The way we live now, by Peter York: I'll show you my house if you show me yours

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The Independent Online

A friend used to spend her Saturday mornings visiting show houses. She kept to her Known World, London SW1, 3, 5, 7, possibly 10, and was interested in developments in large stucco Kensington-Vicky houses. They were occasionally "gruesome", some "hilarious", but mostly inspirational. Back then, in the later 1980s, smartened-up duplexes safe for banker-boys, carved out of formerly down-at-heel multi-occupied houses in Stagnant Gardens SW7, were a revelation. Slick show flats were a new idea, well and expensively done by local decorator-ladies to suggest a page in House and Garden. There'd be real antiques (hired from Fulham Road), real pictures (often 18th-century portraits) and clever, class-correct accessories. Another Kensington lady would have Done The Flowers. It was worth it; anything that sold the flat faster was worth its weight.

But everybody's doing show house now. Every development has to have a show flat, brochure, PR and advertising in property pages. Residential property marketing is a job, they teach courses in it and no doubt people have written dissertations on it (if you have I'd love to read it). You start with the name: you're branding the place and usually attempting to distance it from its real location. Something that suggests the smart bit of town, or central London, in a compound like Langham Lofts or a zippy name like The Vector Building.

The underlying reality won't be so smart, so readers will have a job working out where it actually is - 130 to 140 Gasworks Approach, Clydebank, say - and what it is. Whether it's a deconsecrated council tower block or reworked Water Board offices, the reality will be a few small rooms with an integral rather than separate kitchen because "open-plan" makes two small rooms look like a bigger one. It'll be short on "features", to suggest modernity and because good ones cost money. A show house designer has to magic small, low-ceilinged, featureless rooms with dull or downright ugly views into something deeply seductive. And more: suggest The Life to be lived there to the late-twentysomethings they're targeting. The trade word is "aspirational". And the aspiration is usually an updated, sexed-up version of 1980s Yuppie.

It's got to be modern. And "accessible" (clichéd). People have got to get it. You have to use pieces with reliable symbolism and Known Value and familiar groupings of furniture to Get the Look. You can't go too far with fashion references: too ironic, arty or eclectic puts people off. Framed photos or a print of a Damien spot-painting on the walls, but nothing too "busy". Less is more in 13ft x 12ft. You should show brimming cafetières, and champagne flutes. The Living Etc look is fine, but nothing Dazed or Confused please.

Can't-go-wrong oak strip floor. Mid-blonde oak is best. Black wood is worrying. Walnut is unaffordable.

White, tone-on-tone neutrals and a bit of black or chocolate are safe. This "affordable" modern chair creates an essential black accent in a bland room.

The key accessory: attractive young people lying around on sofas in a constant state of undress and arousal.

Simple square-cut sofas in smart-neutral grey avoiding the working-class baroque look or the upper-middle rumpled loose-cover style.

The must-have plasma. Silvery metal says modern and safe. The round table is silvery too. If you work in a David Brent "financial services" back office in an office park you might like a dilute version of the Young City hot-shot look.