Writing in The Spectator a few weeks ago, Ed Vaizey praised the Prime Minister for hosting a party at No. 10 during London Fashion Week to honour the contribution that particular industry makes in swelling Britain’s coffers. While I couldn’t be happier that the government appreciates the clothing trade’s input, one can’t help noticing that a comparable industry is rarely given any recognition. I mean of course the decorating trade.
The glamorous tip of the fashion business iceberg is obviously the catwalk shows and collections by designers. These are made possible by a vast network of highly, and often very poorly, paid individuals from across the globe. The industry brings in an estimated £31 billion per annum.
By comparison, the building and construction trade, in which the leading interior designers are equivalent to fashion’s supremos, contributes a rather heftier £81 billion to our national output. But while the fashion supremos are made dames and knights, designers are rarely given such honours – though happily my friend Min Hogg, who single-handedly awoke the general public from its decoration-conscious lethargy by creating and editing The World of Interiors magazine, has at least been awarded an MBE.
Maybe this attitude to, and negation of, decoration’s importance is due to the toe-curling makeovers of unsuspecting victims’ homes (‘gorgeous’ they all gush through lying teeth on being shown the horrific results), or those incredibly bland, clichéd interior design programmes presented by arch ladies whose hair and make-up in each shot must cost more than a ‘chaise-lounges’ (sic) that litter the daytime television channels. It’s hard to believe that anyone watches or takes them seriously… except the sponsors, usually manufacturers of kitchen fixtures, who make sure the camera subliminally lingers over their sink or oven.
Maybe it’s also partly due to the age-old stereotype of decorators being poncy types who fiddle about with mauve satin, or dicker over the length of a fringe, while gushing at compliant clients. Nothing could be further from reality. Decoration, at least by the higher echelon, is an extremely intensive process, necessitating hours of meetings, attention, talent, and, above all, charm – something not easy to turn on in the face of stubbornness. In the case of yacht decoration, the entire package has to be finalised down to the position of the smallest screw three or four years before the gladioli – well, orchids these days – are placed on the poop deck and the ice added to the Caipirinhas.
The Victoria & Albert Museum is the museum of the decorative arts and design. It is our equivalent to the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris; there are many similar institutions worldwide. Decoration and art… art and decoration. The words should be inseparable. But it seems more and more that in the rush to ‘design’, the decoration bit gets rather a bum’s rush.
‘Art’ is now firmly entrenched in the public mind as a Holy Grail. Witness the almost self-defeating success of Frieze, where these days utter rubbish passes for art or ‘chic’, especially if it demands nothing of the intellect to appreciate it. I saw two bearded beanpole boys sighing ‘I love that’ while gazing at a white-framed, floating sheet of beige paper. Furniture, something that should be beautiful, suitable and comfortable, is now rebranded as art.
I have been to several houses recently where every stick of furniture is an artist’s statement – a spiky designer chair (never a pair, naturally), erratic tables, immense ‘pieces’ suspended from the ceiling obliterating luscious plasterwork and huge, pointless paintings doing the same on the walls.
This ‘gallery’ look, where all the furnishings are ‘art’, took the place of the trend for domestic decorative schemes mirroring that of hotel rooms, where some went so far as to arrow-fold the Andrex.
But suddenly even that looks old-fashioned. The digital age of making furniture has advanced. Amsterdam-based Joris Laarman has patented a process he calls ‘foam china’, porcelain based on the mechanics of bone growth, which expands in the kiln like bread and somehow emerges as a chair (pictured left). There are tables ‘algorithmically’ created from the dynamics of flight, inspired by those flocks of starlings one sometimes sees wheeling in summer skies (above left). Others use extruded plaster and three-dimensional printing. The other day in the office the complete hull of a yacht grew magically in front of our eyes.
Eventually, these inventors believe, everyone will be able to have things made to their own specification at the push of a button. Perhaps we won’t all be so reliant on that multibillion-pound building trade. So come on, Cameron, give us decs some recognition while our profession lasts.