War on white: why Stella can't sell her house

Matthew Bell blames the cult of blandness for our colourless lives

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The Independent Online

The philosophy of fashion, as far as I can work out, is about being bold and brave. That's why so many people loved the late Isabella Blow, who championed wearing lobsters on your head long before Lady Gaga. The point they make is that it's better to amuse and entertain, never mind about the practicalities.

So a little part of me cheered last week when it emerged that internet trolls have been leaving rude messages about Stella McCartney's house, which she is trying to sell. One called it "one of the blandest fashion-designer-owned pads I've ever seen". Another summed up her style as "blah and bland". And, indeed, the pictures revealed an off-white painted townhouse, in which all the rooms were painted white and had wood floors. One paper reported the story with a picture of Stella herself, blandly dressed in off-whites and grey.

After a decade of watching home-improvement programmes, we've had it drummed into us that keeping it simple makes your house easier to sell. Neutral plain fabrics have trumped swirly carpets and curtains, and cold steel blinds are preferable to chintz. Estate agents will suck their teeth and tut-tut if you who dare to differ, and promptly knock a few grand off the asking price. Since the demented rise of property prices turned homes into assets, rather than places to live, the cult of blandness has blossomed.

Whenever a house comes up for sale on my London street, the agent thoughtfully sends round the particulars, so we can all have a good nose without actually having to look round. Each one is more depressing than the last: where once there were Victorian fireplaces flanked by bookcases is now an empty expanse of neon white, usually decorated with one mattress-sized plasma telly. Operating-theatre lighting makes these once cosy homes feel like designer asylums.

Obviously, taste is down to the individual, and I don't deny that clean lines and uncluttered space can be relaxing. But the depressing reality is that resale value is now a higher priority for homeowners than present enjoyment. It's the same with cars: time was when the high street was a kaleidoscope of reds, greens and blues. Now, because dealers have found that silver and black models are easier to sell on, the majority of new orders are for neutral shades. A recent study found that 23 per cent of cars on the road are now silver; only 12 per cent are red.

For those of us who can only dream of owning a house, the rental market is a similarly dispiriting place. People who rent out flats make sure they denude them of any character first, fitting the obligatory beige carpets and white bathroom suites, before asking you to hand over two-thirds of your salary to live in a sandwich box.

It wasn't ever thus, as I discovered on a recent visit to Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse where the Bloomsbury set hung out. Each of the rooms is beautifully decorated by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, down to the doors and windows and skirting boards. But what struck me most is that they painted it all even though they were only renting: today, you're a lucky tenant if you can stick up a poster with Blu-Tack.

Thankfully, there are still some people who live with no regard of the value of their property. A journalist friend writes phone numbers on her walls; as she never plans to move, why not? And for all its estate-agent friendly decor, Stella McCartney's house remains unsold. She's tried lowering the price, knocking a whopping £400,000 off the original £2.9m. But perhaps it's time to be bolder and braver, and to add some colour. She is in fashion, after all.