Peter York: The way we live now

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The Independent Online

What d'you think Boris would call this room? It's not just about his background, but also about his level of deliberate archaism, his Woosterishness, that deliberate buffer-talk that's leapt a generation (Boris sounds very like his father, but a bit more old-fashioned). All of which would argue for "lavatory" plus a few jocular references to the "Gents".

But what d'you think David Cameron calls it? My guess would be that Cameron, keener to do the demotic modern thing, would say what whoever he's with says – probably toilet – and revert at home, certainly with his parents' generation. Whatever, "lavatory" and "toilet" always used to be arbitrary euphemisms for a pretty utilitarian British Empire privy – until recently. Before the 1980s, a wash-basin in a dedicated downstairs lav was decidedly bourgeois and would've been small and basic. Decoration was perfunctory too. Sloane loos, in London, had badges of affiliation – Oxbridge sporty photographs – and in the country, masses of stuff: boots and Barbours, humorous and sporting prints, bits of beasts.

Back then, only Belgravia Americans and Kensington Frenchies really had large well-equipped decorated places that looked like the Ladies at Claridges. There'd be a big basin and big mirror. Humane levels of lighting, masses of towels. The British aesthetic gradually took on board the idea of a space more than two-foot-six wide, changing the status from "WC" to "downstairs cloakroom". There was prettification too as women realised that here was another area for decoration. Shell basins with scalloped edges from B&Q and lacquered brass fittings took over. There'd be framed department store prints with, say, Redouté roses or a lakeside theme.

In the later 1980s the more ceramic you got in the better, particularly when new fancy tiling ranges meant you could cover every inch with impervious glazes. Then a whole set of expressive looks evolved. Fogey: a reclaimed Victorian pan in the shape of a ceramic sheep, a Thunderbox cistern, William Morris wallpaper. Or architectural: basins set in great sweeps of travertine marble. Or something shiny and Pop, walled in bright blue spotty rubber flooring stuff. Or – very designer, this – a room with lav and basin all in stainless steel, designed for planes or prisons.

This smart room is nearer the Belgravia American tradition. The loo is packed away somewhere behind you. This is a dedicated primping space: a sensible, ergonomic generous design. So far, so timeless – any time over the past 60 years, from campy Vogue Regency to smart revival. But what says 21st century are the smart, small tiles, which imply something sleek and modern on the floor too. This could belong to a woman who runs, say, a smart online retailer.

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