Accounting for no taste

Why do we pretend to like things that are clearly outdated or tasteless? Hugh Pearman wishes we could see things clearly, without a distorted, ironic filter

Kitsch. Schlocky. Tasteless. Visually illiterate. Uneducated. Beyond the pale. Not one of us. Vulgar. Common. Coarse. Debased. Trashy. Ornament-loving. Wrongly clothed. Ill-shod. Inappropriately opinionated. So last century. So last week. So yesterday. And I’m, like, what is THAT all about?

What it’s mostly NOT about is, I suppose, Italian restaurants. In such places, trad versus trendy normally means vulgar versus tasteful. Which usually also means cheap versus expensive. With the ambience of Italian restaurants, you pay more for less, and most for nothing. You pay not to have the fishing nets hanging from the ceiling, the badly-painted views of Sorrento, the tiled roof over the bar, the rustic plaster finish, the lamps made of Chianti bottles in straw baskets, the plinky-plunky music.

But you also know I must have a deeper purpose than to discuss the satisfyingly womb-like nature of the old-fashioned Italian restaurant. We are all Postmodern ironists, we know it’s OK to like that stuff. The restaurant trade is about themes, and the interior design of the British restaurants of the Italian diaspora is one of the earliest and most successful examples of such theming. Substitute ‘Indian’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘French bistro’ for ‘Italian’. The point is the same. Strange that millions eat in such places without even thinking about them, and without having to engage their irony overdrives at all.

But we sophisticates, we’re grown up. We know, for instance, that no American diner, except in the more remote parts of the US, is real. No more than a Harley-Davidson is a real motorbike. Yes, you can eat in one and ride the other, one is indeed a restaurant and the other a two-wheeled powered vehicle. But beyond that, both are essentially exercises in film-derived nostalgia, ranging from The Sting to Easy Rider. In the US, which is so strongly aware of its own popular heritage, you do find yourself wondering: do the drivers of all those antique-look yellow school buses see themselves as upholders of tradition, as stewards of classic vehicles? Or do they just see themselves as bus drivers, because that’s what American school buses are like, and they know of no other sort? If they saw a sleek 21st century airsprung European express coach, would they run shrieking that the Martians had landed?

Sadly not. They scorn such hi-tech vehicles. Only in America can boilerplate technology, such as the yellow school bus or Harley-Davidson, somehow be made to seem patriotic. In London we have some ancient red buses left with conductors and open platforms on the back, but only because – despite being dangerous, and useless for the disabled – we haven’t yet worked out how to improve on the fluid dynamics of that design for stop-start city-centre routes. On the other hand, when Concorde became unreliable and uneconomic, we stopped flying it. Nostalgia is no good without willing paying customers. But this column is not about nostalgia, or good ol’ vehicles, or the introverted American psyche. I mention Italian restaurant syndrome only because it is the happy opposite of the snob values laid out in the first paragraph. An exception to the iron rule of the world of taste. The iron rule being there is indubitably such a thing as good and bad taste. Brave souls like Wayne Hemingway or architects ranging from Piers Gough to Fat or some social historians might successfully challenge this assumption, but only because they are regarded fondly – by most in the design world – as licensed fools. They are taken to have a twinkle in their eye. They’re assumed to know what good taste is, in order to dabble so fruitfully with bad taste. Of course, they would most likely contest this as a false dichotomy. They have variously nuanced positions. They are certainly not like Prince Charles visiting a council flat, cooing over the patterned wallpaper and pottery ornaments, all the while wearing an expression of agonised disdain.

Wouldn’t it be nice if things weren’t like this? If we in the design world weren’t so self-conscious? If we could design a coal-effect electric fire and not stop to think about it being naff? If flying ducks on the wall were nothing more than a symbol of escape from poverty? If there was no value difference between Knoll and Parker Knoll apart from ergonomics? If we could all just relax a little, trust a bit more to instinct, and not worry about what associations we conjure up? Yes, it would be nice. And no, it will not happen. But I still can’t think of a wholly convincing reason why not. Except to admit I’m as ruled by notions of good taste as anyone else. I just resent it, slightly.

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