Issue 37 November-December 1997 RSS

In Every Dream Home a Heartache


Luxury, aspiration and that early 70s moment

James Roberts: The front cover of Wallpaper‘s first issue had the headline ‘Urban Modernists’, and the photograph echoed David Hockney’s 1971 portrait of Ozzie Clark and Celia Birtwell. In retrospect it looks like something of a manifesto for the magazine. I was wondering how you saw that period, and whether there was anything in particular that you were interested in taking up again?

Tyler Brûlé: I think that moment of the early 70s, with its different kind of abandon, was a response to the far more raw, experimental 60s. What we wanted to do with Wallpaper was, in a similar way, react against the early 90s - going out, dropping a tab of ecstasy, dancing around in a muddy field, all those things. I certainly think there is a correlation between the early 70s and the present. Both periods are about optimism. We don’t want to live in a horrible bedsit, or even to be sold images of living in a horrible bedsit, in shredded clothes, with huge rings under our eyes - as we’re being force-fed by so much of the fashion media. I wanted people to look healthy, I wanted the interiors to be bright, but also to be slightly artificial as well - which in Wallpaper they are. Everything we have done had to be created with a lot of smoke and mirrors, in the same way as it was in the salons of someone like Halston.

Peter York: Having lived through the period, I can say that the change from the late 60s to the early 70s was certainly apparent. It was paralleled by the move of the Factory with Andy beginning to paint portraits of the likes of Farah Diba, the Empress of Iran, and photographers putting everything in the Georges V. As far as my friends who went to art school were concerned, those years were about luxury - either the joke of luxury or teetering on the edge of its absolute reality. The moment that Bryan Ferry appeared in our lives all this was made flesh. It was the most wonderful thing; we had waited for that dawn, and he understood it completely. (Pointing at a furniture ad in a magazine): Doesn’t that look lovely? It’s extremely interesting to think at what precise point people last thought it looked lovely. In fact, the type of things in Wallpaper sets are of no period. They come from a special twilight zone of half-remembered wonderful things, and, to me, they look like certain types of New York flats, with their marvellous kitchens, which I remember first seeing for real in the early 70s.

Tyler Brûlé: I always think that they are the kind of thing you glimpsed through the corner of your eye when your parents were dragging you onto a plane at the airport, or they were the chairs in the lobbies of Intercontinentals and Hiltons - they still are in the lobbies that haven’t been updated. It’s very important to bring them back - while they certainly have a design value, they’re also reference points that our generation understands.

James Roberts: How was the 70s International Style received in Britain?

Peter York: Badly - very literally. Things weren’t so clearly transmitted then, and the style media were rather more confused than they are now. At the centre, there was a group of creatures in London who took their reference points from New York and were starting to take some from Japan, but for the most part it was much more fragmented. It was alright for American fine art, but I’m talking about the non-fine arts. People just didn’t think Americans did it right.

Tyler Brûlé: I also feel that if you want to address the notion of luxury in late 1997, you have to realise how incredible it is that we’ve moved from a 100% cotton moment to a 100% polyester moment. The same thing happened during the transition from the 60s into the 70s. 18 months ago, would you have bought a pair of trousers that were 100% polyester? Absolutely not, but now you can hear all those women crunching around Knightsbridge in clothes made of synthetic materials.

Peter York: That’s a very tiny group of people. The reality is that, out there, people are doing a wide range of things.

Tyler Brûlé: We just had the orders for the next issue of Wallpaper, and we’ll be selling 30% more copies in America than we do in this country. While we’ll always have a decent core of readers in Britain, as a nation it will never truly embrace the Modern. I don’t think it’s part of the national character.

Peter York: There’s a lot of stuff around; you don’t want to throw it away. We’re not a very absolutist nation. It’s nice to have somebody forming an aesthetic for you as an entertainment, but, like a great many Modern art works, you wouldn’t want them in the house.

James Roberts: That is particularly British.

Peter York: It is particularly British, and I completely identify with it. But it’s lovely to see this stuff because it’s hugely evocative. It’s like watching old movies, the ones you liked the best.

James Roberts: Which ones?

Peter York: I don’t know, and that’s exactly the point - that it’s just a mish-mash of nice American movies, where you took in the whole life-as-lived thing without thinking about it. Sir Dave Puttnam says that the American movie industry was absolutely and explicitly an act of economic nose-coning, conceived to spread American business and services around the world. We were all set up for it, little English people, and thrilled beyond belief when we got there. I certainly was thrilled beyond belief, particularly by those apartments. So big. Wonderful. And just think of the full horror of British offices, the sort that would have been occupied by Terry Scott or Leonard Rossiter, as compared with the offices that you saw in American films.

James Roberts: Do you think the consumption of luxury is different this time round?

Peter York: Well there are more people doing it.

Tyler Brûlé: Because Gucci makes an ashtray now whereas they didn’t before?

Peter York: Yes, there are lots of little token ways in. The entry price to those brands is kept quite low, although it may be a very, very expensive ashtray in absolute terms. What about those funny Versace bath-mats? I was thinking it would be rather nice to buy a Versace bath-mat to give somebody as a present, I think they’d be happy. A huge number of people participate in the brand thing - people in mud huts and igloos are doing the brand thing because it’s the first thing they see on television. In Hong Kong, people who come out of shacks have spent all their money on the brand thing. One of the reasons people don’t go in for it so much here is that they spend such an enormous amount of their income on housing.

Tyler Brûlé: I’ve been living in London for eight years and I’ve seen a real change in people’s living routines. This is anecdotal research, but if you owned a house in Clapham a few years ago, you knew that you could make £15,000 by moving, so you’d move. Now you would stay and spend £15,000 on the house, because there’s no point going up the property ladder if you have no money left to actually make it into a home.

James Roberts: How long has this home-owning fetish been going on?

Peter York: Well, we always were a disproportionately owner/occupier nation, certainly in the post-war period. We’re not number one as a whole but I think amongst the larger countries we are. There’s also the feeling that bricks and mortar are a very valuable symbolic form of investment: land is grand, because there’s so little of it. I once had an American girlfriend who was left 20 acres, and I said ‘my God, how marvellous! We must go there at once and see these 20 acres - you’re set up for life’. She said ‘it’s a few rocks, it’s worth $5 an acre’. There is no magic in rough earth in other countries but there is in Britain, because very few of us have been near any rough earth for the last 170 years. I think the same sensibility has something to do with the fact that, until very recently, we’ve been quite bad at both selling and buying urban, purpose-built housing stock. There was an Edwardian magic moment when some very good middle-class mansion flats - it was always for the middle- or upper-classes - began to be developed. The moment lasted not very long, but the flats were terrific - the acme of bourgeois comfort. Now it’s started again in a rather peculiar way, and it’s very fetishised. They are all around my office in Clerkenwell. People who really should know better buy them and pay such a lot of money too, it’s quite amazing.

Tyler Brûlé: And now Regalian and Berkeley Homes are in on the act. They’re trying to do the whole Edwardian number, but the ceilings are incredibly low, the doors are all the wrong scale…

Peter York: Berkeley Homes have re-done Marathon House on Marylebone Road, which is rather a nice building. It was made as a miniature version of the Lever Building in New York, but to people like me who then didn’t know that it was an imitation, it was the loveliest thing on earth. It became unlettable because there wasn’t enough cabling, but they couldn’t knock it down because it was listed, so stepped in, made it into flats and now they’ve all sold. Must mean something. Who are these people?

Tyler Brûlé: I think they all reside in Singapore or Hong Kong.

Peter York: You may be right. The London property market is held up by overseas buyers, and of course their tastes have to be catered to: they like horizontality and no problems. They don’t really care about ceiling heights.

Tyler Brûlé: It always amazes me that local authorities protect facades but not interiors. You see fronts propped up by a steel skeleton as if it’s fine to put up any old rubbish as long as you keep a Victorian or Georgian exterior.

Peter York: You know, the first pronouncements on the 70s called it ‘the decade that taste forgot’, and I couldn’t relate to that at all. My experience was of being around a lot of people who suffered from taste to a quite paralysing extent. They were victims of taste, to a degree, and they wanted the very, very best.

Tyler Brûlé: We’re doing a retrospective of the 747, which is interesting as an aircraft that has spanned three decades, but everything that makes it a unique piece of flying architecture happened in the 70s. Air Canada had a discotheque on their Toronto to Orly flight, which was very 70s - how can people call it the decade that style forgot? It’s simply not true. Imagine getting on a plane now and dancing five hours away. It’s crazy.

James Roberts: Do you see an impending return to style?

Peter York: Oh yes, I think it’s stoking up very nicely.

James Roberts: Despite the traditional British wariness of the Modern?

Peter York: I think that, in as much as there’s acceptance of the new, it has come from restaurants; restaurants that have flat planes of colour or curved planes of colour near the bar. Restaurants are fantastically influential on young stateless persons. People who wanted a white cube suddenly find a place like ‘Avenue’ very comfortable. In the 80s, people used to take their cues from what used to be called country house hotels. In the 90s it is restaurants.

Tyler Brûlé: I think there was a whole dream sequence throughout the 70s which we lost in the 80s when people started buying into the country house style. There was a moment when every article in popular science magazines was about how we were going to live on the moon in giant plastic bubbles, and I remember sitting in our garage, thinking ‘this is incredible…’. Much of what Wallpaper does is provide a catalogue - a concept book - for living, with some intelligence to it. It’s about optimism: the fast-track to a better day. The 80s, as Peter said, were about buying into the country house lifestyle; this time around it is about getting the pass to the penthouse that you’re never really going to reach.

Peter York: I’ve just remembered a lovely 70s scene. The first time I went to the Factory, I met Bob Colacello, and I said to him ‘Tell me Mr Colacello, what would you say is the philosophy of Interview magazine’, and he said ‘We don’t have a philosophy, we believe in money and beauty’, and you could see he was irritated at me asking this question in case I should mean it. But he quite meant it, and it was a very defiant, early 70s thing to say.

Tyler Brûlé: For me, the Mary Tyler Moore Show epitomises the quintessential philosophy of the 70s. Mary was a determined young woman working in a newsroom as a very junior producer - if it was a sitcom on ABC now, she’d be running the network - but she had this great little bijou apartment in Minneapolis with all of her products and Pier 1 imports. There was a fantastic sense of a real lifestyle; perhaps it was the first time that we were really sold a lifestyle. There was a seamless quality in the way she swung her macramé bag as she went to the office, or tossed her hat up in the air in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, that I don’t think we ever saw before.

Peter York: I much admired her and she made such a lot of money; though she suffered. She suffered and she made a lot of money - the perfect 70s person.

Peter York, James Roberts and Tyler Brûlé

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First published in
Issue 37, November-December 1997

by Peter York, James Roberts and Tyler Brûlé

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