"Taste," the Queen is supposed to have said, "doesn't always help." It's a brilliant thought. Taste – she obviously meant advanced visual discrimination, not finer feelings – doesn't always help. I've known people with perfect pitch in clothes, houses and food whose manic quests were so obsessional they brutalised everyone around them in the search for the perfect bleu marin or knocked-back green Connemara marble.
The royal family isn't famous for taste. They think it's poncy, compared with dogs and horses and getting on with it. The Queen Mother collected some pleasant trad 20th-century English pictures of the Augustus John and John Piper kind, and Princess Michael, a distinctly Euro-Princess, is always on about gussying-up interiors. Prince Charles knows what's what in the traditional architectural and interior canon and cares how his houses are done (by Robert Kime). But for great royal collectors you need to go back to the wonderfully show-off, spendthrift Prince Regent – Brighton Pavilion, Carlton House, Carême as his chef – and beyond, to Charles I.
But the ironic contrast thought to set against 170 years of determined royal middle-classness is that the Royal Houses contain the tastiest things imaginable. The best pictures and drawings, the best, bling-est French golden-age furniture, acres of first period Sèvres and Meissen, clocks and silver Fabergé, jewellery, books, even the world's best collection of stamps. (Remember Prunella Scales as the Queen in Alan Bennett's A Question of Attribution going round the pictures with James Fox as Anthony Blunt, then Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. Delicious.)
The Royal Collection – the catch-all management word for the lot – is getting quite lively now. They have clever exhibitions in the Queen's Galleries – there was a marvellous one recently, fronted by David Attenborough, of drawings and watercolours of creatures. And you can pretend to be Sarkozy and Carla in the State Visit Experience; they've got the tables in Buckingham Palace laid for a State Banquet.
And while The Firm are off in their helicopters, in Dubai and at the Kentucky Derby, at OAP clubs and opening motorways, fogeys and design types are forever poking about in the palaces, looking in the archives,
measuring up the curtains and carpets, wishing and hoping. Like the Museums and the National Trust, the palaces sell things now, bits and bobs, china with royal themes, presents for children.
And this month, there's a full-on royal decorating kit, a Get the Look package of fabrics and wallpaper. In a brochure with a coat of arms on every page and an Elgar-heavy DVD, apparently shot in Buckingham Palace, Designers' Guild proudly announce they have received a unique, gilt-edged invitation. They've been asked to rethink and update the current regal decor and produce a brand new Royal Collection, "inspired by" Buck House and Windsor Castle and the treasures they contain, which is now available to the hoi polloi too.
Could it really be that Designers' Guild – refuge of Chelsea girls everywhere – is giving the Queen a 21st-century makeover? That King's Road shop full of New Agey combos (a Bertoia chair, say, with upholstery in shocking-pink cut velvet)? Its guiding light, Tricia Guild, likes to take some blazing Howard Hodgkin colours, a bit of knocked-back Frenchy rural cupboarding and combine them with Milanese white leather sofas. Tricia Guild absolutely doesn't do tea-washed retro fabric like Bennison, or archive prints like so many other fabric houses, or plum-pudding mahogany anything. Tricia Guild, who'd rather be in India looking at their shocking pink things, or in New York going round lofts with character pipework and over-scaled contemporary art. But it could, of course, be an inspired combination. Guild could re-colour and re-think the fabrics and wallpapers and sell them a lot harder than your average dinky decorator. She's got international distribution and she can talk up an idea like nobody's business.
And for Guild, as she says, "the name isn't exactly unhelpful". The fact is – and we're both skirting this interesting issue – the world is still chock-full of extraordinary new money from all over the place, from Tirana to Timbuktu, and while it doesn't always completely get the Tricia Guild Chelsea/Notting Hill Free Spirit look, it sure as hell gets the Buckingham Palace 1890s red, white and gold super-bling one. The Russians who come here to buy back their old pictures and their Fabergé eggs at auction go a bundle on it.
This stuff, damasks and silk velvets and embroidered flowers and flock wallpapers and the rest, hyper-expensive and lush, can be played in at least two ways. It's all been re-worked from a design on a Buck House sofa or a pelmet or even a Chinese vase to fit 21st-century dimensions. But it still isn't in the Designers' Guild palette of shocking pink or peacock blue. The key colours are the Royal mainstays of crimson, magenta and the interior equivalent of British Racing Green. And the textures are miles off the scale from tickings, calicos and linens, the Primrose Hill favourites. There are cut velvets, embroidered silks, shiny golden-yellow damasks, bits of gold thread here and there. (The fabrics are up to £150 a metre, the wallpaper's up to £395 a roll, cushions up to £95. Not cheap.)
Tricia Guild says they haven't simply reproduced anything, they've taken designs and re-thought them and re-coloured them. But there's no mistaking the way the look's going from the brochure and the DVD. The upholstery fabrics are used on old gilded sofas and chairs. The background's packed with Boulle furniture, 18th-century oils and Sèvres vases in that piercing blue-green, the instant international language of 19th-century plutocratic collecting. It's because they're using so much of it in one go – shiny silk on shiny silk plus grand flock wallpaper – that it could be a bit heavy-going for younger, Western European and North American tastes (though you can imagine it in those Nancy Reagan lookalikes' houses in Palm Beach). But in the lovely rich BRIC countries – especially Russia – you can just see them buying the whole package.
There are some seriously nice things here, things which should age well, things which could be used cleverly by designers who'd combine bright and lush with plain and simple in a 2008 way – people like Guild herself. But the Royal Collection marketeers know their brand. They won't have wanted it funked up.
And, as it turns out, the Queen didn't want things copied exactly – precise colour, texture, scale – to make a real build-your-own Buck House kit. Guild says guardedly that she sees the Royal Collection things as "quite accessible, more traditional than our colour palette" and then tells me how much she likes the mix of trad and contemporary at the Gramercy Hotel in New York and how it plays the backlash against minimalism with its Schnabels and Picassos.
Guild, who's married to Richard Polo, the Italian-American owner of the restaurants Joe Allen and Orso in Covent Garden, is famous for knowing What Women Want in their houses; I remember first seeing her look in the sunny flats of Chelsea Girls in the Seventies. Flats with dappled, pinky-bluey curtains and lots of rattan. Her new things don't look remotely like that and her design heroes – Christian Liaigre, Jacques Grange, John Pawson, Lucienne and Robin Day, and Tom Dixon – aren't exactly English Country House taste. No Colefax, no Mrs Munro, none of that. What she really believes in is colour, lashings of it. Did I know that they'd found it has an energising effect in hospitals, she asks? I believe every word of it, of course – but what I wanted to hear was that she'd had a little natter with the Queen about how to jazz up a big house – a taste talk. Reader, you'll be astonished to learn that never happened.Reuse content