Peter York On Ads: Apply a new undercoat and join the Deccie set
Sunday 01 October 2006
We're all Deccies now. People know the interior looks and the words for them. Twenty years ago, no decent Englishman would have been caught saying "Gustavian" unless he was a European history buff.
But now the old Swedish look means something for many more than old Swedes. We cast about for who to blame for all this new vocabulary and the dirty habits that go with it. Many of you will think of the Byron of Bexley, Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, with his yards of parachute silk and his strange stencils. Laurence just couldn't stop himself from introducing big words and funny ideas into Changing Rooms. However ineffably naff the actual scheme, it was often inspired by something relatively arcane - a touch of the Frank Lloyd Wrights (a random stone fireplace), or the Ballets Russes back-drop look (v. bright).
As it turned out later, LLB was doing missionary work, telling women whose normal default setting was Rose White to be a bit bolder, to come on in and surprise themselves. He did a couple of programmes on taste that showed he knew the canon but was pitching it carefully. And the Jason King revival New Savile Row suits and giant shirt-and-tie combos were all there to make the ladies sit up and pay attention. Personal branding and mild titillation. He's a natural educator, much cleverer than we thought. Forget those schemes, forget the dumbstruck faces of the owners: it was all part of the business of moving the nation on.
We now spend miles more on house-buying and fixing than the rest of Europe and we're gloriously miles deeper in debt, mainly as a result of our housey-housey habit. It's a sex thing. There's a wonderful magazine called 25 Beautiful Homes, the Readers' Wives of the interior porn business. They're comfortable middle-class - usually provincial - people's own efforts. They're not Chelsea interior designers or Hampstead architects but when they talk about what they've done they've got a massive vocabulary of looks and brands - Colefax and Fowler and Farrow & Ball of course, but lots more, and little black books of crafty types who restore and re-finish, cut and sew. You can't help thinking of Desperate Housewives and the likelihood that some of those craftsmen offer a Complete Service for their lady clients. Sue, who built up and sold a successful mail-order business with her husband, has moved through a succession of bigger, better houses. Now she's in a Georgian 10-bedder near Basingstoke, while Kevin's doing a lot of work in Estonia. She'll need a seeing-to, won't she?
It's this no-sex-please-we're-decorating side of things they're playing with in the new Dulux campaign. It's all about colours and how they go together. The colours have kitschy American soap character names, which lets them do Heat cover lines about who goes with who, and why. And because it's about colour they've got race too, bold pairings of black and white and brown people.
The whole Llewelyn Bowen motive is about selling bolder colour combinations with faster churn than magnolia or any kind of obvious 1980s-ish graduated co-ordination. In one of the current campaign versions they've got a golf-course setting with a slight, young, white man in a primrose golf sweater - Dulux colour name Forest Lake - and a tall, black woman with an Afro, a hot pink top and hot pants, colour-code Candy Love. She's looking like the love action in a Richard Prior film of 1973. This is exotic sex for the British Leyland set. As he settles for his shot she's right behind him, jiggling away, holding his hips and splaying her brown fingers across the crotch of his white trousers. He wriggles and she adjusts her hands.
It's the sort of thing that drives media-sociologists in the University of East Berkshire into a lather - the sexualisation of black women (there's some more objectification, a black stud, in another of the treatments). But we know it's all completely harmless because there's a butler type in a bowler hat with a drinks tray off to the left to draw everything back to the old Brit' telly references.
The real excitement's in the colours they're peddling. An anaemic yellow and hot pink together, that's hardly 2006 approved taste, more a Thatcher-ite palette, actually. And some of the other combinations will set hearts racing and stomachs churning too. It's bold stuff.
The visual language here is all American: soaps, celebrities and sweat-free sex. But the perspective, like ICI-owned Dulux itself, couldn't be more British, more Irony Lite. When you see that familiar dog wander across a hot pink floor you know where you are. It's all a bit of fun.
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