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Shades of pale

Flamboyant designers on certain popular TV programmes would have us believe that bright, bold colours are the height of chic, and white and magnolia are for cowards. Thankfully, the British are having none of it

AS OSCAR Wilde said of the wallpaper in the room where he was dying, "One of us must go". In retrospect, it seems Oscar has endured and wallpaper has been banished from the modern interior. If interiors pulp TV is to be believed, we as a nation are rag-rolling our matt magnolia walls with lime green. "Chuck out your chintz" is maybe a close second to "Cool Britannia" as most hackneyed phrase of the Nineties. Changing Rooms guest interior designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen was quoted as saying "I passionately believe that underneath our traditional conservatism, we are simply not beige people." But we are, Laurence, we are.

Interiors magazine House Beautiful commissioned a survey which confirms that 90 per cent of the British public are still belligerently beige. Interiors shows like Home Front and Changing Rooms may have 12 million viewers, but it seems we aren't after decorating tips. No, these shows are more akin to You've Been Framed, in which some poor dope has their sitting room painted puce and silver at the command of a man sporting tight trousers. How we laughed.

The British are not suspicious of colour because of traditional conservatism. We just don't want to live in the interiors equivalent of a Zandra Rhodes frock. Was it Vogue editor Diana Vreeland who said "Elegance is denial"? Wise words. Any fool who rushes into colour is metaphorically playing hopscotch in a minefield. "Colour is so easy to get wrong," says Wallpaper* interiors editor Toni Spencer. "The overall feel of Wallpaper* is calm, clean, serene. Yes, you will find more subtle colours or textures but it is more likely to be a cement or putty tone than hard, fast and loud colour."

Granted, House Beautiful is the chintz brigade's parish magazine. Their survey says that 28 per cent of its readers still haven't got over Laura Ashley. They are magnolia people at heart. But the basic message behind the survey is encouraging. With the current frenzy for interiors TV, magazines and retail, nobody is fooled by the many blind alleys "celebrity" decorators are leading you down.

Modernists have always championed light, white and clean. If you look at decorative movements in the last century, you'll see colour is always linked to decadence. White always cleans the slate for the new mood. In the Nineties, minimalism had an arduous task on its hands. We were coming out of the Eighties boom time when people bought a Knoll sofa the way they would a BMW. It was blind acquisition and taste levels were uniform. "Good" design was also priced beyond real people. The minimalists took slate-cleaning to an extreme. Nobody was seriously expected to live in monastic purity. It was just a way of ushering in a softer, more understated aesthetic.

Of course, colour doesn't simply mean loud and proud. The Nineties take on colour is natural. It is tone-on-tone. We are seeing tactile qualities as important as visual impact. It's the difference between a sandy suede sofa in clean lines and an overstuffed, over-designed lime green horror. Colour whispers quietly in the Nineties. It has no need to shout.

You'll find this sentiment echoed by Elle Decoration editor in chief Ilse Crawford in her mission to promote "Soft Modernity". The foundation for soft and modern is still in that narrow colour spectrum between brilliant white and softest mushroom. When we're talking walls, white is still the dominant colour. It is a blank canvas. It is also one of the most effective reflectors of light. White says calm, serene, relaxed. Hot pink says frenzied. British light doesn't accept brash colour. British people don't accept hot pink walls. Simple.

Photographs by James Merrell from the book 'Wooden Houses' by Judith Miller, published by Ryland Peters & Small