What is interior design? Those who evangelise it will claim it is all about beauty, elegance and making an ugly world a little more lovely. But to me it is far more about the pursuit of "good taste" – that great, and yawningly empty, holy grail for the anxious middle-classes.
Those in thrall to this mass modern seduction may not have read a decent book for years, or done anything to help the community, or even found the time to have fun with their kids. None of that matters really, so long as they can finally lay their hands on those Fornasetti plates, that Louis Ghost chair, that Merdolino toilet brush. The thinking is thus: one day I will have a beautiful home – and then I too will be beautiful.
I dislike interior design with the distaste of a reformed and chastened former enthusiast. I remember well how I was before I wrenched myself out of that torturous mindset – plumbing my very shallow reservoir of "taste" in self- consciously fashionable shops in exclusive retail neighbourhoods. It was a world of catalogues and cloth swatches, paint samples and curtain scraps. But my personal interior – my soul, if you like – was being designed into a place of sterility and greed, underpinned by the perpetual white noise of option ' paralysis (how to choose, without the scourge of regret, from an infinite number of colours, patterns and shapes?).
I went through my ID jag sometime in the early noughties, when, after a divorce, I moved to my house in London's Kensal Green from a house in nearby Notting Hill. My Notting Hill home had been furnished almost entirely off the secondhand stall at the end of the road and the flea markets of the Golborne Road. I was rather fond of them, the shabby, sunken 1930s sofas, the ancient 1950s gas cooker, the knocked-together, crappy pine bunk beds that my children slept in. The house was a mess – but it was the authentic mess of family.
When I moved to Kensal Green I felt the need to turn over a new leaf – to reinvent myself. I was earning more than ever before, and I had moved in with a new partner (now my wife). I didn't want a beat-up, punch-drunk home anymore. I wanted to be refreshed, revitalised, bracingly bourgeoisified.
I look back now with incredulity at those long, wasteful hours Rachael and I spent grazing the shops of Upper Street in Islington and Marylebone Village, in Notting Hill and the King's Road. There were so many beautiful things in Aria, in the Conran Shop, in After Noah. We wanted to own them all. We wanted our home together to be elegant, to reflect our discernment and sophistication, to indicate how far we'd travelled from our white-trash backgrounds.
The remnants of those years remain like post-apocalyptic relics in our now beaten-up and worn-down (but still deeply loveable) home. The stainless-steel 1930s desk (£1,200) with (now ruined) leather top still has the power to annoy me, with the stubborn failure of its draws to open properly and the stains on the leather surface that began multiplying on day one. The remaining one of the elegant pair of oxblood leather sofas we paid a fortune for at Graham and Green is as uncomfortable and unfriendly looking as it ever was (the other was sold for £50, to be replaced by a big, comfortable slob-out sofa we bought secondhand from the neighbours). The nice, delicate wine glasses we bought are long broken. The black Scandinavian rocking chair from Alfie's in Bell Street is chipped and un-sat-in.
But the deepest follies of our pretentious aspiration remain to reproach us. At the height of my financial good fortune – now long gone – we spent a ridiculous amount of money on a designer kitchen and landscaped garden. The garden – though still pretty thanks to Rachael's efforts – now looks like an ordinary farrago of plants and grasses; the "design" we paid for has long been erased by nature and improvisation.
As for the new kitchen, we spent many a long hour trying to decide on the colour and style. Hours were spent in churchy kitchen showrooms. In the end, we went with a bespoke steel and wood kitchen, finished in a sort of mock-pistachio that I realised, after it had been installed, was almost identical to the colour I'd had in my ugly suburban kitchen growing up. What I had been trying to escape from had ambushed me. It looked nice enough, though – for about six months.
A few years on, the paint is flaking off, the stainless-steel is scratched to buggery, the draws keep falling apart, the hinges break. It is a constant irritation, and I often think the old kitchen was better – or at least tougher and more characterful. We were duped into thinking we were paying for quality. What we were actually paying for was vanity, for a "design concept" perfect for people who do not have sufficient confidence in their own taste.
Why are we so terrified of just buying what we like, rather than what we feel we ought to like? It is partly social anxiety – or as Alain de Botton would have it, status anxiety. The magazines we read, the television programmes we watch, tell us that if we do not keep up with the ungraspable, ever- fluid fluctuations of interior design, then we are vulgar, we are unsophisticated – and we have come to fear such labels more than being thought of as bad, or selfish, or greedy.
The other reason we are in thrall to design is a deeper reason: that of what – for want of a better word – I would call "meaning". We don't know what life is for anymore. But we do know what looks good (or we think we do). So what resources we have, we expend on something that is tangible rather than something that is intangible – like time, for instance. Yet time is a purchase too – time free from a day shopping for Alessi salt shakers, for instance – and a wonderfully precious one.
I can't say that despite my disillusionment I have entirely fallen out of love with beautiful things. I still window shop in those lovely galleries of consumerism and Scandinavian design from time to time. Some of the objects there are breathtakingly desirable, and I sometimes even feel an automatic, residual twitching toward the depleted resources of my wallet.
But these shops are really displays, exhibitions – not practical objects for the home. Above all, they do not "say" anything important about you, about your worth as a person. They are silent – or if they do speak, what they really say is, "You are a pretentious mug". Or, as Harry Enfield would have had it, "I saw you coming."
Interior design is not life, does not make a life, any more than any consumer product does. Life is about time, and time is about life itself. Interior design is a seduction, but it is also a trap to which their can be no end and no escape (the new fashion always, within weeks of purchasing, becomes the old fashion – we are all fated to obsolescence in the end). Give it up, I say, give it up – and then your house will truly become your own. Perhaps ugly, perhaps unfashionable – but much much cheaper, and much more you, warts, flying ducks and all.
Get the anti-design look: 10 stops for no-nonsense bargains
1.Cox's Architectural Salvage Yard, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucs
A company offering quirky pieces from toilet-roll holders to telephone boxes. www.coxsarchitectural.co.uk
2. Baileys Home and Garden, Bridstow, Hereford
Recycles items to make attractive new pieces, such as stackable apple crates. www.baileyshome.com
3. Guinevere Antiques Warehouse, London SW6
The no-frills sister outlet of the King's Rd emporium. Modest surroundings mean lower prices. www.guinevere.co.uk
4. Steptoe's Yard, Altham, Lancs
Offshoot of a demolition company that recycles discarded materials and fittings. Investigate the website for ideas. www.steptoesyard.co.uk
5. Gower Reclamation, Swansea
A treasure trove of bargains, with a particularly good selection of reclaimed church items. www.architecturalreclamation.com
6. Bermondsey Market, London, SE21
Forget Portobello, get here early (it opens at 4am every Friday) and haggle for antiques. www.bermondseysquare.co.uk
7. The Curtain Exchange, branches nationwide
Quality fabrics at bargain prices. www.thecurtainexchange.net
8. Porte de Vanves, Paris
Charming, compact and a bit like a posh car-boot sale. www.pucesdeparis-portedevanves.com
9. Brick Lane, London E2
If you can bear the Sunday crowds, root around the bric-a-brac market or check out shops such as Unto This Last, an unpretentious furniture workshop. www.untothislast.co.uk
10. Glasgow Architectural Salvage, Glasgow
The team behind this business are passionate about recycling quality pieces. www.glasgowarchitecturalsalvage.co.ukReuse content