INTERIORS / The nature of white: Colours come and go, but some of the smartest decorators are still perfectly happy with just one, says Dinah Hall. All they need is a bundle of twigs and a tin bucket

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'Oh, natural was last season's colour,' sniffs the voice from the Habitat press office, which no doubt belongs to somebody wearing platform soles and flares. Silly old me, in my last year's leggings and year before's baggy jumper, fancy thinking nature still had any hold on the decorative soul] Why, anyone with half an ounce of style has obviously thrown out all the raffia cushions, whitewashed furniture and baskets acquired at Habitat last year and is even now filling the house with the latest 'coastal' colours of coral and turquoise.

But it can't be true. After all, The Conran Shop, which is Habitat for those with a little more style and a lot more money, has two large bales of hay hanging from its ceiling at this very moment and it is still selling bundles of twigs (a snip at pounds 1.55) and hanks of raffia. So who is buying the twigs? Magazine stylists, says the Conran person as quick as a flash. And the raffia? Magazine stylists - to tie up their bundles of twigs. However, further evidence that nature is on the way out comes from a stylist and art director, Sue Skeen. Only the other week she mentioned using driftwood on a photograph session for an interiors magazine and the editor looked at her as if she had suggested apricot dragged walls and ruched blinds. I mean, God, ordinary people are probably into driftwood now. Before you know where you are, Barratt will be putting driftwood breakfast bars into its new houses.

Not that it bothers Sue Skeen - the style of her own house is 'more of an obsession than a fashion. If I feel myself becoming fashionable it makes me nervous. I like things that aren't labelled, things that I feel confident with, that in two years' time I am still going to love.' Improbable though this sounds, coming from a stylist, it seems to be true. After all, when asked what colour the walls are, she answers, slightly puzzled, 'white'.

White? Plain old white - not parchment or ivory or bone or string or putty or any of the other names that fashionable decorators use to reassure their clients that they have thought long and hard about this particular shade of not-white, and to distinguish themselves from those other people who paint their walls cream because they are too boring to think of anything else? Oh well, yes, she did dirty the white up a little bit. What, a pinch of Tuscan soil perhaps? No, this is bog-standard white mixed with a bit of stony-coloured paint. 'You mix it until it isn't too this, isn't too that,' she confides. 'Just until it's softened. Then you put it on and feel unhappy with it for about six weeks until it gets a bit dirty. There's nothing wrong with white as long as it's not shiny.'

But whatever the formula, it works in Sue's tiny two-up, two-down cottage, which is so perfect that it tips one over the precipice of gushing enthusiasm: it makes you want to talk about symphonics of light; of Andrew Wyeth paintings. It's ridiculous but against the pale tongue- and-groove (also known as matchboarding) that lines the entire house, a scrubbing brush looks like the most beautiful thing you ever saw in your life, and a loop of string on a metal canister in the kitchen triggers a moment of ecstasy. Yes, really, a piece of string. It's a rough, hairy, wheat-coloured thing - you'll probably be able to buy it in Conran soon.

Understandably Sue is loath to intellectualise these things - if you start trying to analyse what is so desirable about a stone from Brittany or a bundle of bone-coloured twigs from the Isle of Wight, you end up sounding silly (though not half as silly as if you had bought the twigs in Conran). But there is no doubt that her enjoyment of these things is genuine, and part of the pleasure is in the finding. The most recent acquisition, a collection of rusty nails, lies in stylistic formation on the table. Would they have been so pleasing if someone had given them to her? Probably not. And goodness knows, she must be hell to buy for. Somewhere in this pristine house is surely a cupboard full of unwanted presents - the sort of designer nonsense that well-meaning people always give to 'visual' friends. There is nothing she hates more.

'I like to have as few things as possible; stuff that you can dispose of, nothing too permanent. I think of it as a bit like camping. I hate having things around that aren't used and everything must be plain and simple - I can't bear elaborate arrangements and unnecessary detail.' The old French florist shop containers made of galvanised metal and painted with lime at the bottom, which sit on the mantelpiece, are typical of her taste - 'stuff that you can live with and relax with, that doesn't look priceless'. Even if it is. Those containers may look as if she found them at the bottom of the garden but in fact they come from Clifton Little Venice Antiques, where beautiful understatements come overpriced.

Best of all are the things Sue Skeen has made herself: circlets of gold leaves and rusty nails and bits of twig. Resting against the wall in her bedroom are white plaster casts of leaves and bones, props she made for a magazine photo-session, due to appear in the next issue of Elle Decoration - very beautiful, but not something she will tackle again in a hurry, she says, as she conjures up the gruesome scene of her boiling-up cows' thigh bones in her tiny kitchen.

There is not a single speck of bright colour in the entire house (even the television - hidden - is black and white: 'I feel I would be an official television watcher if I bought a colour one'); but the 'plain pavementy colours' she uses, inspired by the palette of Morandi, an early 20th-century painter she admires, have perfect tonal quality. It does not look sterile in the way that all-white interiors often do.

But then this is a look that has been arrived at over years. 'I think my style has evolved out of a process of elimination. You start off wanting everything but gradually realise that you outgrow most stuff in a fortnight. And of course stylists can cure themselves of wanting things by doing a shoot - when you've done a feature on wall sconces, believe me, you never want to see another wall sconce in your life.'

It was to cater for tastes such as Sue Skeen's that two years ago the National Trust asked Farrow & Ball, an old-established company, to produce a new range of paints largely inspired by the colours found in some of their properties. (Ironically, many of the paint-shades most often asked after by country-house visitors were ones that had become faded with age: the original colours would have been too bright for modern tastes.) It is the paint type which counts however; flat oils, which don't reflect too much light, and soft distempers, for example. There is an element of eco-awareness in all this, a reaction to the synthetic nature of modern paints, and, more than anything, a romanticisation of the past. Vinyl silk may not poison you as all those 'green' books of the late Eighties led us to believe, but it taints you with the brush of suburbanity and ordinariness. Who wants practical, wash-down, child-proof walls when you can repossess the past with colours such as Pigeon, Lichen, Dead Salmon and Drab? The National Trust range of neutrals is most impressive - 15 different shades of cream alone. Paints in these tones produced by some of the big commercial companies look flat in comparison, perhaps because for reasons of economy they use few pigments in the simplest combinations.

In America nature is big business. Even the gentle pursuit of gardening which you might have thought out of bounds to the stylemongers has suddenly become an immensely self-conscious affair. Gardening catalogues like Smith & Hawken's of California offer heavily styled merchandise that would have Bill Sowerbutts turning in his grave. Among the authentic horticultural equipment and organically correct packs of aphid-devouring insects (a pint of ladybirds costs dollars 15) come galvanised compost buckets, English weeding baskets and special gardening dresses and posers' hats: to complete the image, Provencal scarves can be used 'to dress up a hat, or to gather herbs and flowers in the garden'.

Similarly, so-called gardening departments over here, like the one in Conran, are being geared to people who have never so much as lifted a trowel, never mind turned a compost heap. So you will not find any slug repellent in Conran, though you might just find an aesthetically stuffed slug in a glass case. And they do have these darling brushes - plain wood, double-headed, with straw-coloured bristles. Very brutish. Nobody knows what on earth they are - the press officer hazards a guess at creosote brushes - but anyway who cares: they'll look great on the mantelpiece. Liberty has hedged its bets by opening a department called Hole in the Wall which blurs the distinction between indoors and out, selling ambiguous furniture and aesthetic metal plant supports which can exist quite happily without vegetation in a sculptural role.

Nature has achieved such cachet in America that painters and decorators who employ it in their working vocabulary are upgraded to 'colourists'. The seriously rich can employ a 'master colourist' like Donald Kaufman to shin up their ladders. Kaufman, an artist with paintings in the Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art, works with his partner Taffy Dahl to produce rooms which, according to their book Color - Natural Palettes for Painted Rooms (Potter, dollars 50), 'do not so much mimic the hues of nature as re-create their effect'. And how do they go about this? Well, apparently, instead of 'barging in to a country villa, declaring that here there is to be a slab of cobalt blue, there a splash of orange, they are more often to be found down on one knee in the surrounding woods, picking up leaves and pebbles and scraps of tree bark and scrutinising them for clues to nature's palette'. Obviously no press officer has told them that Nature is dead.

(Photographs omitted)

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