The Ideal Home Show reveals we're a nation obsessed with home improvement
Faced with a flat housing market, property owners are choosing to improve, not move. But do we really need self-cleaning grills and a mop for every occasion? Michael Bywater endures a day at the Ideal Home Show in a heroic bid to find out.
Sitting here with the morning sun streaming into my room in a perfect and lovingly-compiled Art Deco house – Le Macassar in Corbie – the Ideal Home Show seems just a bizarre memory.
Which goes to show that distance lends neither enchantment nor anything else to the view. In truth, the Ideal Home Show is a bizarre memory, just as it was, at the time, a bizarre experience: broadly incomprehensible, occasionally interesting, frequently grotesque, intermittently inexplicable and usually depressing. I don't mean to be negative, but how often have you spent a day somewhere devoted to selling you stuff without thinking, even once, "I suppose I wouldn't mind one of those"?
I would worry that I might be a terrible snob, with some deep-rooted hatred of the Common Man's taste, were it not for two things. First, there weren't many Common Men there. Not actually there. There are lots of Common Men visible beside their wives. They are moving about. They are looking at things. Some of them occasionally give utterance. But if you think that means they are actually there, then you know nothing of Men, whether Common or otherwise.
The second reassuring thing is that I can't be a snob about the Common Man's taste because that isn't what it's all about. Actually it doesn't seem to be about anyone's taste, or indeed about taste at all. Perhaps it's about a simulacrum of taste, for people who've heard about taste and would like to try it for themselves.
It wasn't always like that. It used, for a start, to be the Daily Mail Ideal Home Show. Now it's sponsored by Everest double glazing. You can see a convergence of ideas here. Both exist largely to keep the outside world at bay, and, by anticipating the worst, avoid any possibility of the unexpected.
The Ideal Home itself has always been mutable. Its House of the Future had a Jetsons-meet-The-Stepford-Wives in the Sixties; before that it had a man doing the ironing, and before that – oh, I'd better just say that again: a MAN doing the IRONING – it was an identikit, upwardly-mobile couple (her: perm, pillbox hat; him: snap-brim fedora, pipe) gazing longingly at a pebble-dashed red-roofed detached number fronted by privet, guarded from the rear by 120-foot leylandii, and – eerily – being approached by doppelgängers of themselves.
It's easy enough to come up with readings of the IHS in its 104-year history. It told some sort of narrative, no matter how unappealing. Where I'm currently sitting, the 1916 narrative would have been easy: the Ideal Home is anywhere not on the Somme that isn't being blown to buggery by the Germans. It's probably much like that in Greece at the moment.
Alas, there doesn't seem to have been an IHS in 1916 and after a brief initial flirtation with Mock Tudor in its most unforgivable form, the show didn't really get going until after the Second World War. Then – much of Britain in rubble and nothing to be had – it was most famous for its Home of the Future exhibit. As usual, it was at best a sort of Microsoft-style Yesterday's Future, Maybe In A Few Years, and at worst (and more frequently) it was The Home Of The Future Except In A Different Galaxy.
The Home of the Future this year? Sponsored by Virgin Media. The 'Must See!!!' is that there's high-speed broadband. Not as high as you'd get in Korea but, still. It would be revolutionary stuff
if we didn't already know about high-speed broadband and what it can do, which is essentially let everyone in the household watch different telly without being able to tell when Dave (aged 16) is up in his room downloading These Dirty Russain Granny's Loving It With Youg Mens in HD because everything else slows to a crawl. Jesus, I remember when the Future was space colonies. You had your own helijet. Your glasses had a, like, built-in Seebackroscope™ and X-Ray Specs for seeing ladies' underwear and for chrissake everyone had a walkie-talkie, though I suppose mobile phones count in a way but, still, where's my damn helijet? And food in a TUBE?
Food's big at this year's Ideal Home Show. The Prince of Wales said so. He said so to Sylvia and Ellen and Janice. They'd come up from Worthing, Brighton and Pembury, respectively. "We've been coming for years," says Sylvia. "Years," says Ellen. "Every year," says Janice, "we swear we'll not come again. But we do." "Not next year," corrects Sylvia. "It's all tat now," says Ellen. "Once we all bought a lovely Italian sideboard. With a big mirror on it." How, I wondered, did they decide whose go it was? "Don't be daft," says Sylvia. "We got one each." "But there's nothing this year. They won't even give you a sample."
They'd been there at crack of, for the opening by HRH. "He was ever so nice," they chorus. "He talked to us for quite a bit." What did he say? "He said the food was good. I don't know whether he had any."
The Prince's House was, it must be said, eco-friendly. You'd expect no less. Solar panels. Insulation. But oh, Mother of Mercy, it was dull. The dutiful cit, secure job in middle management – the sort of fellow who doesn't exist any more, unless it's in a state of abject terror, poor chap – would yearn for it. Flanking it on either side was a Swedish House, sponsored by Ikea, and the Santiago House, "drawing inspiration from Regency and Georgian terraces". Blocky construction, amusing privet-y terracing but indoors... probably, indoors, just what the visitors to the show wanted.
But what do they want? Who are they? What is it telling us about ourselves when we see riotously gaudy, grim crystal-light fittings higgledy-piggledy with the Browne's of London RICHMOND shower with a little padded seat and it plays music to you? In the shower! So that there needn't be a single moment of your day free from music!
Here are three people with monstrous vuvuzelas strapped to their heads, like something from The Road to Wellville; are they sucking, or blowing? And why? It claims to be something to do with their yellowing teeth but I'm not sure I buy into that. It's like the unspeakable massage chair which looks like a terrible MRI scanner for your arse, or the three people getting garrotted by mental health nurses in white coats.
The 'celebs' try to help. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen tells me DIY is coming back on a grand scale, and what's more B&Q say they're now selling more red paint than magnolia: "It's because the idea of the housing market completely dominated the Eighties and Nineties," he tells me, "and that's all gone. Magnolia said safe-for-resale. Careful." What are the three universal adjectives, I wonder, that he'd apply to the 'ideal' home – not the pseudo-Platonic ideal of the original shows, the home of which yours or mine can only ever be an imperfect copy, but the universal ideals we all share, whatever our taste our circumstances. He thinks for a bit. "Quirky," he suggests, "individual, and, I suppose I have to say it, sexy." (He probably does have to say it. The lecture area where he was speaking had white vinyl padded benches. "Wipe-down," said a disgruntled passing exhibitor. "Have to be. All those women who come to see Laurence.")
The same thing, according to chef Gregg Wallace, can be applied to cooking. "It's become recreational, almost a sport. There are people getting themselves into groups and doing their own private home versions of Come Dine With Me."
George Clarke – the Restoration Man, in case you've been dead – thinks it's an ancient British, or specifically English, obsession with homes. We both try not to mention William Pitt's famous declaration of 1760, usually summed up as "an Englishman's home is his castle" (and now, given the number of people who, thanks to successive recent governments, have unprecedented power to enter our homes, better still summed up as "bollocks"). But we give in, and Clarke speaks romantically of the "extraordinary" historical housing stock we have, not to mention industrial, military and agricultural buildings ripe for intelligent and sensitive – and imaginative – conversion.
Much of the show seems prosaic, more about holding chaos or its harbingers at bay. Draughts, stains, dust, creases, yellowed teeth. There's also the usual selection of things As Seen On TV which you've never seen on TV. Usually plastic, they are invariably unsuitable for a range of unrelated tasks. They neither chop, spin-dry nor remove pet hair, but they fail to do so all-in-one. Look! Here's something called the Eco Egg which says you need Never Buy Detergent Ever Again. Well, they knew that in the 14th century. But this is promoted by the How Clean Is Your House? woman, Kim Woodburn, and I'm just thinking for the 3,267,212th time how odd it is that saying something on the TV makes it authoritative, when a woman stops and says "Well" in that Lancashire way, drawing the imaginary cardie tighter round the imaginary unfeasibly vast bosom, "She buried her baby. She did. In a PARK. It was dead, of course. But a TRAGEDY". It made me feel I had to buy an Eco Egg, but I didn't. Nor any of the mops (every corner you turned had a man demonstrating a mop – MagicMop, UltraMop, Whizz-O-Mop, you name it; there must be an awful lot of spillage in the quest for domestic idealism).
Finally I come to rest in the Sixties egg-shaped soothing-music'd, psychedelic-coloured 'Transduce' pod by the American Alberto Frias. In its alarmingly blissful embrace – as safe and immeasurably distant as sleeping under the stars in the Australian deserts – I realise the truth. This is no longer the Ideal Home Show. It has ceased to be either prescriptive or aspirational and is now prophylactic. It's the Do The Mopping, Keep Chaos At Bay and Hope It's OK Show. And, given the times we live in, that might be for the best.
Michael Bywater's top 10 terrible interior trends
Professional catering hob
Eight rings, wok burner, 12,000kw grill. You don't need it and you'll burn yourself. A must-have.
The colour. Farrow & Ball would call it 'Throat Oyster'. Says: "I don't really live here, I'm just waiting for the market to liven up".
Built-in vacuum plugs
Hints pleasingly at some strange sex gimmick.
You can't have too many novelty mops. When guests come to call, spill hard-to-shift cack everywhere and watch their faces.
The must-have from yesteryear. Set it off with Football Mums.
Plan to treat it regularly but don't. Let it go slimy, then rot.
To blazes with Diptyque. Get some tallow, make your own and fill your house with, mmm... mutton aroma.
The only decade which will never be retro. Trellises, haciendas, and the one with interesting Con'inen'al vegetables.
Remember them? Stick it on the coffee table and watch everyone try to think of something to say.
Everywhere. Even in the bog. Especially in the bog.
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