Why have we whitewashed outlandish interiors?

House-hunting was getting James Innes-Smith down – until he discovered an outrageously designed gem from the 1970s

For the past year-and-a-half I have been house-hunting – and, yes, it’s been horrendous. Everything is still way too expensive and way too small, but the thing I have found most depressing has been the utter blandness of other people’s tepid interiors. Trudging wearily from one boringly stripped down ‘space’ to the next my senses have been numbed-down by an ocean of muddy greige, identikit kitchen islands and poncey Poggenpohl appliances.

So imagine my delight when I recently happened upon a perfectly preserved Earl’s Court gem; an untouched time-capsule from 1971, complete with yellow and brown shag-pile, mad orange wallpaper, barmy bathroom tiles and a kitchen so full of clockwork dials and clunky levers it resembled Doctor Frankenstein’s lab. The owners, now in their 70s, had doggedly refused to bow to the insipidity of our whitewashed times. ‘In need of modernisation?’ Sod that.  These brave throwbacks from a more colourful, psychedelic age were still happily using the original dumb waiter for heaven’s sake. The sheer, unabashed exuberance of it all felt intoxicating and a world away from all those soulless Farrow and Ball show-homes clogging up estate agents’ windows.

So what has happened to interior design in the intervening years? Why did we lose our sense of individuality and our fondness for fun? Why have we become so timid in our choice of paint colour and kitchen cabinetry? And what does all this polite uniformity tell us about our sense of self? OK, I admit it; I succumbed to the think-of-the-resale-value mindset years ago, stripping my flat of all extraneous matter. Like so many city dwellers, I choose to live in a sterile, off-white box; sans colour, sans patterns, sans everything. My walls remain self-consciously bare despite an abundance of decent watercolours languishing in an upstairs cupboard. Once cherished heirlooms sit unloved in darkened drawers; anything remotely kitsch has been banished to the shelves of my local charity shop, although I doubt anyone will be rushing to buy my fluorescent yellow scatter cushions and chipped china knick-knacks any time soon.

Island life (iStock)

This bandification of property interiors is largely the fault of estate agents who, for about the last 20 years, have managed to convince nervous homeowners to forgo flair and pizzazz in favour of beige uniformity. With property now our primary asset, we consider future resale value more important than risky design choices. Painting your kitchen lime green may make you happy but it doesn’t make long-term financial sense. Those wide-boys in acrylic suits have succeeded in turning us from a nation of freethinking home-lovers to a nation of paranoid asset managers.

Unique properties filled with potential are having the life sucked out of them in the hope that some boring investor from the future won’t be too offended by our choice of curtain fabric. It’s pathetic and short-sighted. Somewhere down the line we became slaves to Fired Earth’s colourless colour charts. We’ve been duped into thinking that all bathroom tiles have to resemble those of a butcher’s shop and that floors absolutely have to be made of stripped oak. Sofas? L-shaped and charcoal grey of course. Kitchen islands meanwhile are no longer seen as an expensive folly but a vital selling point. For the past 20 years we have been out-greiging each other to the point where pattern and colour are seen as kitsch or ironic and all those little objects that used to reflect who we were; the faded watercolours and dog-eared paperbacks; the coffee-cup-stained side tables and china curios, have been laughingly dismissed as unsightly clutter.

But isn’t half the fun of owning your own home, owning your own taste? The joy of  experimentation; of letting rip in the hope that you might come up with something uniquely wonderful; a space designed for you, not some random estate agent’s photographer. Instead, we drive ourselves half-mad trying to decide between micro gradations of grey, agonising over whether an Elephant’s Breath wall will match a Slipper Satin skirting board. Is there anything more reeking of middle-class dullery and one-upmanship than those horribly whimsical sub-Jane Austen paint names – the Wevets and the Wimbornes; the Cornforths and the Ammonites. One can almost feel the anxious waft of Mrs Bennett’s crinoline as she desperately tries to impress the new neighbours. What happened to flamingo pink and lemon yellow? I loathe the way everything has to be neutral, contemporary and understated. Which is why I’ve decided to make an offer on that decidedly old-school, gloriously overstated 1970s time-piece.


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