Without bad taste there would be no good taste, so thank God we don’t all like the same thing. The current fashion for shiny fabrics in variations of beige and caramel ‘offset’ by Swarovski-covered ottomans and plasma screens seems to have infected so many expensive central London homes one sees listed today. This look was born out of the mid-Noughties boom times and gallingly survived the recession. New flats in Bloomsbury are being decked out like a young Gaddafi’s Cannes shag pad.
What I like least about interiors of this sort is that they are totally impersonal and reflect not the character of the occupant but a ‘lifestyle’ in which one can immerse oneself, leaving one’s true self behind. Rarely do these apartments contain art, and if they do it’s never any good. There might be one or two Taschen coffee-table books arranged sensitively next to a scented candle — again a nod to a lifestyle which is all style and no life: a statement of wealth and success subliminally suggesting a magpie’s love of glitter and an illiterate’s taste in books with pretty pictures.
The film director John Waters once said, ‘If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!’ I think there can be exceptions to this rule, but it’s true that a home with no books or pictures in it is spooky precisely because of their absence.
My friend is listing his apartment in a mansion block overlooking Hyde Park. To see it is to covet it. It’s hung with great art from different periods imaginatively juxtaposed. He has too many books and, unlike many of his new neighbours, has even read some of them. His apartment is perfect, in that it is an embodiment of his cultural and aesthetic interests, and his sofas are comfortable. When he invited an estate agent over with a view to listing it, he was told that it would be described as ‘unmodernised’. Perhaps this is the new code for somewhere you might actually want to live.
Having never owned my own place, I’ve never really understood the fetish for paint swatches, particularly the nearly 50 shades of grey from Farrow & Ball. My painterly friends spend hours looking at how the light falls on ‘elephant’s breath’ or ‘lamp room grey’, forever doubting their decisions. No doubt I too will one day become a paint bore, dreaming of greys and the peculiar, lovely but absurd, poetry of the names of colours.
The wall tint of a house, its flooring, its lighting and the fabrics that accent it are simply the backdrop to home life. Together, they form the set on which the play of domesticity takes place; they are not themselves the play. My flat is full of objects — from Roman glass to stuffed marsupials — and I find it hard to identify with those legitimate minimalists who have only a wispy connection with material things. All these objects are an extension of my personality, a sort of multi-dimensional self-portrait.
The look of the moment as described above is best termed maximal minimalism. It can be thought of as a portrait of someone who doesn’t exist and who if they did exist you wouldn’t want to meet. These are rooms bereft of humanising clutter but without the zen-like elegance of a white-walled and concrete-floored John Pawson or Tadao Ando-designed home.
When, as happens very occasionally, someone asks me to give them advice on buying art or furniture, I ask them what they like. To impose your own taste on someone else is to deprive them of the fun of beginning a collection. I would never force abstraction on a stockbroking friend who secretly wants watercolours of grouse.
‘Buy what you love’ is the best advice one can give because it empowers the other person. In extreme cases I’d add a caveat: ‘Buy what you love, unless what you love is total crap.’ At a dinner party I sat next to a man who’d just bought some paintings by Rolf Harris ‘as an investment’. Well, regardless of anything else he is alleged to be, Harris is a terrible artist. I regret not being more honest with the buyer. Harris’s paintings are now the art world equivalent of Kryptonite and make even the market for Damien Hirst’s work seem buoyant.
The message here is that if you do decide to invest in art — which can be hugely rewarding in very many ways — ask advice and do lots of looking before you commit to a painting, sculpture, or performance piece.
Some people regard taste, particularly good taste, as a triviality. Given how personal it is and how it’s informed by every-thing we’ve ever seen and liked and everything our parents ever saw and liked, I don’t think it’s trivial at all. If we allow our taste to be truly ours, and we develop and refine it, then it is a profound and public expression of our personality. For if there’s anything worse than bad taste (we all like things that others don’t), it is no taste at all. That is what we must resist.