Friday, September 12, 2008

Confessions of an Interior Designer

I remember seeing a clip once from a late '60's DIY programme in which a plummy voiced man advised viewers how to cover up their Victorian panelled doors with MDF sheets. Twenty years or so later there were similar programmes telling us how to rip them back off again. All of which is to say that interior design is a fickle business, subject to the whims and cycles of fashion. Dangerously shallow waters for the tastemaker then. It's easy to look a little foolish in retrospect.

These two books published in the late 1970's and written by (now Sir) Terence Conran are a fabulous case in point. There are many odd and inadvertently amusing things about them, but not everything can be put down to the fact that the 1970's themselves were inadvertently amusing.

For a start much of the text is written through a moist haze of soft core eroticism. No, really. A lot of it seems utterly unnecessarily priapic, as if the author might be over compensating for the self perceived lack of machismo of writing about bathroom fittings to start with. Semi or completely naked ladies crop up everywhere; taking a shower, lying in a wicker armchair in sun dappled soft focus, lolling around on the bed having champagne breakfasts.

There are chapters on how to make a Seduction Den, special features on water beds (illustrated by a naked woman reclining on peach satin sheets. One can almost hear the author physically restraining himself from referring to her as a 'dusky beauty'), and such continental exotica as bidets and the use of musk.

The Seduction Den chapter is particularly enjoyable and worth quoting at length:

"The dedicated playboy or girl may decide to invest in audio-visual equipment. In this highly erotic room, its bed surrounded by a velvet cushioned lip, sexy music and blue movies help to create a den for unbridled lust."

Pragmatic advice is also to hand:

"Fur on the floor is not practical, but a thick absorbent carpet is an adequate substitute."

There's something slightly unpleasant about the use of the word absorbent there, but nevermind, the author goes on undaunted:

"A large mirror is in keeping, as are big bottles of scent, aftershave or talc, and, of course, a bidet."

Of course. And make those bottles big.

Someone called Bonnie Molnar turns up to tell us more than we might like to know about her sex life, and something she refers to disturbingly as getting "a good thumping". An erotic bedroom, she informs us, should be comfortable:

"You owe it to yourself and to your complex female sensuality to make it so."

Ah the mysteries and complexities of female sensuality. So much deeper than the man with his concerns for absorbent carpets. How to give it material expression? Will a wicker armchair meet the requisite combination of bohemian informality and gypsy passion?

Not to be outdone Roger Barasel tells us about his formative sexual experiences with chuckling male bravado:

"My first sexual encounter was, in fact, not in my own bedroom but my parents' spare bedroom, then occupied by the Austrian au pair (cultural exchange I believe it's called)."

Hats off to you Sir!

And the design? There is much to scoff at and, alternatively, much to enjoy especially if you like super graphics and loud colour schemes. Which I do. The 1970's may be the decade that taste forgot (or is that the '80's?) but who wants too much good taste anyway? I think I prefer the Robin Asquith era Terence Conran to the overly respectable version of today.

Post Script

Interior design has always been the fickle, flashier, younger sibling of architecture. While architecture strives for timelessness, interior design is happy to engage in the ephemeral. Architects have spent the last hundred years stressing structure, materials and space. Commodity and firmness more than delight. Interior design deals with ornament, decoration, colour and fabric - the aspects of buildings that Modernist rhetoric dismissed as unnecessary, extrinsic to the ineffable substance of architecture. Literal frippery.

They are also the aspects of architecture historically given feminine characteristics. Similarly, the persona of the architect - serious, professional, aloof - is seen as distinct from that of the Interior Designer: more often a woman, and if not then foppish, camp, quite possibly gay. Whilst the architect strives to be taken seriously as a professional, the interior designer is happy to splash the money around.

But they're not so different. Ultimately, Charles Jencks' endorsement of Post Modernism (published in 1977) went the same way as Terence Conran's seduction den. The current tropes of fashionable architecture will inevitably end up as someone's skeleton in the portfolio. Anything that claims timelessness is probably motivated by a fear of seeming ephemeral. The distance architecture puts between it and interior design communicates its ultimate fear that they aren't so far apart. The caricature of the interior designer is a mirror image of the architect.


Anonymous said...

Charles, this is fantastic. I used to work for Conran Octopus, which continues to publish Conran's interior design books. They'd sadly calmed down a good deal before I got onto the scene, though.

Charles Holland said...

Hey, Alex. I'll lend you one but i warn you, it's racy stuff!

I've been collecting them for a while but the two above are by far the best.