Janet Street-Porter: The sudden death of home decorating

Only a few years ago you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen
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The Independent Online

If there was a barometer of changing social trends, then it is the news that the DIY chain of superstores B&Q have suffered a catastrophic drop in profits. This week, they reported that sales have fallen by 3.7 per cent in the past year, at a time when the home improvement market dropped by 4 per cent. As a result, B&Q's profits nosedived an extraordinary 52 per cent to £209m for the year to January 2006. Even worse, B&Q bosses see no end to the downturn, and are shutting some of the larger stores in their 320-store chain, and shedding staff at head office.

So what has happened? Only a few years ago, you couldn't turn on the television without seeing Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and his ludicrous hair and giant turned-back cuffs enthusing about repainting your living room in tasteful pastels and whipping up some gorgeous Georgian-style swagged curtains. Carol Smillie waxed lyrical all over Britain as the Changing Rooms teams stencilled kids' bedrooms, whacked up picture rails and laid limed-oak flooring.

How we loved those makeover shows. But, like all television trends, home decorating on the box ended as swiftly as it had begun. We had to endure a couple of years of decorating overkill as every channel competed to seduce us with its version of the genre. Inevitably, ratings suffered, and then decorating was replaced by cooking as the must-have subject matter no scheduler could afford to ignore. We might have watched decorating shows in our millions, but we didn't necessarily believe we could emulate the experts.

Now cookery programming dominates the airwaves nightly, from Full on Food to The F-Word to those two irritating hairy bikers. This doesn't mean we necessarily rush out and buy all the ingredients to cook real food ourselves. What we have become really good at is sitting on the sofa, snacking, silently watching and lapping up every word to discuss at work the next day. We must be the ultimate nation of voyeurs. No wonder the Government keeps telling us we're fat, fat, fat, we're going to have heart attacks, and we will live miserable obese lives unless we eat five pieces of fruit a day and drink only 14 units of alcohol a week if we're female. We became couch potatoes during the decorating boom and now we've turned it into an art form.

The demise of real, make-your-hands-mucky DIY coincides with the success of IKEA. The difference between the two ugly boxes that sit outside the city centre surrounded by acres of parking is phenomenal. Go into B&Q and you see aisle after aisle of confusing raw materials, pots of paint with many different finishes from eggshell to gloss, sheets of hardboard, plasterboard, chipboard, curtain rails, curtain tracks and screwdrivers.

Go into IKEA and you wander through attractively themed room sets and kitchens someone else has put together. The other day in Gateshead, the place was packed with families having a day out, eating meatballs in the café and buying packs of glasses and cheap lights. If you have the energy and patience, you can buy a kitchen unit that folds into a cupboard or a workdesk for your computer.

IKEA recognises that the majority of its customers are time-poor and may have large debts. They offer cheap and cheerful sofabeds, towels and storage units - all geared to small homes with limited space and pitched at families on tight budgets. When Marks & Spencer tried to open their Lifestyle store, they came a cropper - it was too cerebral, too upmarket, and too expensive.

At the same time, DIY has become what the poor, the old and the mainly male take on. It's simply not chic any more. Just stepping inside the door of B&Q brings back memories of those endless black-and-white BBC Barry Bucknell home improvement shows (it seemed to take him two years to remodel a house in Ealing) and my father redecorating our hall, bringing the whole house to a standstill, blocking the stairs with his wallpaper table and paint trays. During any refurbishment, he and my mother simply stopped speaking, and we children hunched our shoulders and knuckled down through the tense days and weeks until it was over and judged a triumph by neighbours invited in for drinks.

But that was in the DIY hey-day, the 1950s, when working-class men equated home improvements with demonstrating their rampant virility. Now few of us have any idea how to decorate. We buy magazines featuring lovely homes, we peruse weekend supplements, tearing out interior schemes that turn us on. But most of us wisely do absolutely nothing about turning our fantasies into reality.

Most relationships these days suffer from lack of cash, increased journey time to work and virtually non-existent sex lives owing to fatigue. What little time we do spend together (when we are not arguing about who should be doing the shopping and the chores), we are determined to spend on leisure - and that might mean surfing the internet, not rewiring the lounge. We are only too happy to employ someone else to put together our kitchens, reline our chimneys and paint the bedroom. Life is too short, and we know the end result of our DIY efforts will be atrocious - the material for instant separation.

Along with plumbing, building and electrical engineering, decorating is a sure-fire way for school leavers to earn a fortune, and should be added to the national curriculum, much more use than religious knowledge or citizenship. Sadly, there are few takers.

B&Q have worked this out, of course. They are testing a painting and decorating service in some of their stores. They already employ several thousand kitchen and bathroom fitters though sub-contractors. The only problem is, they can't find anyone in Britain who wants to wield a paintbrush. So B&Q have announced that they plan to recruit "thousands and thousands of Poles" to perform this vital service and kick start their turnover upwards to massive profits once more. B&Q will be importing fully trained operatives, and paying all their costs, including insurance.

We already know that 205,000 Polish men and women are registered to work in Britain, making excellent builders, plumbers, electricians, cleaning ladies, nannies and bar staff. Now they will be welcomed with open arms into households all over the country. The added benefit of employing experts is that you can always blame someone else if the job goes wrong, and it will be someone outside the fraught territory of your own home. Let's hope that Mr Clarke's tough new immigration laws don't scupper this urgently-needed initiative.