On elitism

by Barendina Smedley

Back in my student days, I once loaned a dog-eared copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada to a flatmate. There are plenty of criticisms one could throw at this book — it’s overwritten, self-indulgent, whimsical in places and also goes on about itself too much, although this was probably precisely why I loved it so much in adolescence. My flatmate, though, came back with a criticism I hadn’t anticipated. ‘It’s too elitist’ she complained.

I would never have thought about it in those terms. Ada was, is, a book about aristocrats, but then it was self-evidently building on a literary tradition that was almost exclusively preoccupied with aristocrats. But perhaps that was not all that my flatmate meant? Ada is also full of long words, a few of them marginally obscure. It is laced with in-jokes that require a passing grasp not only of European history and literature, but probably also Nabokov’s own Speak, Memory.

But even this wasn’t the problem. When I investigated, it turned out that my flatmate’s complaint was that the main characters think they are better than everyone else, which of course is entirely correct. What I couldn’t understand then, and still don’t understand now, is why, for my flatmate, this made Ada an unreadable novel.

It’s questionable whether Nabokov entirely admires his narrator’s arrogance, snobbery, elitism — call it what you will — but at any rate, the same qualities are there in pretty much everything Nabokov ever wrote, so at very least, if there’s implicit criticism there, it’s an elaborate, public yet typically indirect form of self-criticism. For me, anyway, when I was in that familiar predicament of being a teenager whom no one understood, wallowing in fantasies of exile and secret exciting identities, Nabokov and his assumed voices were my fondest companions.

Did I ever grow out of it? Not entirely. At heart, I think most of us are elitists. Nabokov was a critic as well as a novelist, and the critical voice is often playfully present in his works of fiction. Some things are simply better than others, and it is useful, entertaining, perhaps even occasionally important to point these differences out. Of course, the critical voice can also be intensely annoying, often missing the actual point. At his best, I think Nabokov would argue that kindness, sympathy, human decency all trump critical brilliance — indeed, that’s the truth behind most of his best books.

What, though, does any of this have to do with home renovation and interior decorating?

Let us leave aside the unarguable facts that Nabokov was good at describing interiors, that his Speak, Memory and Ada are both in part elegiac evocations of beautiful old Russian houses, whilst Lolita and Pale Fire both show a critical receptiveness to the very different, now equally unrecoverable domestic spaces he encountered in the mid twentieth century USA.

No, the point is that the whole business of making our homes attractive has something intrinsically elitist about it. Which is to say, it really does involve things that not everyone can offer: critical judgement, attention to detail, common sense, independence of mind, stubbornness, imagination, hard work, good luck and of course money.

One might argue that money matters most, at least where praise from the wider world is concerned. Looking at all the interior design-related books on my shelf — and there must be getting on for a hundred now — I can honestly say that only half a dozen deal in any way with what one might call an ‘ordinary’ house, in the statistical sense of a house similar to those in which most British people lived at the time in question. Every single one of those half dozen, by the way, is an historical account of some sort. So it is that I could show you a photo — Olive Cook, English Cottage and Farmhouses, in case you were wondering, so the photo is by Edwin Smith, no less — showing the interior of a labourer’s cottage. And I could half-bury you armfuls of ‘real house’ magazine profiles wherein a former labourer’s cottage is ‘done up’ as the ‘fun’, ‘quirky’ weekend retreat of some glossy young architect and his wife who just happens to work in design PR.

What I could not show you, in contrast, is a single design magazine or coffee-table book featuring contemporary low-income, working class interiors, portrayed not as ‘inspiration’ or nostalgia, but as places that can be made more or less attractive in their own right. World of Interiors, it seems, does not ‘do’ council houses.

It is worth considering why this should be the case. I suppose some might object that a young single mother of multiple offspring, living on benefits, has more to worry about than whether her sofa and her curtains really ‘go’, let alone whether the season’s trend for tartan or toile de jouy has anything to say to her — and it’s certainly true that addressing these problems would not be the best use of her limited funds. But at the same time, surely there’s something rather patronising about all this? And surely it makes life too easy for the professional designers?

There are at very least ironies in the fact that all those articles about distressed finishes, making the most of limited space and ‘upcycling’ things found in skips are universally addressed to relatively wealthy people, intent on improving their relatively expensive homes. There’s a level at which beautifying one’s living space signifies a fruitful avenue of self-expression, care for one’s family and friends, perhaps even self-respect per se. True, not everyone cares about such things, at any economic level of society. But surely those who do care exist at every level of socio-economic achievement. So to that extent at least, the economic elitism of the design world is sadly and badly misplaced.

One can see how it happens. Most interior design books are spun out of the purest fantasy. I revere my collection of Chatsworth picture books none the less for their failure to provide useful information about the potential of any house I am ever likely actually to own — nor, I think, do go on to emulate those houses much loved by Wallpaper*, all soaring glass and open space, with nowhere to hide a mug of coffee or a dimple of cellulite. Which of us could really live like that? Not many, certainly. Fantasy always tends towards elitism. What’s the point of dreaming about a world no better than our own?

But then interior design magazines are largely predicated on the need to sell advertising, too. This week’s copy of Country Life features a rather lovely house, furnished with items from a shop that happens to be owned by the people who live in the shop in question — and who have taken out a full-page advertisement inside the back cover of the relevant issue. Not that there’s anything wrong with this — it’s why these glossy confections can be sold to us so cheaply — but all the same, it explains another facet of design elitism, as it is only the people who might conceivably buy a £500 lamp who really count.

And yet one needn’t go very far to see that wealth can’t buy taste, at least not reliably. One of the less creditable pleasures of those ‘real houses’ spreads lies in discovering the boundless wrongness of other people’s decorative schemes, some of them very expensive indeed. Whether it’s the cliché oligarch rejoicing in a full-length swimming pool, complete with ersatz classical ruins, located in one of the four large basement levels of his London house (houses built on clay are too damp anyway — they need an Aga in the basement, not extra water) or those people who cramp tranquil Georgian rectories with rapidly-aging 1990s BritArt that might as well be displayed with the price-tags still attached, having money doesn’t always help. So there’s another kind of elitism functioning here — the ability of mildly haggard full-time mothers, day-dreaming over their magazines on the upper deck of a No. 19 bus, to out-think the super-rich, their architects and interior designers. This gives everyone involved a boost, and does little harm to anyone, as people whose houses appear in magazines cannot, surely, fail to assume that their sense of style is universally admired.

All of which brings us to the most alarming form of design elitism out there — good taste. Does it exist? Obviously so. There’s a set of long-standing conventions for what works in an interior, in both practical and aesthetic terms, which can and should be learned by anyone who takes these things seriously — and certainly before flouting such conventions.

But then there is also fashion, which muddies the waters. I have in my collection books, often called things like Classic Rooms, which sing the praises of heavily-swagged curtains, avocado bathroom suites and John Fowler-style matched fabrics — and also more recent books, strangely also called things like Classic Rooms, insisting on simple pencil-pleat curtains hung from exposed rings, freestanding bathtubs in ‘heritage colours’ and neutral yet wilfully unmatched upholstery. The truth is that either of these styles, or any other, can be executed well or badly, and the genius lies in doing the former rather than the latter. A good John Fowler interior will still look much better, even now, than an up-to-date room put together without equivalent flair.

I wrote ‘better’ just a moment ago, but of course not everyone would agree with me. We are all, for better or worse, creatures of our age and upbringing. I picked the John Fowler example because in my formative years, he presided over the decorative universe I inhabited, hence becoming the father-figure against whom all Freudian rebellions were necessarily pitched. For someone who grew up a few decades later, however, or in a distant place, the field of combat doubtless looks very different.

It is not hard to find anecdotal instances of this. People who have grown up in genuine poverty — for instance, in the grimmer corners of pre-1989 Eastern Europe — sometimes struggle to see that old ‘brown’ furniture, distressed finishes and dark paint schemes could ever be in any way desirable. They place a value on newness, brightness and obvious flashy expenditure that, once understood for the hard-won thing it is, deserves respect if not agreement. For some people, clutter is about security, whereas for others it may recall long-ago airless, charmless rooms they were only too happy to leave — or conversely, may get in the way of another hard-won lesson, this one about the need to travel light, in material as well as emotional terms, if only because loss can be so painful.

And thus we come back to Nabokov, whom the vicissitudes of twentieth century history had seen domiciled not only in elegant St Petersburg palaces and rambling country houses, but also, during his long exile, in pokey little flats up flights of stairs, austere student digs, newly-built American suburbs and finally Ivy League offices that looked back to an imagined Old World. The elitism, I think, survived undamaged through all the moves, tempered — as I have suggested above — by the increasing realisation that kindness matters more than all the rest.

There may be a useful lesson to take away here. The little nests we make for ourselves and for our families — even, I suppose, the nests we commission high-powered design teams to create for us — are very personal things. They speak not just to some objective standard of aesthetic taste, or even to our ability (financial or otherwise) to make things happen in the world, but to a whole catalogue of dreams, memories and losses, the complexity of which we rarely understand ourselves. And that, more than anything else, is a reason to go gently when we talk about other people’s rooms, other people’s lives — to remember that we are, or ought to be, sympathetic human beings first, members of the aesthetically-enlightened elite second, if at all.