Minimalist loft spaces, lime green toilet brushes, post-modern bars - stop this 'designer' madness, begs Oliver Bennett
A little time ago, a pub closed and reopened in London's King's Cross district. In place of its previous appointments of stippled Artex walls, sticky swirly carpets, mock beams and Olde Englishe prints went a refit of bare walls in deep red, sucked-lozenge wall lights, loungey banquettes and bare floorboards. The Malt and Hops had transformed into The Ruby Lounge, and another little bit of British public life had changed forever.

Once more into the "designer" breech had we gone, as part of the recent great taste transformation. But instead of thinking "Great, another groovy design bar" as one might have before, this refurbishment - despite being, in fairness, an attractive example - induced a pang of loss. Was our unique contribution to social life, the traditional English pub, finally on its way out, being helped on its way into the skip of progress by the designer bar bonanza? And are we now overloaded with restaurants, bars, interiors and items that protest their designer status a little bit too much?

It is now more common to sit on a puce Arne Jacobsen Ant chair when you go out than a beer-stained, ripped leatherette bar stool. Typical is a new beer hall called Point 101, owned by Vince Power underneath London's Centrepoint tower, which boasts "classic" Charles Eames plywood chairs.

The designification of the UK was started in the 1980s. The Design Museum started up, and people like its progenitor Stephen Bayley came along to tell us what we should like. (He in particular must surely rue the tag "design guru" now.) The taste pendulum started to swing away from the rustic, antique and ethnic preoccupations of the 1970s domestic consumer towards the gleaming fetish icons (for they were always icons) of modern design. Names became crucially important: Braun, Alessi, Memphis, Starck and Sony - these were brands and designers that summed up the new aspirations of what had come to be called, with doom-laden sincerity, the "design decade".

Then, in the 1990s, along came the perfect British domestic habitat for design - the faux New York-style "loft" - sold on by a veritable gush of new interiors magazines. Big beech floors, a lime-green bean-bag and a copy of home-porn bible Wallpaper by the light of a Philippe Starck Miss Sissy lamp: bliss it was in this designer dawn to be alive. Finally, contemporary design was being recognised by the mass market and there was a wholesale rediscovery of the Modernist designers which, by and large, was a good thing.

But also by this time the appellation "designer" became overused and corrupted. It began to be slapped on to almost anything that had some semblance of being of late 20th-century origin or, indeed, anything that had some tweak or inflection that made it different - irrespective of the actual value and thought in its design. One might attend a "designer" clothing sale, for instance, only to find that all the jackets had something up with them: four buttons, a zip on the breast pocket, one lapel higher than the other. The devil was certainly in these "designer" details.

Gifts - always an index of the age - started to be infused by a denuded version of "design": lime-green cactus-shaped toilet brushes, plastic wall vases, chrome lemon baskets and inflatable fruit bowls flew around the place, soaking up the money of urban affluence and very often tooled in that all too prevalent post-Starck, streamlined, 1950s rocket fuselage retro style. New perjorative phrases started to be coined about the cliche of the clean-lined post-loft designer lifestyle - "Calvin Klein Modernism" is the term given for it by Paul Davis, lecturer in popular architecture at South Bank University. But it is not just architects who sniff, for the word "designer" is now widely assumed to have superficial, stylistic connotations, and as a result designer-branded goods are very often in down-market freefall.

This is particularly the case in clothing - sports and leisurewear, to be precise - which have become a forest of designer signage, with barely a discernible difference between garments but their massive competitive brand names. Who could tell a Tommy Hilfiger jacket from its pattern? Somehow the good design became conflated and confused with the meretricious rubbish that sold itself as "designer". Further confusing was the idea that "designer" status conferred a particular look on to an item - why, for instance, is a Ford Ka considered a designer item whereas its stablemate, the Mondeo, is not? Both were designed, after all. But they have different markets, and all that the word "designer" does now is indicate a buying pattern, a consumer demographic, the modern mug punter.

Paul Davis says the role of design in popular culture has changed. "The idea of designed goods in the Modernist sense was to improve the world," he says. "Now design is to enhance one's 'lifestyle' and act as a signifier of status." He cites the "Eames phenomenon" as an indicator of this process, whereas Charles and Ray Eames's furniture has been reassessed by the glossies as die-for fashion accessories for the high street hordes. And the catering industry has a far quicker turnaround: a bar is expected to last only a few years, and restaurants and hotels have to get used to changing their image more frequently to keep up with the vicissitudes of taste.

Inevitably, following the decay of the designer ideal, people are once more searching for unbranded, grass-roots authenticity as an antidote: non-design, as it were. In London's Shoreditch, a previously desolate warehouse district that is now a bar and club magnet for combat-trousered 20-somethings - Friday night here is like 1968 Hanoi without the M-16 fire - the embattled artistic avant-garde of the area eschews the newer sofa and floorboard designer-type joints for the reassuring fag 'n' pint chintzery of the Barley Mow, a local trad pub.

"That migration has definitely happened over the past 18 months," says Gordon Faulds, editor of the area's antennae, Ditch magazine. "It's the obverse of the people who flock to the newer places like Home. Its pitch is to disassociate from the fashion and hype. It is beyond trendy." Of course, he adds, this attitude is as much an affectation as the designer ship of fools it claims to despise. "It is just an affectation of authenticity that prides itself on being one step ahead of the pack."

Anti-fashion has a long pedigree. Trailer-park chic in the US and the vernacular flock wallpaper aesthetic in the UK have found their way into the hearts of the taste-making fraternity - the average young Brit artist is as conversant with a karaoke machine in a woodchip-walled pub as they are on the sofa of a members' club. But there is a disenchantment with "designer" aesthetics and an impatience with the overheated market hype of - God forbid - the "hip" and "cool".

It is not the fault of real design, of course. "The problem is that those design aspects have become a saturated fashion," says James Mair of interior design shop Viaduct. "What has to happen is that true design appreciation gets into the mainstream of contemporary culture." There are things about the design boom that are good, he adds. "I think it's great to find fresh clean lines in interiors, for instance. But that doesn't mean that there's necessarily anything good about the indiscriminate use of curved walls, beech floors and glass bricks." Good design has thought in it, he says: bad design is just stylised pandering to fashion. And much that masquerades as "designer" is, sadly, bad design.

Meanwhile, Joy, who is 26 and a publisher's assistant, prefers to go with her mates to what she calls "proper pubs". "They're much better fun than those designy places, which tend to be quite uptight," she says. "Yes, there may be an anti-glamour and anti-chic thing going on, but proper pubs seem more rooted in reality. Those design bars are all full of people of one age group feeling anxious about whether they 'belong' or not." No-style style, she calls it - and at present it seems a reasonable response to the UK's "designer" rash.

Comments