It's Insp versus Asp

That's Inspirational against Aspirational. Hester Lacey on the rival wo rlds of interiors magazines

LINDA LEONARD, a housewife from Sutton Coldfield, is an interiors magazine addict. This is why she spends her weekends painstakingly hand-stripping her living room floorboards. ``It's very slow, but rewarding. Then I'm going to stain it all deep green and get some sisal matting and terracotta jars with dried grasses in them. I'm aiming for a sort of ethnic feel, but very modern and clean.''

She does not stop at floorboards. ``I really like to potter about, repainting any corner that's a bit dingy, trying out a new paint finish, a different effect.'' Linda admits she is hooked on glossy interiors titles. ``I love them. I simply wallow in them. I prefer the ones with lots of ideas to try, but I like the ones with perfect film-set homes in as well - I practically lick the pages of The World of Interiors.''

Linda is not alone. Over the past five years, the ``home interest'' magazine market has boomed. From a scant handful, there are now around 20 vying titles; combined sales top 1.5 million copies every month. Even during the recession, circulation continued to increase as negative equity victims contented themselves with frenziedly rag-rolling and stencilling their unsellable houses - or reading about it.

Another reason for the boom, according to Ilse Crawford, Elle Deco editor, is demographic. ``When the baby-boomers hit their late 20s, their biological interest shifted to the home. And life is pretty rough all over - home's a sanctuary, a decompression chamber.''

Also, trendy young magazine readers have far more choice available than their unfortunate parents, who were stuck in a taste vacuum of brown and orange swirly carpets, flowery loose covers and furry loo seats. ``Knowledge is the key. A lot has to do with access - interiors magazines are very good at acting as a grapevine,'' says Ilse Crawford.

Interiors magazines divide into two types; Inspirational and Aspirational. Inspirational mags (House Beautiful, Perfect Home, HomeFlair, Ideal Home etc, pounds 1.10-pounds 1.65) are crammed with practical ideas for transforming even the humblest suburban flatlet; readers will rev up the sewing machine and nonchalantly run up a few acres of swag-and-tail pelmeting with contrasting trims and tie-backs. Aspirational mags (The World of Interiors, Elle Deco, House & Garden etc, pounds 2.30-pounds 2.80) are full of stunningly photographed spreads on celebrities' expensively renovated Tuscan farmhouses or Chelsea townhouses, and leave the reader openmouthed with awe and desire.

Where House Beautiful sends its readers off to Laura Ashley, Debenhams and even Asda, The World of Interiors recommends eclectic designers you have to phone for an appointment. Asp Elle Deco purrs ``Madcap colour in a country pad'' and proffers exotic tips to transform the bathroom into a harem; Insp Homes & Ideas chirps ``Choose a bathmat that's the same colour as your flooring'' and suggests floral prints from Texas Homecare.

Aspirational doyenne is Min Hogg, who founded The World of Interiors in 1981. Asps come in many forms. ``I could get a letter from a duchess, then one from an OAP. I had one yesterday from a charming vicar from Anfield, enclosing pictures of his house - he had bananas all over his bathroom, moons and stars and goodness knows what.'' The World of Interiors has strict standards on celebrity home features. ``We're all curious, we all want to see the Queen's bedroom. But I have to turn down an awful lot of pop stars and actors who would like to be featured.''

The World of Interiors was running successfully before the interior magazine boom; how does she feel about the new rash of competitors? ``I think they're absolutely terrible. But they aren't in competition with us, they are doing something quite different. House Beautiful? House hideous.''

Nevertheless, House Beautiful is top seller in the field, founded in 1989 by the unashamedly Inspirational editor, Pat Roberts Cairns. ``Back then, all home interest magazines were for elitist homes. The bulk of people don't live in converted oast houses or renovated barns, and they don't even want to. Affordable style is our watchword,'' she says. ``We celebrate the suburbs.''

Writer Henrietta Clarke cannibalises the magazines themselves for decoration. ``I hang torn out pages carefully framed with black inserts in cheap glass clip frames, because I can't paint my room as it's rented. It gives an illusion of lots of colours and they look good because - due to another article - I hang them on the wall with baby pink ribbon, Dangerous Liaisons style.''

Nicholas Barker, author of Signs of the Times, sees magazines, both Insp and Asp, as guidebooks through the minefield of Eighties social mobility. ``Most people suffer from two opposing anxieties - they want to stand out from the crowd, but the last thing they want is to be considered odd. So those practical magazines tell you how to make your ruched blind just that little bit different and better than your neighbour's, while the others are a form of pornography or fantasy, a dream - they deliver a huge amount of pure visual pleasure.''

Style watcher Peter York believes the interior obsessives are here to stay. ``People are spending more money in spades, not so much at the chi-chi little suppliers but at the mighty engines of Texas Homecare, B&Q, and Do-It-All. And the truth is that people's homes are vastly improved. `Taste' is a matter of dispute but think of the numbers of en-suite bathrooms and conservatories that have given people a lot of fun. And the repertoire and vocabulary - Shaker, Quaker, eighteenth century Swedish - it's incredible to hear British people talking like this!''

The run-up to Christmas is when home interest magazines excel themselves, with wild exhortations to be creative, innovative, make your own decorations, wreaths and presents (widely recommended this year: gold and white) as well as knocking out a festive series of gourmet banquets. The covers blaze out in red, green and gold. Except for The World of Interiors, which refuses to acknowledge the season. What, no step-by-step, create-your-own table centrepiece with coat-hangers, fir cones and gold spray paint? ``You won't find one bauble, one robin, one blazing fire. We ignore it all,'' says Min Hogg, resolutely and elegantly unfestive.

(Photographs omitted)

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