National Trust throws in the tea towel

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THE DAYS of potpourri and tea towels are numbered. A shift in marketing strategy at the National Trust is seeing Europe's largest conservation charity attempting to shed its "Middle England" image and refashion itself as an "innovator".

The new direction is part of a fin de siecle review of the 104-year-old Trust's activities and a concerted effort to attract younger members.

In homage to the best of 20th-century design and culture, the Trust is acquiring a portfolio of key properties of the era, as well as planning an image makeover for its merchandising arm.

In a radical departure from floral prints and china that dominate its gift shops, next year sees the launch of a product range inspired by the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger.

Designed by students at the Royal College of Art, the merchandise embodies the innovative spirit of 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger's Hampstead home which the Trust acquired in 1994. If it sells well, the Trust intends to develop further design-led ranges, in addition to updating its shops to cater for the sophisticated tastes of today's consumers.

Meanwhile, the charity's futuristic inclinations are evident in its new state-of-the-art visitors' centre at the White Cliffs of Dover, which aims for a broader appeal. With its glass walls and grass roof, it is billed as a "theatrical space" from which to view the port, and could eventually feature live radar for tracking cross-Channel shipping.

Recently the Trust threw open the doors of Coleton Fishacre, the "jazz and cocktails" art deco residence of the D'Oyly Carte opera family, owners of the Savoy and Claridge's Hotels.

It also wants to restore the 1,800-seat art deco Plaza cinema in Stockport, which it views as "an escapist stately home for the middle classes of the 1930s".

The idea is to run the building as a cinema, theatre and tourist attraction. However, it is not clear whether the Trust will be able to raise the pounds 7m to restore the cinema in time to meet a local authority deadline.

Last year, the Trust opened Paul McCartney's childhood home in Liverpool, which it promoted as a typical 1950s council house and Beatles shrine.

According to the Trust's head of communications, Warren Davis, these developments reflect the growing public interest in modern history and lifestyle design. "While our main task is to look after what we have already got, the Trust is anxious to shed some of the Middle England image we have acquired and enter the next century as an innovator," he said.

"In the old days, people were interested only in traditional gardens and classical houses. Today, there is a growing awareness of the significance of 20th-century architecture and furnishings. As the things we have grown up with become history, there are nostalgic revivals of the style of earlier decades.

"But very little has so far been preserved and the Trust feels it is important to have some examples of lifestyle and architecture from this century."

While the charity's loyal membership of 2.6 million is firmly rooted in people older than 50, each generation has different interests, according to Mr Davis. "We are trying to respond to changes in taste by moving away from potpourri and traditional floral patterns towards plainer, modern things," he said. Such a move incorporates an urbanising tendency, helping to distance the Trust from last year's damaging row with a splinter group of members that tried, but failed, to force the charity to reinstate hunting on its West Country properties.

For some critics, the Trust, which was founded to preserve places of historic interest and natural beauty, was pigeon-holed into polite Middle England. Its nostalgia-driven shops, pioneers in the 1970s and early 1980s, had become a cliche of themselves after years of replication by other organisations.

Acquiring properties such as 2 Willow Road has inevitably caused controversy among the old guard. The Daily Mail labelled the purchase of the McCartneys' family home at 20 Forthlin Road an "expensive practical joke". However, while Goldfinger's home is a huge attraction for design-literate 30-somethings, traditional members who visit the house are also fascinated and appreciative, according to its custodian, Harriet McKay.

"They are delighted to discover something modern that they like," she said.

According to Frances Newell of the design consultancy Interbrand, Newell and Sorrell, the Trust is right to make investments in the 20th century.

"They need to build new audiences and pick up on the tremendous nostalgia for recent decades. Everyone is doing merchandising, but the challenge is to develop products that are a souvenir of the place, but have relevance to our lives as well."

Perhaps Buckingham Palace, which last week was slated in a survey of tourist attractions by Holiday Which? magazine, could learn a thing or two.