Long before Ikea and Pottery Barn became household names, there was Conran's. The British import, first opened in 1964 and known as Habitat outside the United States, was one of the original bastions of well-designed yet affordable furnishings. Its founder, Terence Conran, parlayed his success with the chain into international renown--and a knighthood--as a furniture maker, restaurateur and retailer. After selling off his Habitat empire 12 years ago and reinventing Conran's as a more upscale brand, he remains a champion of bringing good design to the "high street," or masses.

That's the idea behind his new book, "Designers on Design" (Conran Octopus. $39.95), coauthored with journalist Max Fraser. It opens with a concise history of the field from the industrial revolution (which "enabled humans to... shape their environment on an unprecedented scale") through the latest Nokia mobile phone. It features spreads on 110 contemporary designers like Marc Newson and Philippe Starck, shown alongside their prized portfolio pieces. The book bridges the past, when only designers seemed to care about design, and the present, when the iPod has attained the status of cultural icon. "One of the purposes of this book," says Sir Terence, "is to show consumers the talent that there is in the world today, and to encourage them to use it." Thanks to Sir T, that talent has become a lot more accessible.