Blinded by the light

Are net curtains a sad necessity? Lesley Gillilan looks for the alternatives

Net curtains may be to window-wear what Crimplene two-pieces are to fashion, but John Lewis plc, I am told, shifts "many thousands of metres" of the stuff every week. At least half of Britain's population, it seems, peers at the outside world through a mist of diaphanous polyester.

And it's not just suburban folk who think an unveiled window is a mite indecent. A couple of months ago, Lord Howard de Walden hoisted sheer curtains a few steps up the social ladder by insisting on their use. The tenants of his central London estate - which includes the Georgian terraces of Wimpole Street and Harley Street - are now compelled to hang nets. One reason, according to his edict, is to "protect the estate's elegant residential character".

To protect one's inner sanctum from passing Nosey Parkers, yes. To shield your expensive hi-fi equipment from the eyes of snooping thieves, perhaps. But elegant? Some of his tenants must be struggling with their aesthetic consciences and wondering how on earth they are supposed to protect their street cred.

They can always move east, to a net-free zone such as 66 St John's Street, Clerkenwell, where developer Ivory Gate is poised to launch the first of 14 luxury loft apartments, overlooking the gardens of Charterhouse. "We intend to reserve an absolute right to prescribe what people put up in their windows," says spokesperson Bunny Bridges. "The building is uncompromisingly modern and we don't want any ruched or net curtains cluttering up the clean uniformity of the exterior."

Indeed, according to image consultant, Stephen Bayley, the "melancholy net" is not only a dirt trap and an anathema to modernism but is also "certain evidence of the petit-bourgeois sensibility. The net curtain offers a sheen of sophistication as if its very translucence was a social filter. The entirely understandable need to moderate light without excluding it is far better achieved with elegant Roman blinds or robust wooden Venetians."

Given that you have a choice - and that you are not living under a regime of curtain Fascism - how else do you achieve the tricky balance between light and shade, privacy and uninterrupted views, security and sartorial credibility?

Design consultant, Patricia Howard suggests wooden Venetians - "of a very high quality; there's an awful lot of tat around" - or hand-stitched roller blinds in sheer silk, fine muslin or organza. "Metal Venetians have had it. They're so very Eighties," she said. "And vertical ones are an abomination."

S&L Blinds in Stoke Newington, London suggest made-to-measure Silhouette "voiles". This new Belgian Product is made of two layers of fine, net- like linen, interwoven with slats of wood. "They look like Venetians and tilt like Venetians," says S&L's Steve Moss, "but they provide both the transparency and the obscurity of a net curtain and roll up into a box like a roller blind." He adds that they are also one of the most expensive blinds on the market, averaging around pounds 220 per window.

A small price to pay, compared to adjustable louvred, interior shutters which, according to supplier Kerry Retallack of The House of Shutters, "look gorgeous", but cost anything from pounds 150 (for a small bathroom window) to pounds 900 (for a bay with 16 panels). Custom-made in America, they are available in hard wood or pine and can be plain, stained, painted or colour washed to blend in with any interior decor.

Architect Nico Rensch of Architeam is a roller-blind man and he offers a nifty alternative to the standard pull-down variety. He simply turns them upside down. Roll-up blinds, he points out, offer privacy without cutting out all the light - though you do lose the lower half of your view. Custom-made roll-ups are available from Tidmarsh & Sons but, says Nico, they are still not perfect. "The stupid thing about most curtains and blinds is that they offer only two options - open or closed," he says. "Naff as they are, there is no really satisfactory alternative to nets."

In defence of nets, Evelyn Strouts of John Lewis insists that some of their customers do think of sheers as a fashion item. The latest thing, she says, is bright, coloured voiles - in trendy lime green, blue, orange and yellow. Wisps of cotton-mix muslin, draped informally on curtain poles, is another popular option. "It is essential that you use soft nets with a good drape," says Evelyn. Having looked at the range, I would eschew all man-made fibres and go for the transparent Indian cottons.

But as architect Michael Jones discovered, liberating your windows from the tyranny of curtains is not that easy. When he bought a ground floor apartment in a converted East End factory building called Pattern House, one of the main attractions was a wall of street-facing, industrial windows. He hung Venetians in the bedroom ("for obvious modesty reasons") but he didn't want to compromise either the light or the raw beauty of his galvanised- steel glazing bars. So he left the rest undressed. "I feel trapped behind blinds or curtains," he says. "I like to be able to see out because the view is full of life and it makes me feel part of the city. The down-side is that people can see in, but I don't mind being on display. I haven't got anything to hide."

His friends, however, felt uncomfortable about the arrangement. "I think they were worried about security rather than privacy. And I've finally given in to the pressure." He doesn't think he'll actually use them, but a set of plain metallic Venetian blinds have been ordered. Michael considered sheer cotton roller blinds, but nets were not an option. Pattern House is another Clerkenwell development that doesn't allow them - even if they are fashionably lime green.

Custom-made interior shutters:

The House of Shutters 0171-610 4624

The Shutter Shop 01252 844575

Specialist blinds:

S&L Blinds 0171-254 4486

Tidmarsh & Son 0171-226 2261

Net curtains:

John Lewis 0171-629 7711

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