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Happy Kitschmas everyone

London is a beautiful city bursting with talented designers vying for employment. So why, asks Stephen Bayley, are the streets festooned with sentimental and degrading rubbish?

9 December 2009

12:00 AM

9 December 2009

12:00 AM

London is the creative capital of the planet. The city’s abundant talent — in design and media, in commercials and special effects, food, leisure, architecture, publishing, retailing and telly — will drive the economy from today’s precipice of the dark abyss to tomorrow’s sunkissed higher ground of recovery. Birds will sing and soft zephyrs will blow. So long dismissed as the visually illiterate of Europe, we are now known for our point and style. We are smart.

And my own office is in the sturdy left ventricle of this powerfully pumping urban heart. Immediately, I am surrounded by the designers who work with me. Some of the world’s best restaurants are minutes from my door. There are even more film producers than baristas hereabouts. Our neighbour is one of the most successful ad agencies. Ever. Its turnover is probably billions and it is sourced in a rare variety of genius. I often bump into its affable tartan-trewed chairman and we natter on the street, feeling ourselves fortunate in being connected to such vitality. This is Soho, where the streets are paved with Baftas and Emmys.

And what can I see from my window overlooking Carnaby Street? I can see a giant, pneumatic, puce-coloured reindeer with white spots suspended from tensioned wires in space. It looks as though Rudolph is wearing badly fitting orthopaedic boots, drawn by a backward child. It is a cheerless, artless, patronising inflatable Bambi of cynical, witless dross. Next to it is a vast inflated disc bearing the harrowing legend ‘Hope’ in a typographic style that would bring a psychotropically inclined down-on-her-luck Haitian witch doctor into disrepute. A charitable American visitor asked if it was ironic. I said I didn’t think so.

I spend my life persuading people about the energising effects of good design. I am an advocate of applied intelligence plus clean lines and what, when combined, they can do for wellbeing. And now someone has put, as if in reprimand, an ugly decoration outside my window. It is, as I sometimes think in winter, clear that the world is against me. Of course, similar horrors are duplicated everywhere during this seasonal national malaise, the psychogenic calamity, the artistic atrocity and the fatiguing fugue of bad art and false sentiment that is Christmas. But here? In Soho? This is how we advertise our creative capital? Goodness me, foreign investors must be impressed. A puffy pink deer! However did they think of that? This is how we demonstrate the ascendency of our new brain-led economy? With urgent crap?

Just what is it that makes the heirs to Wren, Hawksmoor, Ruskin and Conran voluntarily wallow — even submerge themselves — in such pathetic, lowering rubbish at this time of year? There is a great tradition of architecture and design — handsome, commanding and practical — which gets dumped as soon as the 50 shopping days countdown begins. We have history to blame: the unhappy sight outside my window is a direct result of the industrialisation of sentiment that began in the first half of the 19th century. Most so-called ‘traditions’ (including druids and Welsh national costume) date from this same period of frantic innovation in the production of kitsch.

It was Henry Cole, Prince Albert’s very busy man-of-business, who created the Christmas card. Cole had worked under Rowland Hill to introduce the Penny Post and when his first card was launched in 1843 (a lithograph by John C. Horsley ‘emblematic of Old English Festivity’, an ad in the Athenaeum explained) a perfect business system was established. We have invented the universal postal service! What shall we do with it? Send meretricious messages. At about the same time, the Valentine’s card mass-produced the rhetoric of romance. Each card is a fine symbol of how superlative Victorian achievements in time and space — in exploration, distribution and telegraphy — had their equivalent of distancing those same Victorians from authentic emotions at home. Here was a bargain whose tragic character would have cheered up Faust.

But back to the 21st century. The South Bank is top dead centre of Borisopolis, a world-class exercise in modern architecture and civic patronage. But wait. The suntanned cosmopolitan architect Richard Rogers has resigned from the Mayor’s cabinet and has not yet been replaced, as rumour predicts, by the pale basilisk that is Nick (Tate) Serota. Someone was not paying attention to what Rogers was demanding about public space. What do we find here in front of the wonderfully restored Royal Festival Hall and Lasdun’s National Theatre?

We find a German market selling Belgian fudge and sequined snoods in nasty, ditsy little Jodelstil wooden DIY huts smelling of hot sugar which mock the severe classical dignity of the locale. A more dismaying infestation of pernicious, brainless tat could not be imagined. But there’s no need to imagine it — you can see for yourself just minutes from Waterloo.

Robust bad taste can be stimulating and amusing, but this is not it. Instead, Soho and the South Bank are shaming examples of kitsch histrionics in the service of patronising official idiocy. Kitsch is not the same as cheerful vulgarity. It is theatricality without polish, reward without effort, effects without meaning, fun without laughter, colour without warmth. It is a depressing eruption of the fourth-rate.

This is not a problem of cognition, but an embarrassing reality: Soho and the South Bank’s Christmas decorations are a national embarrassment. What is the point in selling London as a creative capital when the streets show a tolerance — even a preference — for rubbish? At all times London’s streetscape should be a compelling advertisement of available talent, but especially so at this time of year. It’s a simple truth: there really is no reason why decorations have to be bad. Unless, that is, we all want an unemployed future.

London is rammed with underexploited but ambitious young architects, clever designers, lighting experts, film-makers, photographers, video artistes, the best musicians, curators, sound technicians, structural engineers, media entrepreneurs, CGI wizards. A disproportionate amount of our wealth derives from selling their impressive services abroad. So it is a shame we do not bother; pitiable that no one sees the opportunity for enlightened patronage of this precious resource. Perhaps we are visually illiterate after all. Maybe we are not so smart. Someone said to Tolkien after he had finished Lord of the Rings, ‘Not more fucking elves.’ I rather think the same about reindeer. Creative London? As the anarchists knew, the act of destruction is also a creative act. I plan to destroy Rudolph. Or, at least, deflate him.

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