January 19, 1981 12:00 PM

While it can’t be said that Caroline Conran won her husband Terence’s heart through his stomach, the stomach did maintain a veto power. When they met in 1961, she was only 22 and an editor’s assistant at the trendy London fashion magazine Queen. He was already a furniture designer and gourmet, on his way to becoming an arbiter of middle-class tastes on both sides of the Atlantic. Typically, he knew what he wanted: “I wouldn’t marry her until she could cook.”

They were aware of each other for years before they actually met. Caroline Herbert made frequent shopping sprees through Conran’s furniture showroom in search of home-decorating ideas for the magazine. “I used to see Terence driving around London in this fast Karmann Ghia,” Caroline recalls. “She was one of those pretty and talented girls,” Terence remembers. “She could write divinely, but I discovered she didn’t know much about cooking. I had to teach her.” “I knew how,” Caroline confides. “I just let him think he was teaching me.” She concedes, though, “I was brought up on very good but plain English food. He was already into stuffed squid and things I’d never heard of.”

Since their marriage 17 years ago, Terence, 49, and Caroline, 41, have become Britain’s unofficial decorator laureates, and are now making a run at the colonies. “We try,” he says, “to suggest things that are unpretentious and do not give people a false lifestyle.” Caroline works as cookery (that’s English English for “cooking”) editor of the London Sunday Times Magazine—when not collaborating with her husband, that is. Their multimillion-dollar empire includes 44 Habitat shops in Britain, France and Belgium, six Conran’s outlets in the Eastern U.S., a design-and-decorating firm and a thriving London restaurant.

Terence has also written three plump volumes on decor, The House Book, The Kitchen Book and The Bed and Bath Book, whose combined sales top 330,000 copies in the U.S. Now he and Caroline have co-authored The Cook Book, which is stuffed with an almost indigestible amount of detail, from how to select fresh fish (look for bulging eyes and slimy skin) to the art of skinning a rabbit. It includes hundreds of recipes, from aspic to zabaglione, all painstakingly developed at their home in Berkshire, 50 miles west of London. They tried 14 chocolate mousse recipes before settling on one that was both rich and bubbly enough. “Our house is a test kitchen,” Terence says. “That’s one reason I’m overfed, the children are overfed and the hens are overfed.”

The Conrans’ 18th-century Georgian manor house has 11 oversize rooms, each showcasing Terence’s own antique bentwood chair collection as well as Conran’s functional if unflashy furnishings like Formica tables, canvas sofas and straw baskets. “Terence kind of invented the style of the ’80s,” boasts his friend, clothes designer Mary Quant. “He’s a grand mixture of Escoffier, Le Corbusier and William Morris; a tremendous Puritan with an extremely large appetite. He has changed everybody’s life.” At least, he would like to. “Designers tend to be very unrelaxed,” Caroline observes. “They come away from a party at a friend’s house and mutter, ‘Those terrible light switches.’ Terence is very critical.”

Conran displayed his perfectionist bent in his youth in rural Hampshire. While recovering from peritonitis at 12, he built miniature interiors in empty matchboxes. His father, a resin importer, sent him to Bryanston prep school, where Terence mastered metalwork, engineering and ceramics. After a short-lived marriage at 19, he drifted through a string of dull jobs, one as a vegetable cutter at a Paris restaurant, while devoting off-hours to designing furniture. (He briefly shared a studio with British sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. “I taught him to weld,” Conran says. “He taught me to cut up onions.”)

When an investment in a chain of restaurants paid off, he set up a factory in Norfolk in East Anglia and by 1963 Conran’s furniture was sold in 200 stores. He opened his first Habitat shop, plucking the name from a thesaurus, in 1964 in Chelsea. He met Caroline as he was disengaging himself from a stormy eight-year marriage to journalist-author Shirley Pierce Conran.

One of three daughters born to a meat wholesaler, Caroline grew up in Hertfordshire. After boarding school and a brief attempt to become an artist, she moved to London where she was hired as an editor’s assistant at House and Garden magazine, then switched to Queen. After marrying Conran she joined Habitat as a kitchen supplies buyer and raised their children, Tom, now 16, Sophie, 15, and Ned, 9. (Conran’s sons from his second marriage, Sebastian, 24, an industrial designer, and Jasper, 21, a women’s clothes designer, visit often.) Caroline has translated three French cookbooks and contributed a weekly food column to the Sunday Times since 1969.

Though the Conrans employ a permanent staff of three, Caroline does most of the cooking and tends their lush vegetable garden. Terence works out of a converted stable: “Designing is still my greatest pleasure and I hope my greatest talent.”

“Money by itself is extremely uninteresting,” he has said. “If all I was trying to do was retire with £10 million, I’d be completely disgusted with myself.” His employees have noticed a certain penuriousness, though he denies a report that he once decided the elevator in his warehouse was using too much electricity and shut it down, leaving the workers to climb the stairs. Conran has also, however, instituted a profit-sharing plan for all his staff.

His mood is dictated by business. “Wheeling and dealing is what excites him,” Caroline says, and one colleague notes, “He’s never been cool. He often blows up.” “I do get bad-tempered,” Terence admits. “I use my temper to stir the blood of my designers. I like people thinking I’m idiosyncratic. I hate the dull pattern of sanity.”

Lately Terence has diverted himself with setting up a museum of industrial design, in collaboration with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. At home, he relaxes by reading newspapers and watching the telly. He is not always welcome in the kitchen—except to eat—since he has been known to retrieve parsnips from the garbage, cut off the black spots and serve them. “If he comes in halfway through my preparing a dish and starts throwing in old leftovers, it makes me mad,” Caroline gripes. Now that her food consciousness has been raised, her favorite recipe is pheasant with raisin sauce.

They travel widely; India is a frequent vacation spot. Business also keeps Terence away from home four months of the year. Each summer Caroline shepherds the children to their rustic stone house on the Dordogne River in France. “I like to have a side of my life that is ordinary and unprivileged—almost uncomfortable,” she says. “Terence doesn’t.” They could, in fact, write a How to Disagree while Getting Along Book.

Fortunately, given their conflicts of taste, Caroline is philosophical. “We get on frightfully badly,” she observes, “but we both are very persistent. We keep trying.”

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