On decorating magazines

by Barendina Smedley

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris?
Nescio. Sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

No one has ever captured the experience of buying British mainstream decorating magazines more perfectly than Catullus’ elegant little couplet.

Why do we buy them? I don’t really know either. The one thing we can be clear about is that no one really buys them in order to solve actual decorating problems.

Like all the best fantasies, the world of decorating magazines is governed by clear rules, is marvellously consistent and has very little whatsoever to do with real life. Here, after all, is a world where ‘trends’ apply to the sort of furniture that costs thousands of pounds. How often do you ever hear anyone say ‘I bought my kingfisher-blue sofa from Heals this summer, and I thought I liked it, but now it seems that the autumn trend is for mulberry-and-gunmetal, so I had better buy a new sofa instead?’

For most of us, fixing the collapsing curtain-rail over the shower room window would probably be enough of an achievement — which is why good decorating magazines are far too tactful to remind us of such mundane details. No, it’s always ‘why not update your kitchen with this quirky rattan-and-patinated-bronze chandelier?’ There’s plenty to think about there, but nothing about which to feel remotely guilty, except perhaps having bought the relevant magazine in the first place.

The features on other peoples’ houses are shaken up into a distinctly naughty cocktail of voyeurism, class snobbery and magic realism. For one thing, the rooms are always impeccably tidy. Not for the mainstream decorating magazine the archaic freedom of An Englishman’s Room, wherein Derek Hill, for instance, was allowed not only piles of books and papers, but some actual dust.

No, the world of magazines is a world in which the beds, garnished with a dozen little lace-trimmed pillows, never need to be made up again, where the tables are constantly laid for feasts that will somehow never exact their terrible price epic feats of washing up. These are houses where no child leaves Lego on the stairs, no husband returns from work only to strew random possessions on every available surface, and where cats curl up companionably on sofas but never, ever moult anywhere. These are, in other words, the houses of dreams.

All of which makes sense, for to a certain sort of woman, there is literally nothing more satisfying than the dream of a house which, having once been cleaned, stays clean, world without end, Amen. What do women really want? Well, a lot of things, obviously, rather like men do — but for me, anyway, never having to tidy again would be very, very high on the list.

Decorating magazines are not created equal. The aristocracy includes World of Interiors and, for those who like that sort of thing, Wallpaper*. These are magazines that review art monographs, advertise bathtubs that cost more than many people’s five-bedroom detached houses, and run ‘inspiration’ features shot in Mussolini’s abandoned Eritrean airfields or the more recherché Tibetan monasteries. These are the decorating, sorry, ‘design’ magazines one doesn’t have to feel shamed about buying, the ones that can be left on the kitchen table even when someone might call. Men even buy them. And whatever recipes they include are mostly ironic. These are, or aspire to be, serious magazines.

Then at the other end of the spectrum are the really demotic offerings, to be found in supermarket displays next to the crossword puzzle books and the People’s Friend. Cheap chocolates are usually on sale nearby too. This latter point is not incidental, for the low-end decorating magazines are, in effect, cheap chocolate in printed, calorie-free if sometimes deeply saccharine form. They are cheap, self-indulgent treats for overworked women whom no one else, let’s face it, is ever going to indulge. Everything they print is a reassurance, from those impeccable yet unintimidating domestic spaces, to the spreads of glossy improbable food and affordable trinkets.

What such magazines don’t show is, of course, important too. It is quite rare, for instance, to see actual people in them. For one thing, we don’t really want to see other people inhabiting our own fantasy spaces, do we? And for another thing, if people appeared, we would need to compare ourselves to them. Am I too old to create a feature wall as splashy as that? Am I too fat to make an artless arrangement of sweet peas in a glass in the middle of my farmhouse kitchen table? Children and the spaces occupied by them virtually never turn up, because for lots of women, children are instant signifiers of anxiety, worry and guilt.

Spread out between these poles of aspiration are all the rest of the decorating magazines, of which there are a great number. Some try a bit harder than others. Most are put together with considerable professionalism and skill. All, however, thrive on convention, routine, repetition.

A dear friend of mine, when she was working as a freelance journalist, was once rung up by a magazine for which she’d done quite a lot of writing in the past. Will you please do us a piece on X, asked the editor? My friend said she’d be glad to — it wasn’t exactly the demanding subject, and she needed the money — but felt honour-bound to remind the editor that she’d done a piece on precisely the same subject for the same magazine a year before. ‘Well yes,’ interrupted the editor impatiently, ‘it was a very good piece, which is why we want you to do it again.’

Thus it is that we have the seasonal articles, which astound us with revelations about how warm fires and tartan rugs are nice in the autumn, whilst airy spaces festooned with chintz bunting are pretty in the summer. We have the how-to-do-it pieces, patiently talking us through the practicalities of making jam or decorating an Easter egg. There’s usually an advertising-led piece about the selection of woodburners, bathroom taps or bedsteads — conveniently flanked by advertisements for, you guessed it, woodburners, bathroom taps and bedsteads.

Once in a blue moon, such information will be useful, but very often any utility is merely an incidental by-product of the design process. One might spot, for instance, some peculiarly handsome curtains in the background of a story, and decide to try for something similar. Of course, if one is that way inclined, one might also spot relevant photos of curtains in pretty much any other visual representation of a decorated space. Interviews with retired diplomats are particularly rich fodder, by the way. But it really doesn’t matter, because I don’t think anyone has ever actually bought a decorating magazine in the hope of obtaining advice on curtains. The rationale is much more likely to be ‘I’ve had a long, thankless, unrewarding day and I deserve some sort of compensation for it.’ Curtains, if they happen, are purely a bonus.

To the extent that actual decorating advice emerges from these magazines, it is — as all good advice must be — basic, unselfconscious and doctrinaire. In recent years, much of it could be summed up thus: paint everything in neutral shades, distress some of it and Bob’s your uncle. This is occasionally amplified with a bit of theory: lighting can evoke moods, facilitate tasks, emphasise details. And some of the advice is, again, advertising-led: buying new things, like cushions or throws, is a good way of making a space look slightly different. But then the advice most people need most of the time is, in fact, quite basic, whatever Pippa Middleton’s critics may imply to the contrary.

I should emphasise, once again, that quite a lot of hard work and skill goes into creating these magazines. At the higher end of the product range, the photography is often nothing short of stunning. There’s real art involved in converting what must start out as actual human spaces, chock-full of oddities and flaws, into the stuff of collective dreams. There’s professionalism needed to draw together the haphazard, compromised, contingent experience of a real renovation into a narrative as tidy and satisfying as the photographs that accompany it. Toughest of all must be the knack of adhering to the via media, never allowing oneself the little luxuries of elitism or irony, in order to hold onto the largest readership possible — although coming up with new ‘trends’, month in and month out, is surely no picnic either.

Home decorating magazines are, without doubt, a very successful con. It occasionally occurs to me, preparing to help an armful of old copies ‘achieve their potential’ by placing them in the recycling bin, that I could really just save them, forget about them, and then give these same issues back to myself in a few years’ time, at which point they would once again provide as much innocuous yet mildly guilty pleasure as they had before.

But in truth, I know that I’ll just end up buying the new issues anyway. The day will come when the lure of ‘time for tasty tea-cakes’, ‘50 great ideas for decorative paint finishes’ or, most seductive of all, ‘real heart-warming homes’ will simply be too much for me, and I shall give in, thus cluttering my already book-strewn, dusty, cat-infested house with yet more untidy possessions. Odi et amo. But I can’t, alas, stop buying.