He's got millions, but has he got taste?

It's easy to poke fun at Prince Jefri of Brunei, but for the seriously rich, decorating the dining room can be a tricky business. Kate Watson-Smyth goes through the keyhole

GOLD TAPS or chrome taps? Persian rugs or shagpile carpet? Repro hi-fi cabinets or Louis Quinze chairs? Who's to say what is in good taste or what is simply "not done"? There are as many opinions on what constitutes good taste as there are coffee tables in the Conran Shop. Or to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: "It is impossible for an Englishman to show off his living room without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."

But while the debate on defining good taste is older than the Elgin Marbles, these days there are certain commonly held principles on what is considered to be bad taste.

The first of these is ostentation. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with spending large amounts of money on the contents of one's home, in England at least, it must not appear too obvious.

Two men who have yet to learn that lesson about the English are the Scot sitting on the Woolsack, Lord Irvine of Lairg, and the Sultan of Brunei's brother, Prince Jefri.

The Lord Chancellor has incurred the criticism of Tory MPs and the disdain of those who loathe vulgar spending with the refurbishment of his official residence. More than pounds 650,000 has been spent on soft furnishings, decoration and furniture, including handprinted wallpaper at pounds 60,000. Lord Irvine, who once likened himself to Lord Wolsey, has ordered himself a Pugin-style 16-seat oak dining table, costing pounds 9,640. Light fittings are put at pounds 56,000, pounds 5,000 is going on ceramic tiles, pounds 5,000 on blinds and pounds 11,000 on "domestic equipment" and tableware.

In Brunei, meanwhile, if you've got it, you must flaunt it. Prince Jefri, a man who can spend without limit in the pursuit of opulence, has opted for naked ostentation. His (several) homes are piled high with solid gold statues and tables encrusted with jewels. He is said to have paid $7m for a bedside rug woven from solid gold thread and studded with 25,000 precious gems. Not the sort of thing you'll find in Ikea.

When photographs of these items were published in newspapers last week, accompanying reports of a court dispute over business deals involving the prince, there were gasps of horror across England. A common reaction was "all that money and look at that. Has he no taste?"

Indeed, as Lucy Elworthy, decoration editor of House & Garden, says: "The British have always been anti vulgarity and there is something very vulgar about ostentation and having things dripping with diamonds.

"Good taste tends to be understated - and that remains timeless. It varies slightly through the ages, but I think that what was considered good taste 40 years ago is properly still considered good taste now."

She is also convinced that good taste is innate. "You either have it or you don't and you cannot learn it. You can try to improve bad taste by looking at magazines, but you have to understand what you are doing.

"You have to know about antiques and paintings and understand why they are beautiful and why they work well in a space."

So, good taste is about understated timeless elegance. But where does that leave "retro-chic"? In certain design circles, items from the 1970s - once labelled the decade that taste forgot - are about as cutting edge as it's possible to be.

Ms Elworthy maintains that although a lava lamp might be fashionable, that does not make an item of good taste.

"Most people would still maintain that the 1970s revival is in bad taste but because it is fashionable at the moment it has now been labelled kitsch and become desirable - but it will never be called good taste."

According to the style pundits, the second biggest mistake a householder can make is to plump for reproduction furniture - however expensive or well made.

David Sullivan would take issue with that. The owner of Birmingham City Football Club and the Sunday Sport, proud owner of a pounds 6m mansion in Essex, is said to be wounded by accusations that his home resembles Versailles decorated by Liberace.

"There are no antiques. If you have something very valuable, you're frightened of it being stolen, frightened of breaking it," he says.

"People say it's all repro rubbish, but if this room was genuine antiques it would be half-a-million-quid and you'd be frightened of sitting on it."

And Mr Sullivan has an unlikely ally in Celestria Noel, the outgoing social editor of Harpers & Queen. "Modern good taste tends towards the restrained but historically that was not the case." she argues.

"There was nothing restrained about Blenheim Palace which is very opulent - it was meant to look fantastic and impress people. They may have thought it was terribly bad taste at the time but now it is much admired and it maybe that in time people will come to love such extravagance.

"I would have actually like to defend bad taste. It can be a real shame to be restrained all the time and it is just snobbery to look down on excessive spending."

Indeed, Drusilla Beyfus, author of Modern Manners, and an expert on etiquette, feels that to remark that someone has good taste is in itself, bordering on the insulting.

"It is less to do with taste than to do with what is and what is not acceptable which may or may not be bad taste. If you say someone has good taste it is slightly perjorative, as if you think of them as being bland and safe."

Ms Beyfus says she would welcome gold taps in her bathroom. "If I could afford it and it was a beautiful and a minimalist gold tap then I would willingly have it."

Peter York, the style guru, is similarly reluctant to accept such rigid definitions of taste.

"There are no fixed standards now and fewer people are aiming for good taste. They want fun taste and individual taste. There are certain group reactions, and left to their devices people from the same social groups will fix up their houses in the same way - but that is part of conditioning.

"Taste is taken to be restraint and `pleasing decay' and the assumption is that people who furnish their houses in this way have good taste, but there is no longer a dominant establishment taste".

And for those who agree that good taste is to be found in `pleasing decay', one man seems to have got it right. The Lord Chancellor's Cabinet colleague and fellow Scot, Gordon Brown, has gone back to basics in one of the grandest entertaining rooms at 11 Downing St - bare floorboards.

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