Whose taste is it anyway?

Today we all think we're experts on minimalist chic. But, asks Nick Foulkes, what's wrong with old fashioned clutter?

It was the sight of a young child being handed over the heads of a crazed, baying crowd of rioters that brought it home to me. Once upon a time Britons used to erupt into spontaneous violence over religious issues, viz the Gordon Riots; or the Corn Laws or the Poll Tax. During the social tinderbox that was the 1970s everything from race and industrial action to sport was a trigger to riot. Now in the 21st-century public order disintegrates over a few cut-price sofas and some flat-packed shelving: watching the stampeding hordes outside a new Ikea was a chilling example of the democratisation of "taste".

It was the sight of a young child being handed over the heads of a crazed, baying crowd of rioters that brought it home to me. Once upon a time Britons used to erupt into spontaneous violence over religious issues, viz the Gordon Riots; or the Corn Laws or the Poll Tax. During the social tinderbox that was the 1970s everything from race and industrial action to sport was a trigger to riot. Now in the 21st-century public order disintegrates over a few cut-price sofas and some flat-packed shelving: watching the stampeding hordes outside a new Ikea was a chilling example of the democratisation of "taste".

The oft quoted Latin tag de gustibus non est disputandum has always perplexed me with its almost Delphic ambivalence. The obvious face value meaning that there is no disagreeing about taste is completely untrue - one look at the participants' faces in such programmes as Changing Rooms shows that while some people adore what might have been perpetrated on their houses, others plainly do not. I think it was William Morris who argued that to be tasteful, an object must be made from a material and in a way that is suited to its purpose; which strikes me as a perfectly reasonable starting point.

The William Morris ideal of taste is very different from the bourgeois concept of "taste" as understood by Hyacinth Bucket-alikes in their pristine new-build executive homes in antiseptic culs-de-sac, or the Banana corduroy-wearing Sloane Ranger in his slightly grandiose 19th-century terraced house, with its endearing pretensions to poshness. That sort of taste is basically a morbid fear of being thought "common"; Samuel Butler was frighteningly accurate when he said, "People care more about being thought to have taste than about being thought either good, clever, or amiable."

The worrying thing is that everyone in Britain now seems to be an expert on taste - the most unlikely evidence of which came from Big Brother. I once heard one contestant fantasising about the sort of home he would like to inhabit. For a while he groped for an appropriate adjective, then somewhere in the recesses of his internal thesaurus he found what he was looking for: his dream dwelling would be minimalist. M-i-n-i-m-a-l-i-s-t: one word that is shorthand for stylishness, modernity and chic conformity. Sadly the conversation in the Big Brother house did not develop into a spirited debate about Mies van der Rohe and the Bauhaus - it probably drifted off into an idle discussion about group sex. "I like minimalism me. Have you ever... like... 'done it' with more than one person?"

At times it seems that we are all in touch with our inner minimalist and that ours is a nation of cool, white, Zen-like interiors with maybe an Eames lounger or some tubular steel furnishings by Le Corbusier. But there is a dispiriting uniformity about it all: pale wood floor, pale walls, flatscreen telly, one or two bits of important looking tribal art: no children's toys, no mess - in short, none of the signs that we are actually alive.

I am one of the few people I know who lives amid old-fashioned clutter: piles of books, Communist memorabilia including a Christmas tree decoration in the shape of an airship emblazoned with the letters CCCP, a stuffed crocodile, early 20th-century postcards, pictures of everyone from Somerset Maugham to Marcello Mastroianni, Edwardian ashtrays, a humidor or two, a lectern... and that's just the contents of one mantelpiece. Even the pictures on my walls are shamelessly figurative. I think the only concession to contemporary tastes is a nest of Perspex tables, off which we eat supper when watching television.

I know, I know, I should be doing my best to look minimalist: rioting outside the local Ikea; hanging out at Selfridge's, attending print fairs to buy artworks that are reproduced in their thousands, assembling objets from some pre-approved source of trouvailles, painting my newly extending kitchen a shade of off-white; agonising about lighting "solutions"; or ruthlessly pruning my possessions and my wardrobe as the "taste experts" advise.

Apparently Ann Maurice is the guru du jour, the Dr Atkins of home improvement. Described as an "acid-tongued Californian home staging guru", she descends upon householders who have been unable to sell their properties and whips the unsaleable monstrosities into modern - often minimalist - dream homes. If I met Ann Maurice I am sure I would like her, but what is alarming is the cult-like status she seems to inspire. As well as watching the TV show, you can sign up for a newsletter, buy the book and attend the seminar.

Yes, the seminar - only from the tone of some of the encomia posted on the official Ann Maurice website it seems that Ms Maurice is in the business of raising the dead, curing the sick and bringing peace and goodwill to all men.

The testimonials seem to imply that if only she could do a series of House Doctor on the West Bank; Palestinians and Israelis would forget their differences and unite in a life, sorry lifestyle, of 'taste' and refinement. "This has been a life-changing experience for me. After 30 years of teaching, I now know what I want to do and this course has given me the confidence to go forward. Thank you, Ann." "I absolutely loved the seminar and am boring people to death by talking about it and the ideas it has given me for selling my house."

Forget the Kabbalah - "taste" is today's most fashionable, not to mention least forgiving, religion.

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