers to take home with me. These tumblers swiftly become indispensable to our luxurious lifestyle, as perfectly suited to a Gin & Tonic or a frothy stout as they are to a dollop of ice cream, a nightcap of water or a morning blast of fruit juice. And if glassware is about survival of the fittest, then these toughies are rapidly on the way to becoming King of the Cabinet.
When Waterford Crystal first approached him with the idea of designing a contemporary range, Jasper was surprised. “I had locked myself into thinking that wasn’t my world. ‘I think you mean my father’, I said. But they said ‘No, we mean you’. I ummed and aaahed for ages but finally I said yes. That let the cat out of the bag. Suddenly I remembered I had an opinion and everything became possible“.
The process of creation began with Jasper etching his ideas on paper until he had a veritable library of ideas. He then homed in on the one’s that really caught his eye and worked on the dimensions. That done, he caught a plane to Waterford for the first of many visits to the famous crystal factory where he worked closely with the master craftsmen to bring each design to hand-blown reality. He concedes that it is difficult to get it right because “sometimes things can be really good but might not be so commercial and sometimes the converse is true“.
Waterford Crystal can rest assured that Rain & Shine is a remarkable collection, at once confident and bold. “I wanted to express the magical way in which light and water change the look of crystal“, says Jasper of his sleek collection. As I’ve said, the tumblers are a personal favourite but, as individual pieces, every goblet, flute, jug, bowl, vase and platter can stand proud amid the grandiose company of Jasper’s other creations on display at his flagship store in Mayfair.
The “store” is actually a stunning three-storey early Georgian house of pearly white walls, smooth oak floors, ebony-hued fireplaces with a cantilevered staircase running down the centre. Converted from a record store, the concept was essentially to recreate a family home. Only just about every single aspect – table, carpet, curtain, chair, chandelier – has been designed by the 45-year-old whose name adorns its chic grey exterior wall. “I’ve tried to redefine the buying process“, explains Jasper. “It’s about how much I invest in you enjoying that experience. This shop is not about hard sell. I don’t want it to be in your face. You will have this! It might sound really pretentious but it’s about what I do and how I do it.”
He’s probably said this a hundred times before but part of Jasper’s skill is his ability to make such a script seem so fresh and personal. Likewise its hard to dispute his thoughts on multiplicity when surrounded by such a remarkable collection.
“I see designing as if I was a journey from here to Australia. I don’t want to be in the same landscape all of the time. You have to challenge yourself. It’s about questioning and looking, evaluating, having new ideas. That is what intrigues me about design. And that’s why I wouldn’t necessarily say no to anything. With Waterford Crystal, I’ve taken on a new medium and I love it“.
So with Waterford Crystal now added to his scalp collection, what would Jasper like to do next? “People keep asking me that but sometimes I look at all this and think is this not enough?” It’s a fair question but, upon my clever sister’s advice, I wonder aloud about the new age of boutique hotel design. His eyes light up like Christmas trees. “I would LOVE to do a hotel! I cannot tell you how much I would love to do a hotel. I am desperate to do a hotel. Tell everybody! Dublin or anywhere. I don’t mind. It really appeals to me. And I think I would be really good at it too!”
That’s Jasper for you. Game on for anything. And darned good at it too.
JC Retail Store on 36 Sackville Street, London W1S 3EQ