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Ikea to Lulu via John Lewis: The short shelf life of interior design at No 10

Rowan Moore
·5-min read

The Wallfashion Bureau, a group representing the British wallpaper industry, declared itself insulted. Derry Irvine, the first of Tony Blair’s lord chancellors, had defended the expenditure of £59,000 on handmade wallpaper on the grounds that “you are talking about quality materials which are capable of lasting for 60 or 70 years. You are not talking about something down at the DIY store that might collapse after a year or so.”

“As an industry,” riposted the bureau’s Terry Langstroth, “we produce top quality products which can cost a fraction of the price he is paying.”

This was in 1998, but the memories of Irvine’s wallpaper, part of a £650,000 makeover of his official apartment in the House of Lords, have since haunted the body politic. It makes modest by comparison the £200,000 that Carrie Symonds is reportedly spending on the flat she shares with Boris Johnson in Downing Street. Not that the prime minister will see it that way: his problem is that the Johnson-Symonds family budget is due to take most of the hit. Irvine’s interiors were funded by the taxpayer.

So he has apparently floated the idea of setting up a charity, whereby friendly donors can get him out of the financial hole created by the home improvements. It seems to be vaguely modelled on the White House Historical Association, a privately funded not-for-profit organisation set up by Jackie Kennedy in 1961, whose mission is to “protect, preserve, and provide public access to the rich history of America’s Executive Mansion”. It usually spends about $1m to $2m per year on renovating the White House.

As with so many Johnson wheezes, his idea stinks. There is the potential for blatant conflicts of interest – who is to believe, in a world where there are no free lunches, that there will be no quid pro quo for whoever subsidises what unnamed “friends” call Symonds’ “exquisite taste … classic, stunning, stylish and chic”? Or, as Johnson is said to have put it, her “totally out of control” expenditure.

Carrie Symonds’ expenditure is ‘totally out of control’, Boris Johnson has quipped.
Carrie Symonds’ expenditure is ‘totally out of control’, Boris Johnson has quipped. Photograph: Victoria Jones/AFP/Getty Images

It would also be a stretch to justify the expenditure on heritage grounds, as Irvine did. He could claim that only wallpaper of this specification would respect the architectural masterpiece in which it was hung, the Palace of Westminster. Melania Trump could justify for similar reasons the $300,000 renewal of the crimson Scalamandré silk walls in the White House’s Red Room. But there’s no evidence that the Symonds suite, even though it is said to have been “inspired” by the “celebrity eco-designer” Lulu Lytle, will make a comparable contribution to design history.

The nation, in the form of some suitably deferential publication, has yet to be invited into the new-look home of Boris, Carrie and little Wilfred, so it is hard to compare their furniture with the chartreuse-yellow sofa on which Samantha Cameron was pictured chatting to Michelle Obama, or the stolid grey item on which Gordon Brown used to perch. We know little more than that it will be different from the “John Lewis” taste of the former occupants Theresa and Philip May.

Otherwise we have to rely on some speculative articles on the inspirational Lytle. She likes to “mix old-fashioned glamour with bold, modern colours”, according to the Evening Standard. Above all, she likes rattan, a material the article mentions by name 12 times – she is indeed “the saviour of British rattan”. There’ll be no equivalent of Irvine’s offence to the wallpaper industry, then, rattan-wise.

It will probably turn out to be a notch more striking than the interiors of previous incumbents. This isn’t saying much, as prime ministers and their spouses always have to teeter agonisingly between upholding the dignity of their office and looking something like ordinary people who don’t get to spend dollops of taxpayers’ money on their homes. Those Cameron interiors, for example, combined a moderately high-end kitchen and an Arco lamp – a design classic from 1962 – with Ikea cabinets and plain shelves stacked with DVDs.

The question of the ministerial lodging occupies the tricky border territory between their private and their public personas. Margaret Thatcher was reluctant to let her chancellor Geoffrey Howe replace the “antediluvian” kitchen in 11 Downing Street, even though she would later have the classicist architect Quinlan Terry remodel the more ceremonial spaces of No 10 with ornamental plasterwork in the style of Inigo Jones. The difference between the two might have been a reflection of her increasing grandiosity, but also of a distinction between the personal world of Howe’s kitchen and the official sphere of the Terry salons.

Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron in the private residence at Downing Street during the US president’s state visit in 2011.
Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron in the private residence at Downing Street during the US president’s state visit in 2011. Photograph: REUTERS

There are, in fact, sane arrangements for dealing with these issues: prime ministers get to spend £30,000 of public money on their official lodging, after which they have to fund improvements themselves, as the Camerons did. The question has only become problematic due to the expense of Symonds’ rattan-tastic taste combined with the damage done to Johnson’s finances by his divorce and his loss of a lucrative newspaper column, together with his consequent attempt to raise cash with a blatantly self-serving knock-off of Jackie Kennedy’s invention.

All of this will be bemusing and amusing to the Erdogans and Putins who might one day be entertained at Downing Street, who think nothing of spending much greater amounts on their lavish water-side palaces. Britain can be grateful that our leaders are not at their level yet. But Johnson’s bogus charity is a step in their direction.