home is where the art is

Interior design has left its nobs and snobs image behind. Eleanor Bailey on a new breed of designers who won't laugh at your wallpaper
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So You Thought interior design was naff? The personification of shallow, like Daryl Hannah in Wall Street? That interior design was for dreadful people with lots of money and no ideas of their own? And that designers charged several grand to scatter a few cushions?

Not any more. Interior design has left the high-falutin and come to the high street. During the recession the profession downsized and no job was too small. Suddenly they would reorganise your bookcase if it meant staying in business. And designers have remained more realistic, more down to earth even as we are beginning to spend money again - albeit cautiously. The money we do spend we want to spend on our houses. Gone is uninhabitable cool; the word of the moment is "cocooning". And a good, reasonably priced designer can cocoon you in style.

"People have re-evaluated the way they live," says Tyler Brule, editor of Wallpaper, the glossy interiors magazine. "It's no longer about buying a flat and flipping it around to make a quick pounds 15,000. People are buying places that they are going to live in for 10 to 15 years, or even a lifetime. Which is why, although it will never be the cheapest option, a good interior designer is a good idea."

A good idea particularly since traditional houses and flats often fail to fit modern needs. "People need their houses to work harder for them now," explains Sue Skeen, deputy editor of Elle Decoration. "Living spaces need to be a lot more multi-faceted. They might have to double up as an office. Interior designers nowadays are far more flexible in catering for different needs."

"People often don't want the traditional several separate bedrooms, they would be better served with one large living space," says Adam Caruso, partner of the hip architecture and interior design firm, Caruso St John. "The spare room is often obsolete. People in urban areas need to make the most of every space. They need clever storage spaces and rooms that have more than one function. That's what a good designer can do for you."

That interior design is no longer naff is evident from its increasing popularity as a course of study. New courses are over-subscribed according to Jenny Bradley, head of Hounslow adult education centre. "We thought that it would be popular but the demand has been double what we expected. That people want to study design and others want to use designers to improve their homes is, according to Bradley, in part thanks to the rise in interest in ergonomic philosophies like feng-shui. (see facing page). After decades where going out was important, now staying in is the thing.

One thing a modern designer will not give you is the atmosphereless showpiece. There is an understanding that we want something comfortable that will suit us. Minimalism was too chilly. Now we want warmth. Not just somewhere merely to do the laundry and heat up a takeaway at the end of an evening.

Design is often fabric-led. Rich, tactile materials for furnishings and floor materials, in tune with fashion. Sources are becoming more eclectic. In previous decades designers steamrollered one omnipresent look. But now ripping everything out to impose a new style - be it pink nylon or going mad in the 19th century with cast iron fires and stone floors - is out. The eager-to-please designer of today will hunt down the colours and materials you haven't time to find. When you buy the services of an interior designer what you are really buying is time. And time is today's precious commodity.

Eleanora Cunietti of Carden Cunietti, which Sue Skeen mentions as a paragon of the modern designers, says: "We're not flash, we offer a complete service. We do everything from knocking down walls to buying antique furniture. You don't have to be incredibly wealthy. People can have the work done in stages to spread the costs out. Not everybody has pounds 30,000 to spend in one go." (Well, interior design has really come down to earth.) Interior designers are now portfolio workers. They are often architects as well, and they increasingly, like Carden Cunietti, have a shop front to sell products to the public.

Modern designers no longer insist on stamping their style over your walls. They pick and choose from any era in consultation with the client. "We've just finished a house in Holland Park," says Eleanora Cunietti. "It's a very modern, clean interior. There is a William Morris carpet with a modern sofa. Getting everything from the Conran Shop is a sterile option. People gather things over time."

This is something with which newly qualified interior designer, Mahri Blythe agrees. She has just completed a room for the Lamb family in Edinburgh for a couple of hundred pounds. And she had to base all her plans round a favourite fish - all the family knew was that they hated their cloakroom as it was and wanted it to centre on the photo of a fish they had caught on honeymoon in Bermuda. "The cloakroom was green and dark. It was pretty revolting. I picked up the colours from the fish and did half the room in check tiles and then wallpapered from halfway to make it very warm. Then I had three fish hand-painted on the border. They say it's their favourite room now. They used to dash in and go to the loo and leave; now they say they'd like to have dinner parties in there."

So who buys into interior design? "There are a lot of professionals in their mid-30s," says Eleanora Cunietti. "They don't want an interior designer as a status symbol but they have to work so hard that they don't have time to sort things out for themselves." Paul Bynoth, an interior designer and head tutor at the Regent Academy of Fine Arts, says it's no longer the yuppies he caters for. "Often it's people who are just in a panic. People just out of the forces who've never had to think about it for themselves. Some people have the whole house done. Others only have a problem window fixed or get some advice about light."

But be warned: interior design is no longer something to brag about. Don't bring it up at the dinner table. Just enjoy the unique and wondrous table that your designer procured for you and, when friends ask whence it came, flash an enigmatic smile and say: "Oh you know, just one of those things you find when you're rooting around on a Saturday afternoon." They'll loathe you.

! Caruso St John, 0171 251 6788; Mahri Blythe, c/o Regent Academy of Fine Arts, 0171 287 8707; Carden Cunietti, 0171 229 8559