In The Worst Possible Taste
We are drowning in a sea of chalk-finished, ultra-matte ‘Elephant’s Breath’ bland. Non-descript abstract un-expressionist prints in Skandi-simple frames and the suffocating simplicity of minimalism. In a world where there are more shades of white than grains of grout in between those perfectly-polished subway tiles, the antidote to tasteful is a rare delight.
The 90’s program on BBC ‘Changing Rooms’ inspired ‘quirky’ red leather headboard, the wallpaper border mismatched with its chintzy background paper, the leopard print rug (perhaps complete with head), the collection of floral cushions alongside fluffy toys from every era. These are the bastions of bad taste that provide welcome, though perhaps tongue-in-cheek relief in the off-white world we now inhabit.
But what is ‘good taste’? Entirely subjective of course, the 18th Century philosopher Kant theorized that taste (in particular the natural opponents ‘sophistication’ and ‘vulgarity’), can be categorised according to the social divisions and class. Of course as Brits we love to attribute everything to class, and although stereotypes of the upper classes and their chintzy opulence, middle classes and their muted matching, and working classes with their feature-wall fun have, as all clichés, basis in truth, where does that leave the lovers of kitsch, grandiose and ‘ethnic’-inspired interiors, whose fans surely cross the class boundaries?
Or is it context that matters? Does the two-up, two-down terraced house packed with oversized throne-like furniture, animal-print and primary coloured big-print wallpaper display less taste than that of the six-figure home, which carries the same style (though perhaps with the addition of a diamond-encrusted skull)? Though perhaps the classic BBC one’s ‘Only Fools and Horses’ style imitation of Hollywood glamour with its pineapple ice bucket, tiger skin rug and de rigueur minibar would only ever be that, a cheap imitation of the ‘good taste’ of the rich. Though the adage claims that money can’t buy taste, it surely can buy sycophants to tell you that yours is very good indeed, or perhaps high-earning interior designers to create good taste for you at a princely sum.
The notion of ‘good taste’ with particular reference to minimalism dates back as far as the early 1910s, with one of the UK’s earliest interior designers, a celebrity of her time – Syrie Maugham. Hired by the great and the good for her influence of good taste, Syrie railed against the heavy drapery and gold-leaf gaudiness of stately-home chic of the time to create the first all-white room. With its white leather and soft surfaces, one wonders if this ‘asylum chic’ was influenced by a spell in a panic room or in fact that familiarity was the very reason it was so popular amongst her hedonistic celeb clients. Around the same time one of the first American female interior designers Elsie De Wolfe chose to reject the Victorian style of her upbringing, instead focusing on vibrant colour, comfort and the importance of a home as a space for entertaining. And perhaps this entertaining alongside a growing prosperity of even the lower middle-class in industrialised nations, and the pre-war frivolity that followed gave extra-importance to ‘image’, a concern that was previously the preserve of the upper classes, but now concerned even the working and middle class and their new social-climbing aspirations.
As the role for women in the home changed as post-industrialised society became more affluent, and people moved from over-crowded cities into a the new suburbia, as did the role of a home’s space. From a mostly functional for child-raising and even cottage industry, interior design became the pet-project of the bored middle-class housewife, whose primary purpose became entertaining her husband’s colleagues and clients and ‘keeping house’. The one-upmanship of the competitive ‘business wife’ meant interiors were not regarded as a personal place of calm and comfort, but instead an opportunity to ‘show off’, with never-ending china trinkets, matching curtains, carpets and upholstery and rooms ‘kept for best’. Interiors being less about our true selves and more about how we want to be perceived has continued though to today, though arguably softened from social-climbing to a less aggressive culture of ‘fitting in’, which has no doubt led to the proliferation of Scandinavian chain store furnishings and the ‘catalogue-home’ styling of now. In fact today’s socialites are turning to wifely one-upmanship through interiors blogging, features in glossy interiors magazines or being invited to be photographed for ‘The Selby’. The 8-page spread of ‘Her Country Pile’ has become the cocktail party, and now with a much bigger audience. But all this ‘fitting in’ quashes any opportunity for self-expression, for individuality, for the unabated joy of the tasteless, the gaudy, the odd. Where are the giant purple-framed mirrors, the cherubic home-made murals, the velour or shrines to kitsch? Let’s champion the growth of a new trend of deliberately tasteless. Roberto Cavalli’s maximalist home reportedly even comes complete with an army of parrots that shout “Welcome Home Roberto” upon his arrival. Surely this living, interactive interior design statement is the height of ‘bad taste’ brilliance.
So paint it pink, green and gold, install a stately-home statue in your front garden, swap your pine divan for Versailles four-poster, even if you’re in a box room, because bad taste equals interesting. Though Da Vinci may have claimed simplicity to be the ultimate form of sophistication, Coco Chanel claimed an interior to be a natural projection of the soul. And after all, who wants a pale grey soul?
Illustration by Saffa Khan
Words by Julie Seal Wilson