The designer, cook, author and proud fundraiser for Macmillan Cancer Support talks to Jessica Jonzen about Christmases in the Conran household and her fail-safe entertaining tips
Growing up as part of a design and food dynasty, it was probably inevitable that Sophie Conran would end up following suit. The only daughter of food writer Caroline Conran and Sir Terence Conran – who introduced the very idea of ‘lifestyle’ to the British public with Habitat, The Conran Shop and his plethora of influential restaurants – Sophie Conran has creativity in her DNA.
She grew up with four brothers – fashion designer Jasper, product designer Sebastian and restaurateurs Tom and Ned – in a converted school in Kintbury, West Berkshire, where her father still lives. ‘Dad started out as a carpenter and potter, and so was always making or fixing something,’ she says. ‘Sebastian had a workshop next to the kitchen that was filled with tools. There were always shoots going on for the Habitat catalogue and all the people involved were friends of the family, so we knew everyone, and all these toys and props would arrive so we’d get to play with Lego sets and rocking horses. It was pretty good.’
A true polymath, Sophie Conran left school early and ‘tried all sorts of things’, including millinery with Stephen Jones, journalism and making a range of award-winning pies, before developing her own brand. ‘It all came together as this and it feels right. I love the balance of it and all the different bits. I’ve got a fantastic team,’ she says.
Her brand has expanded from the aesthetically and practically pleasing tableware range, to include soft furnishings, lighting and garden accessories – all in her signature quintessentially English style. Her upbringing was, she says, hugely influential for her own homeware collection with Portmeirion, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
‘Seeing how my parents work and the whole idea of home being where all the good stuff happens was very inspiring,’ she says. ‘Then going to antique shops and travelling and seeing things that I liked and putting them together, and seeing things that are charming…’
Conran also got involved with Macmillan Cancer Support three years ago and recently hosted an event at London’s Spencer House, which raised £36,000. ‘It’s a fantastic charity – everybody you talk to has got a Macmillan story,’ she says. ‘I’ve had friends with cancer and it’s so amazingly difficult and new and confusing. It’s so important for people to feel thought about and cared for.’
This ties in very naturally with Conran’s entire persona. Her brand exudes comfort, abundance and the best things in life – family, food and fun. So it’s not surprising that Conran will be hosting her family’s Christmas festivities this year at her country house in Wiltshire. ‘I’ve got 30 or so people coming for Christmas, I’ve just been told!’ she laughs.
She is practical about how to approach hosting large numbers of people: ‘It’s all about teamwork. Delegate as much as possible, and do things together – it’s fun!’ she says. ‘And plan – write lots of lists.’
Her childhood Christmases are filled with happy memories. ‘There were always lots of people around and we’d dress up in our smartest clothes,’ she says. ‘[The sculptor] Eduardo Paolozzi used to come for Christmas sometimes. He was a good friend of Dad’s and I think he misses him a great deal. Everything always seemed very sparkly – there were lots of candles, nice music and good smells, and chatter and laughing and organising busily about.’
Despite growing up with four brothers, Conran was resolutely ‘girly’ as a child. ‘But I’m practical and I did try to keep up with them – I probably still do!’ she laughs. ‘One Christmas, when I was nine or 10, Sebastian and Jasper made me a doll’s house out of a beehive. That was a pretty special thing – I can still picture it: it had pink and blue stripy curtains that they’d put in it.’
Sophie has two grown-up children – Felix, 22, and 20-year-old Coco – and has carried on many of the Christmas traditions of her own childhood with them. ‘For me, the point of Christmas is getting everyone together,’ she says. ‘We decorate the house together, although I’m quite bossy and have a very clear idea about how I want things to look. My children have inherited it and so I’m learning to be bossed around by them – they have very strong opinions, so I’m inclined to let them get on with it!’
✻ Macmillan Cancer Support’s Celebrity Christmas Stocking Auction takes place on Tuesday 6 December, with proceeds helping ensure that no one faces cancer alone this Christmas. For more information.