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"Expectations are higher when your name is Conran"

Darling of the domestic world, with everything from cookery books to sell-out kitchen collections, Sophie Conran's growing empire is starting to eclipse that of her famous family

Photography Getty Images, Rann Chandric/eyevine,

Dominic Blackmore

Words Barbara Walshe

Over the past decade, Sophie Conran has found huge success on the home front. Designing everything from pottery to wallpaper, tableware to gardening tools - with the likes of Portmeirion, The Royal Worcester and Burgon & Ball - today her collections kit out whole households. Yet mention the phrase 'domestic goddess', and it's instantly dismissed.

"Maybe it looks like that from the outside," concedes the 48-year-old mother of two, "but I can assure you I'm not in that realm. I'm appalling at ironing, and I'm really quite lazy," she insists. "I'll often potter around, have a bath, go back to bed and read before going into the office."

The second youngest in the Conran clan, a decade ago, she might have been better known as the daughter of Sir Terence (pictured top left) and food writer Caroline Herbert. Either that or the sister of fashion designer Jasper, product designer Sebastian, restaurateur Tom, and artist Ned. But today it's a different story. Sophie Conran is now a household name with a design empire eclipsing even the most accomplished in her famous family - and it comes after years of hard work. Leaving school at 17 because "I was more creative than academic", she spent her early years working in the Conran shadow - helping her father decorate his restaurants, becoming a buyer for The Conran Shop, and later a product manager for Jasper.

She also enjoyed entrepreneurial pursuits along the way, setting up an underwear company in her twenties, followed by a lollipop brand and then her own cake business. But it wasn't until she became a mother to Felix and Coco, now 18 and 17, that she discovered her real niche: home. It shouldn't have come as a surprise. "I've always been a homebody," she admits. "Dad worked from home and had his workshop next door. Mum was at home in the kitchen. So that was always my big ambition - home and kids."

Yet no one - not even Conran herself - anticipated quite how big that ambition would become. It all began in earnest after her first cookery book, Pies, launched in 2006 - a project she still counts as one of her hardest.

"Cooking is therapeutic and very gratifying," she smiles,"but writing my first book was the biggest challenge. It was a monumental task - like walking into the forest without directions - just terrifying! I only asked mum how she approaches it afterwards. She writes the recipes first and then cooks, whereas I cook first and then write. And I remember thinking, 'Oh, so that's the way it's supposed to be...'"

What her cookbook did do, though, was propel her out of the shadows and into the limelight - opening up a host of interesting design opportunities that both delighted and daunted her. "Expectations are always higher when you say your name is Conran," she says matter-of-factly. "Some people won't give you the time of day, others just want to see you to say you're rubbish. As Jasper once said, 'In our family, you don't so much swim as drown'. You can't rely on the name, I wouldn't want to anyway."

In truth, she needn't have worried. Her collaboration with Portmeirion would be a defining one. Taking the home market by storm, her ceramics sold out worldwide and are still winning awards today.

But, even before they did, she knew she was onto something special. "Dad is a huge inspiration and has made the biggest impact on my life. But he's always been nervous for me," she explains. "When I go to him with projects, he always thinks things are going to go wrong."

It was a different story with this, however. "When I first showed him my Portmeirion range, he said, 'The only thing I don't like about it is that I didn't design it myself' - a compliment, if a backhanded one! And when it first launched, he knew I won the Elle Deco tableware award before I did, and cried when he phoned me up to tell me."

It's been a similar story with everything she's touched since. From designing wallpaper ranges for Art House, now sold at John Lewis, to kitchen textiles for one of the UK's premier manufacturers, ICTC, and gardening tools for Burgon & Ball - new collections and collaborations are announced almost every year. Her first bed linen range, for example, is set to launch in mid-2014. "I've always loved dressing the bed and buying antique pieces, so expect beautiful fabrics, lots of attention to detail and something that feels super-comfortable."

Looking back over her career now, one of the strongest feelings she has about it is surprise. "I thought I was just going to be a mum," she laughs. "But I have endless design ideas. The past has definitely been an inspiration. I was surrounded by a lot of creativity and a lot of positive feeling, with all sorts of influences. It's a huge wealth to draw on now."

But life hasn't been all high points. The breakdown of her marriage to designer Alex Willcock, father of her two children, was one big blow. It's happily behind her now - and she and her second husband, financier Nick Hofgren, who she married in 2010, have just bought a new house in Wiltshire. Conran's itching to get started on the interior and garden. "I love this kind of project. The house is beautiful architecturally but it has a few oddities that I'll sort out and make into a lovely home for my family and friends. It's going to be a 'rest of my life' project."

Beyond that, Felix and Coco look set to carry on the creative Conran gene, with both taking tentative steps into design and fashion careers. And it's their mother as much as their grandfather and uncles, who looks set to loom large when it comes to inspiration. That's if her latest project at her father's design hotel, The Boundary, is anything to go by. Each of the rooms there is famous for being created or inspired by a different design great. To date, those names include Charles & Ray Eames, Eileen Gray, Josef Hoffmann and Andrée Putman. This year, Sophie Conran will take her place alongside them. She'll take that accolade over 'domestic goddess' any day.


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