Real Homes: In the worst possible taste

Bored of minimalism, JAMES SHERWOOD goes in search of some good old kitsch and colour
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Indy Lifestyle Online
By now we've reached a consensus about the decade in design. The mantra of modern interiors goes something like this: bleached wood units, white walls, ultrasuede sofa and solitary orchid in a steel bucket. It's all very tasteful but, be honest, diluted minimalism is as satisfying as nouvelle cuisine. Sometimes you need the red hot chilli pepper of bad taste to spice up piss-elegant millennial minimal.

A new shop called Eat My Handbag Bitch is a showcase of interior design exotica. As the name suggests, Ikea it ain't. After only four weeks, EMHB is already a player in east London. "We have a different kind of design snobbery," says George Enoch, co-owner of EMHB with girlfriend Georgina Stead. "Taste is down to the individual. If you have an appreciation of design, good or bad taste is irrelevant. It's people with no taste that upset us."

The furniture in EMHB is Fifties to Eighties but these vintage pieces look surprisingly fresh. Materials such as white vinyl, orange plastic and frosted glass look modern when placed in the context of the store's room sets. "Often customers think this is contemporary furniture," says Georgina Stead. "Good design should never look retro. The philosophy of the shop is to make design accessible."

Porn-inspired pop art paintings by Chris Hammond hammer the message home. Interiors can be a dirty laugh rather than a condescending sneer. Enoch is also a fine artist and his 6ft-high glitter vinyl Millennial Butt Plug takes pride of place in the store. "We are definitely drawn to sexy furniture," says Enoch, pointing to a curvaceous white vinyl SuperRhonda Sixties sofa.

Interiors magazines launched in the late Nineties understand the inherent sexiness and irreverence of maverick design. Wallpaper* may have its detractors but it was the first style magazine to shake up Nineties minimal with a dash of exotic Seventies shag pile. US-based interiors magazine Nest has taken the concept further, making a feature of photographing eclectic, incongruous interiors. Images of a 17th-century rococo palace will be followed by a portfolio shot in a public loo painted by Keith Haring.

The emergence of bad taste - or style taboos - in 1999 is a major indication that we are bored with bland, homogenised design. Florist and landscape designer Stephen Woodhams is at the vanguard of what he calls the "reincarnation movement". Yes, he is bringing the humble carnation out of the hospital ward and into chic London hotel One Aldwych. "I think we've overdosed on orchids," says Woodhams. "And who's to say the carnation is a naff flower? They are beautiful if you buy in volume."

Britain already has its fair share of kitsch emporia. Emma Bernhardt has been peddling her Mexican plastic roses in Portobello, London for years. But nothing compares with Queens in Spitalfields Market. Opened six months ago, Queens looks like a drag queen's boudoir. Feathered fans and gilded cabinets are reflected in a wall full of mirror balls. Teddy bears in Marilyn Monroe drag snuggle up to Glamour Puss, a cuddly toy augmented with false eyelashes, earrings and marabou trim. Owners Gary and Darren are Sydney-born drag queens, guest-door whores at the nightclub Trade and costume designers for the famous Soho drag venue, Madame Jo Jo's. Queens is their contribution to glamourising the nation's homes.

"London is such a grey city," says Darren. "The world needs a bit of colour. No wonder people get so depressed here." Gary adds: "People should relax more. It makes me giggle when men bring their kids in here and, when they think you're not looking, they're wafting one of the fans like a screaming diva. Kitsch is infectious."

The backlash against bourgeois good taste could be an example of fin de siecle decadence. But it would be a mistake to think irony has anything to do with it. These shops aren't promoting the cheap and nasty and calling it a postmodern joke. "We consider every piece we source to be beautiful," says Georgina Stead. "As long as it is interesting, different and good quality then it has a place here."

Exotica hasn't taken hold of the design-buying public before because the British mistakenly think it's money for old rope. "We've had people pointing to a Verner Panton chair and saying, `I had one like that in the Seventies and I threw it away'," says Stead. "And I think `No, lovey. You had the MFI knock-off'. But we've also had customers who really appreciate the work."

Queens and Eat My Handbag Bitch are filter systems for people who will be sympathetic to exotica. They'll either make you smile and shop - or frown and smugly walk back to your Ikea kitchen.

Eat My Handbag Bitch, 6 Dray Walk, The Old Truman Brewery, 91-95 Brick Lane, London E1 (tel: 0171 375 3100). Queens, 111B Commercial St, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1 (tel: 0171 426 0017).