The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace

Interiors: we all make little worlds for ourselves

I’ve spent fourteen years teaching interior design, and they’ve been fourteen years of big change. I can still remember the first day – I walked into a studio to find four girls sitting around with paint swatches. I listened in: they were choosing colours to paint their nails. ‘Inferior Design’ they called it – the camp, trivial icing on the much more serious and weighty cake of architecture.

Then, like most people, I reacted by buying into the prejudice, somewhat: ‘It’s not just cushions and curtains, you know’, I’d say. It was the time of minimalism – of concrete beds and steel kitchens, and designers will bullet-like shaven heads and black polo necks like proper continental intellectuals. Inferior Design rebranded itself as Interior Architecture, to run with the big boys.

It was a time – all too easy to forget – in which Brits discovered ‘design’, which generally meant something scandiwegian and uncomfortable, or, perhaps, humourous, colourful, and anthromorphic. It was a revolution of sorts: finally, in the early years of the twentieth century, Britain moved to the place where everyone else had been at the Bauhaus in the early 1920’s.

But all the time, while I was learning about interiors, and teaching people about them, even as I refused to hang a curtain in any window of mine, or scatter a cushion, I would go and visit my grandmother, in her little house, hidden among the rhododrendrons and golf courses of London’s outer ring.

‘Design’ her sitting room was not. Granny had disapproved of Modernism the first time round, and she wasn’t about to embrace it now. In fact, it was everything I was teaching my students not to do – an arbitrary confection of cushions and curtains, décor, antiques, chintz, occasional tables, and all the rest of it.

It was comfortable, and, with a gin and tonic in hand, relaxing –  the antidote, or so I thought, to my researches and teaching into design – but scratch the surface, listen to my grandmother talk, and, bit by bit, I became aware that the décor of her sitting room was anything but arbitrary or trivial. It was certainly design, albeit design carried by one formally untutored, in a different age.

And then I started looking at the sitting rooms of her friends, which all, I realised, shared the same arrangements of mantelpiece and card table, cabinet and sofa, and the  more I examined them, I realised that these little traditions of décor encoded behaviours as strange and ritualised as the courts of Byzantium, or Versailles. Being middle-class and English myself, I was just too close to it all to see it.

Now, when I teach people about interiors, I ask them to tell me about theirs, rather than just telling them about great ‘design’. It has unearthed wonderful discoveries: the Yorkshire schoolteacher who found herself, waltzing, alone, in a ballroom in a Russian palace, and tragic ones, like the Cumbrian schoolteacher who made the perfect country kitchen with her husband, only for him to die in it once it was complete.

They were all, curiously, stories about loss and disappearance – the country kitchen, the Russian ballroom, the concrete beds of the hip loft apartment, and, of course my grandmother’s sitting room. Made of nothing more substantial than paint, paper, and textile, they don’t last like buildings, or even as long as the furniture that contains them.

Interiors can, and do. They might be made of cushions and curtains, and they may not correspond to the latest dictates of taste and fashion from Milan or London Design week; but they are where we all make little worlds for ourselves, and where we tell stories of our lives, as quickly as they change, and pass.

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