Design: The new avocado bathroom

Good taste at home is not about buying up the latest `look',says Marcus Field. It's about emotional investment and `time richness'. Here's how to avoid being a living design cliche
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Henry James, that great turn-of-the-century observer of social mores, would be amused by the dilemmas facing the aspirational homemaker of today. Just as his tragic heroine Fleda Vetch in The Spoils of Poynton is imprisoned in a "torment of taste" by the frighteningly faultless Mrs Gereth, so we are tyrannised by glossy magazines and style dictators to a point where we are often unable to choose the most basic things - from wall tiles and sinks to door handles and taps - for fear of a faux pas.

Those who suffer from this debilitating style-victim condition (symptoms include terminally unfinished interiors and weekends spent wandering the aisles of the Conran Shop) would no doubt be glad of some relief. Here, then, is a self-help guide to a cure, and notice of some pitfalls to avoid along the way.

First of all think back 20 years or so to the last major shift in domestic taste. In its death throes the confident, colourful modernism of the Sixties and Seventies (the oh-so-cool Playboy look now in revival) gave way to a dark, murky age of avocado bathrooms, sliding patio doors and Anaglypta wallpaper. Hot on the heels of these monsters of material culture came the bugbears of the Nineties house hunter: replacement UPVC windows, pine- clad kitchen units and stencilled walls. Then, most depressing of all, came the full-replica Victorian interior. Symptomatic of everything Thatcherite, this was one of the most insidious interior design trends of the 20th century. Rejecting all the progress of the past 80 years, people happily installed cast-iron fireplaces, roll-top baths and flowery tiles in flats and houses regardless of age or style. Period features were back and nothing, it seemed, could stop them.

But we can find the answers to the dilemmas of today in the mistakes of yesteryear. Consider, for example, as you rip down your reproduction cornicing and demolish your conservatory, who is having the last laugh? Mostly it's the people who bought sensibly or did nothing to their homes in the Eighties. Rather than going for a full makeover courtesy of Laura Ashley or B&Q, they sat contentedly on Sixties leather sofas, walked on parquet floors, luxuriated in their plain white bathrooms, enjoyed their easy-wipe laminate-topped kitchens and put up with the draughty steel-framed windows. If they made any alterations it was probably to bring their heating or wiring up to the highest standard. Their homes, which might have seemed marginally dull then (but never vulgar), now seem effortlessly stylish.

Now, before we rush to get the look from Wallpaper or Elle Decoration, there is a lesson to be learnt from all this. These untouched interiors are not timeless (your home will always reflect a certain moment in history), but there is nothing to fear in that. Instead these classic spaces are what the Dutch campaigning group Eternally Yours calls "time-rich". By promoting the idea that we have relationships with our home and our possessions, Eternally Yours aims to encourage a culture where we invest emotionally as well as financially in the things that surround us. Then, the thinking goes, perhaps we can slow down the rate of product obsolescence and finally achieve the ambition of William Morris that "in no private dwelling will there be any signs of waste, pomp or insolence, and every man will have his share of the best".

That's the ideal anyway. But if you're still hell-bent on a makeover and unsure of the rules, here's a prediction of what to avoid if you don't want to end up with a 21st-century strain of avocado bathroom-itus.

Concrete used indoors (far left) Oh yeah, so cool. It might look good in Issey Miyake shops, Norman Foster buildings or multi- storey carparks, but please, don't try this at home. It invariably ends up a messy floor finish, worktop or bench of streaky, stained hard stuff. It'll cut your fingers, soak up your spillages and make you a laughing stock. It will also be tiresome to rip out. If you're still determined to go for it, make sure you get an architect such as David Chipperfield or John Pawson to oversee the pouring. Open-plan (left) I know, great modernist villas, democratic space and all that, but does it mean you have to go and knock the guts out of your Victorian house? Good for the kids, good for parties, but what happens when cosy comes back? Walls are easy to knock down, but not so easy to build. Reclaimed RSJ, anybody? Minimalist gas fires (right) Those real-look gas fires with their fire-proof coal or logs were bad enough, but for how long must we endure the pretentious posturing of blue-burning flames rising from white sand or piles of pebbles in the white, geometric openings that are the focal points in the homes of the minimalist cognoscenti? If Bauhaus director Walter Gropius was right when he said "each object must fulfil its function in a practical way and be long-lasting, affordable and beautiful", I give them a year at most. Medium density fibreboard (MDF) (below right) If you've let an architect or builder touch your home in the past 10 years, the chances are that whatever they designed or made is in MDF. Cupboard doors, shelves and almost every built-in unit you can think of is easily constructed in the man-made material. Most people paint it and then admire it for its smooth looks. A few months later the same people are cursing it for the way it retains finger marks and for its great weight. My prediction is that we'll soon be ripping this stuff out faster than you can say Anaglypta.

Mosaic tiles (above) Now available in handy-sized sticky-back panels these have nothing of the charm of those found in ancient Rome or medieval Ravenna when each piece was painstakingly applied by hand. Translucent turquoise-coloured ones are currently very fashionable. My bet is they won't look so good peeling from the walls in five years' time or when you see them at 50p a roll in the MFI sale ads. Use sparingly.

Solid beechwood worktops (left) You've seen them in the magazines, you've seen them in the mid-range interiors stores, they're every architect's answer to the client who can't afford better and every DIY enthusiast's idea of the best. Their saving grace may be that they'll wear well, but don't expect to go down in posterity as somebody with flair or imagination. Stainless-steel appliances (left) You've seen the kitchen at Conran's Quaglino's restaurant and the ads for Smeg's shiny new oven designed by Renzo (Pompidou Centre) Piano and now you want some of it for yourself. The problem is you can't afford the Gaggenau. So you compromise and buy the whole stainless-steel-clad ensemble of washing machine, oven and fridge by "everymanufacturer" currently jostling for space in John Lewis. You'll regret it. Top-notch equals time-rich. The rest are called white goods for a reason and they should stay white.

`Alternative' radiators (above) Jumping on the bandwagon that saw loft-dwellers and knowing architects install industrial radiators in their homes, some opportunist manufacturers of perfectly good, plain old radiators have seen fit to start producing heaters shaped like Slinkeys or something you might find in a Victorian school building. It's not big and it's not clever. They should stop making them and we should stop buying them. If you want something different, go for a high-quality, time-rich design from a company such as Bisque.

Real-look timber floors (left) Sanding your floorboards and polishing them (with wax preferably rather than varnish) is one thing, but laying strips of chipboard finished with photo-generated images of wood is quite another. It might be cheap and it might fool the cat, but it's going to look dreadful in months if not weeks (and that yellowy-orange tone is the avocado of tomorrow). Heed Le Corbusier's advice - "good design is intelligence made visible" - and stick to solid floor finishes