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From the outside it looked like a normal suburban home. Yet the interior of this Californian house gave away something of its inhabitants, Ike and Tina Turner. The TV was in a fake ivory cabinet in the shape of a whale. The coffee table was the shape of a guitar and, on the wall, above a redundant fireplace, was a metallic sunburst with a hole where a clock should have been. A bright blue couch featured an arm which turned into a tentacle to wrap around the sitter. In 1970, when record company executive Bob Krasnow walked in, he said: “You mean you actually can spend $70,000 at Woolworths?”
It is easy to mock the excesses of the newly rich. And it always has been — it is a mechanism of the establishment to maintain its exclusivity. But who defines good taste? As Arnold Bennett said: “Good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” The photos of Donald Trump’s $100m New York penthouse provoked more than a few sniggers. The gold! The chandeliers! The ceiling fresco! The chairs like thrones! The lion? Trump’s version is Versailles, with the chief executive on the Sun King’s golden throne. The view of Manhattan replaces the gardens, but the idea of view conferring ownership is retained.
Trump’s interior reminds us of what the alcoholic, low-life, barfly writer Charles Bukowski said: “Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste.” Trump’s whole empire is based on the bad taste of pseudo-luxury. So are we perhaps missing the point? Is excess potentially the root of success? Is it us, living in our tasteful, white-walled, minimally furnished pads with curated coffee tables who are missing a trick?
It was a point made to me when I was shown around the latest work of oligarchitecture, a dull-looking north London house that was being gold-plated, marble-lined and stucco-plastered into a sparkling horror show. One of the craftsmen told me that if it wasn’t for jobs like this, his trade would have long died out. The stately homes belonging to down-at-heel aristos and the sparse conservation work for cash-starved organisations such as heritage bodies and the Church (in other words, the one-time Establishment) don’t pay the wages any more; instead, they reap the benefits (or rather the crumbs off the tables) of cash-rich, taste-poor plutocrats. This supplemented another revelation I had in the distant past when working as an architect.
My client was a wealthy Arab and we went shopping for fittings. I took him to a shop for tasteful bathroom fittings and he delightedly alighted on a gold-plated swan bath tap. I tried to guide him to the pseudo-industrial fittings (he’d already rejected the hospital elbow taps I usually specified with a wave of the hand) but he’d been mesmerised by what looked like a table centrepiece for the wedding of a dictator’s daughter. Then I stopped myself. If he liked it, why shouldn’t he have it? He bought the taps. I became a writer.
Interiors are, whether we like it or not, about consumption. And why not? We acquire money in order to acquire a better lifestyle and if that lifestyle is expressed through a torrent of kitsch, so what? At least it is kept on the inside.
Minimalism though is no more virtuous. It is just as much about consumption as maximalism, if not more. Any pleb can fill a mobile home with gold and velvet from Woolworths, Argos or Target. Minimalism is more difficult, and more expensive. The appearance of simplicity is the extreme artifice. Recessed light switches, flush-fitting cupboards and shadow gaps are the language of an elite expressed through the consumption of expensive construction rather than decoration. It is a code — I have money and I have expressed it through something that looks simple. It is the contemporary equivalent of inherited furniture, which cannot be so easily acquired as new stuff, it relies on taste rather than just wealth. That old notion of shabby chic, establishment aesthetics, has also hung around. Many of the newer super-luxury interiors attempt to situate themselves somewhere between stately home and gentlemen’s club, with dark panelled walls and upholstered furniture. Yet this too is a look that depends on a certain patina, so the result is almost invariably closer to an airport branch of Ralph Lauren.
And there has now emerged a global mash-up of all the typologies of ostentation. Contained within the shell of a glass-walled skyscraper, essentially modelled on a corporate tower, you get minimalist dark panelling concealing flush cabinetry, halogen downlights contrasted with the occasional statement chandelier (a Dale Chihuly, perhaps?) and a few modernist floor lamps. You have plush grey carpets and furniture that look vaguely mid-century or perhaps a bit Bali boutique hotel. The telly — that symbol of proletarian excess — is now hidden away, mechanically rising from a cabinet or the foot of a bed. The best things are hidden away and luxury is expressed through their apparent absence. Instead, ostentation can be expressed through space.
When real estate is insanely expensive it is the proliferation of unnecessary rooms which mark out the super-rich. Sure there are dressing rooms and saunas, an insane amount of bathrooms (how clean or incontinent can they be?) industrial-looking kitchens — the size of flats — in which no cooking will ever be done (the real kitchen, used by staff, is separate and dreary). But there are also gift-wrapping rooms, libraries full of books which have been curated by specialist suppliers and will never be read by occupants whose actual reading might only stretch to spreadsheets and an occasional paperback thriller. You can argue that the penthouses and mansions of the mega-rich are displacing the city’s former inhabitants and crushing its diversity. You can argue that in their emptiness of globe-trotting residents they are contributing to killing the soul of the city centre. But you can never argue they have bad taste. Without that excess, without the weird extremes of maximalism, the perverse effort of minimalism and the global-luxe interior, whole industries, crafts and ecosystems of galleries, gilders, carvers and ceiling-fresco painters would disappear. You can disdain where their money came from but the world would be a poorer place without that primal urge to show off.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
Illustration by Daniel Long