When it comes to house renovations, we like to think we’re improving on the past. Let’s not forget that our houses’ previous owners thought exactly the same, says interior designer and writer Clare Nash
CLARE NASH’S BEAUTIFUL WEST LONDON KITCHEN, COMPLETE WITH FIDDLE-LEAF FIG AND CRITTAL-STYLE DOORS. IMAGE: MICHAEL SINCLAIR
House renovating wasn’t a thing until the 1960s. Sure, people decorated but really, they just lived in their houses. The walls were where the builder had built them and pretty much non-negotiable. The kitchen was where you might imagine a kitchen would be. You cooked in it. You didn’t consider it a ‘lifestyle choice’.
Let’s face it – in the decades before the ’60s people were more focussed on, you know, staying alive and out of the way of dropping bombs. Or on feeding their families with a few rashers of bacon, some uninspiring vegetables and a loaf of bread. I’m pretty sure home improvements featured nowhere on that somewhat more pressing to-do list.
Each decade and each generation rues the mistakes made by the previous one. ‘What aesthetically barren fools that lot were,’ we murmur dismissively.”
‘Re-modelling’ as our American friends call it is, by definition, carried out by those who have ticked the critical boxes and now have a little time and money on their hands. It is a pastime for the privileged. DIY is your actual first-world problem. (And no one loathes the use of that appalling expression more than me).
But by the mid ’60s (which is when ‘the sixties’ really started, as everyone knows) and literally everyone was wearing a Biba mini skirt and going out with Terence Stamp, those fusty old Victorian terraces and those acres of identikit post-war avenues were all looking, well, fusty. Not groovy at all. And so began the first era of home renovations on a mass scale.
CLARE MIXES ANTIQUE AND VINTAGE PIECES IN HER SCHEMES TO ADD PERSONALITY AND COLOUR TO HER MONOCHROME KITCHEN. IMAGE: MICHAEL SINCLAIR
Dreadful old Victorian fireplaces with their obsolescent laying-the-fire-for-heat function (hey, we have radiators now!) were pulled out and smashed up. Twee cornicing and architrave hacked down with glee. Victorian pine wardrobes in bedroom alcoves knocked out and replaced with shiny white ‘n’ mirrored beauties from the new world. Swirly Artex replaced the absurdly old-fashioned Anagylpta wallpaper of yore. A shiny new world deserved shiny new houses and the Victorian housing stock in which so many of us live, housed the ghosts of decades past, eras now being erased from memory.
By the early ’70s when my parents were doing up our Victorian house, the large ‘live-in kitchen’ was fast gaining ground on the separate dining room, seen increasingly as a relic of times past, fit only for a more formal way of life which, increasingly, no one lived. The big kitchen with its dresser groaning with Habitat chicken bricks and terracotta bowls picked up in French markets was all the go. But the fireplaces in our house had been pulled out in the previous decade and it didn’t occur to my parents to go and find a ‘reclaimed’ one and reinstate it – such things occurred to no one.
And so, each decade and each generation rues the mistakes made by the previous one. “What aesthetically barren fools that lot were,” we murmur dismissively. But I wonder what the next generation will think of us. We assume we are the era of doing it right. Finally. We are drowning in a sea of images and advice and inspiration.
THE SITTING ROOM AT CLARE NASH’S HOME. IMAGE: MICHAEL SINCLAIR
So we all* knock down our walls and build a shiny glass box at the back of our terraced houses, with vast glass doors which “open up completely!” Like we live in California and are constantly nipping out for a dip in the pool or to pluck a lemon from the tree. Not Basingstoke, where it is (conservatively) grey and damp for two thirds of the year.
Inside/out living is the dernier cri of contemporary living arrangements. Even if, last summer notwithstanding, this marks a glorious triumph of hope over experience. (Can we all agree never again to speak of the garden as ‘another room’? Would that be okay?)
Look, I’m not laughing at you here, I’m laughing at me. I’m describing my house. If it happens to be yours too, then my point is made.”
Side returns exist now only to be extended into. Attics to be converted. Most Victorian houses now have enough Velux windows to win a glass war with a Kew greenhouse. Our houses are light-filled, knocked-through… and all the same.
Something has crept up on us and reached its apotheosis now, in the second decade of the 21st century. All* our houses look the same – Critall doors: check. Side extension: check. Ridded of all the sodding internal walls and with enough steel installed to hold up your local multi-storey car park: check. Filled with Berber rugs, mid-century furniture, an ‘eclectic’ mix of new and old, a gallery wall made up chiefly of typographical prints and a couple of oversized fiddle-leaf figs: check check check check check check check. Look, I’m not laughing at you here, I’m laughing at me. I’m describing my house. If it happens to be yours too, then my point is made.
CLARE USES PLANTS, BOOKS AND GLASSWARE TO ADD COLOUR TO HER HOME. IMAGES: MICHAEL SINCLAIR
The really interesting slash worrying thing though is that (and this is definitely unique to this decade) this homogenisation of our taste and our houses is now international. Where once-upon-a-more-original-time houses in Madrid and Beijing and Austin and Copenhagen and Cape Town all looked and felt distinctly different, now they are likely to look alarmingly similar. International luxe. International good taste.
Gone are the quirks and idiosyncrasies, the fit for purposeness – climate, lifestyle, indigenous architecture, local materials and culture, and just local ideas of taste goddammit – of individual cites and countries. Now, a quick flick through Vogue Living or Elle Deco from any old whichway country, and it all looks the same. All gloriously elegant, of course. But all the same.
I worry a lot (well, not as much as I worry about child poverty or the existential crisis we face because we buy SO MUCH STUFF – another time – but nevertheless a lot) that our generation will be looked back on as the one which made every single house in the world look the same. And that might just be a greater crime than ripping out a fireplace.
CLARE’S BEDROOM. IMAGE: MICHAEL SINCLAIR
*MASSIVE CAVEAT. I know that almost no one lives like this. I am not tone deaf. This is a pumped up hyperbole to make a point. But, given that you are reading this, the chances of this chiming with you, however slightly, are a lot higher than average.
Clare Nash is an interior designer for commercial and residential projects. You can read Clare’s opinion piece for The Home Page on why we should love our perfectly imperfect homes here.