Here’s an irony. One of the things that messes up my domestic life is all the design, interiors and architecture magazines that I keep buying to help me make my home nicer and tidier. They are a weakness. So at Christmas I came to a brutal decision: a cull was in order. Not a simple box-up and chuck-out routine, mind. No, I determined to go through every one and remove the pages showing homes that inspired me, furniture that I’d like to have and columns that deliver sage advice. So far, a couple of hundred magazines have had vital pages tugged from their gluey spines. I know, it’s a tough world.
This is all taking a lot of time. For one, I don’t want to miss anything. I also regularly find myself reading an article from, say, 2009 about some Madrid apartment that’s probably had several makeovers since it was shot for the story in front of me. Also, all of this wrinkle-free perfection is a little exhausting and unsettling – and fake. You can only take so much sugar in one go.
You see, you can read hundreds of these design stories and they all concoct the same fantasy. The owner appointed a daring architect who saw the project through to perfect fruition. Myriad craftspeople and tradesfolk then appeared on the doorstep to deliver sumptuous curtains, rare items of mid-century modern furniture and pot after pot of Farrow & Ball paint.
It’s likely that what actually happened is that everyone’s egos got dented, costs overshot, the builder resigned (or went bust), the curtains were made in the wrong fabrics, compromises had to be made and then made again and, finally, something emerged from the dustsheets that was great but definitely in need of a few tweaks. In all of the features I have scanned, however, nothing ever goes wrong. And, judging from all the crisp white walls, once finally completed, the owners have never once banged a suitcase on the skirting boards or had a resident child with a desire to be regarded as a great muralist.
The relationship between client, architect and builder is often fraught. For the client this is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and thus packed with all the emotions that come with making a home (and burning through your life savings). The builder needs to make money but also have a sense of satisfaction in what they get to do (and often feels that neither client nor architect understands them). And the architect really wants to be doing something more interesting than your extension.
Plus, and I mean this in a kind way, architects are a funny bunch: nice to have dinner with but I’m not sure you’d want one in your house. They are obsessive, always right (although often not) and care more about shadow gaps than they do their children (although clients actually love them for this).
I have my eye on a little project in the distant future. Hence the page-tearing. But, oddly, these perfectly poised residences and happy-clappy stories put you off. You know that it has to be more demanding than a quick phone call to that nice architect you met at a party once.
Even the world of TV makeover shows and building programmes are to be taken with a pinch of concrete. They all follow the same arc. Step one: meet the clever owners with a daring plan. Two: watch as a terrible problem arises. Three: oops, they’ve spent too much money. Four (the big reveal): what a surprise – it’s all just amazing (even though it’s actually only half-finished and the owners look ashen).
I have a feeling that these tensions have always existed (the pharaohs probably couldn’t believe the time it took to whack up the pyramids and no doubt forgot that the bill didn’t include the sales tax). And they probably always will. But perhaps it’s the job of the journalist and TV presenter to tell a better story: in short, this is all going to be worth it in the end – but we guarantee that it will hurt at times and you might cry a little.