Property: Ideal? You mean old hat

Has the 90-year-old home exhibition passed its sell-by date? Felicity Cannell takes a look
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THE Ideal Home Exhibition, which opened for its 90th year last week, is like another British household name, Bognor Regis. Everyone knows what it is and maybe even where it is, but few of us have actually been there.

That said, the exhibition apparently receives more than half a million visitors each year. It started in 1908, primarily as a showplace for new gadgets to keep the staff happy below stairs, and developed into a house and garden extravaganza that is surely nearing the end of its useful life for the general public.

In its heyday the exhibition was the first place the public saw such things as the Kenwood Chef - probably the most successful labour-saving device in the kitchen. The first television, washing machine, fridge, microwave or solar panel may have all made their debuts at the exhibition, but now we know about the latest technology way before its appearance.

What is more, despite the pounds 25 to pounds 32 entrance fee for a family of four, visitors are expected to carry on spending when they are inside. It is less of an exhibition than a multi-million pound spending frenzy.

In the 1930s "it was a fun family night out," says Patricia Phelps, who visited annually as a child. "The best thing was leaving with two carrier bags full of leaflets and samples - things like mini Hovis loaves and little pots of Marmite."

And then there was the free food on site. For the price of entry you could spend all day wandering around upstairs filling up with whatever was offered. Now you have to pay for the minute saucer of sushi your six- year-old has chosen, even though you know it will be spat out on the floor.

This year's theme is "parks and gardens". Visitors can enjoy "the peace and tranquility of a Victorian park", complete with traditional iron railings. Perhaps your toddler can keep tradition alive and get his head stuck, or impale himself as he tries to climb over.

The 21st century has been embraced by the Oyster House, which hopes to "provide an alternative to traditional British estate housing". The house is made of dried softwood and glass, with folding windows to open up the ground floor, uniting garden and home. Perfect for the one sunny week in the average British summer.

Standing on a star-shaped deck, the house has open-plan living with partly enclosed bedroom spaces upstairs. Nice idea, but not an option for a family. When the kids are small you may be leaving the door ajar. Within a few years they'll be slamming it on you. And sound-proofed walls would be more use than open-plan living. Electric guitars and the Disney Channel can prove equally tortuous.

Have any such radical house designs yet taken off? Round aluminium pods in the Fifties, polygon glass domes in the Sixties and pyramids in the Seventies - yet we are still living in boxy bricks and mortar constructions.

Moving with the times, rather than tearing off into the distance, is House Beautiful magazine's "Flint House" in the Showhouse Village. This has also united garden and home but in a rather more practical style, with a "secret" courtyard within the building and a roof terrace - both features providing outdoor space in a limited area.

"The pretty flint exterior appeals to people who like the conventions of British building and also inflicts nothing offensive on the landscape. But the interior can be as contemporary as you like, and with the versatile space you can have fun experimenting," says House Beautiful editor Caroline Atkins.

The exhibition also has the usual array of home furnishing ideas, DIY products, furniture and kitchen equipment. But there is an important omission. Visitors to the exhibition between them generate 1,250 tonnes of potentially dangerous waste each year and throw away pounds 36m worth of unused food. The exhibition should have evolved to educate us on the effects of aerosol cans and dead batteries, or the benefits of filling the washing machine to maximum capacity, and putting a brick down the toilet. Now that would be ideal.

q The Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition at Earl's Court runs until 13 April. Ticket Hotline 0990 900090.