There’s no place

For Hugh Pearman’s latest consumer report he takes a trip to Homebase. What design treasures will he be able to dig up for the DIY enthusiast?

Nobody has ever accused me of being a DIYer, though I am quietly proud of the fact that I can, just, replace a window sash cord. It’s not much, I know. I can attach a plug to the end of a wire, too, but this is of little use since everything that needs one now comes with a plug ready-fixed.

I do possess a Black and Decker electric drill with hammer action, though it’s got more power than I can easily handle. I have a passing acquaintance with various paintbrushes, and am not entirely a stranger to a collection of assorted screwdrivers, spanners and things with blades. I have stripped paint and nailed boards and patched plaster. I even helped my architect to affix devilishly heavy horizontal sheets of Pilkington’s Planar glass to the back of my house. Impressed?

Don’t be. Somehow, I missed out on a vital bit of DIY genetic coding. My father, an RAF engine fitter turned telecommunications boffin, could make a bed out of an old wardrobe in an afternoon. He built fences, he laid drains, he made useful electric things out of junk.

I’ve inherited none of this capability. When I went to buy a replacement for a cracked washbasin recently, I stood open-mouthed as the man in the builder’s merchant told me it was a doddle to fix it myself. The hell it was. I got a plumber in, as all right-thinking people should.

The cleverness of Homebase, to get to the point, is that it caters both for people like me – clumsy, but averagely competent in practical matters, let’s say – and for the people on either side of me. On one side are the people who can not only install their own washbasins, but who actively enjoy doing so. And on the other side, people who come in to buy a barbecue and a white plastic garden chair.

Barbecues. What’s the point of them, unless you’re Australian? Homebase is a worrying place for the barbecue agnostic, since it caters for legions of barbie-believers. Then again, take lawns. It is hard to believe just how much stuff on sale in Homebase is to do solely with the maintenance of flat areas of grass. Barbecues and lawns mean only one thing: suburbia.

Homebase, always to be found on the edges of towns, sells the hardware of suburbia. It simultaneously offers more macho builders’ stuff (like bags of cement), and Laura Ashley wallpaper. It is perhaps because of this suburban dichotomy that I ventured into the Bounds Green Homebase with trepidation. That, and fact that there were just too many Shoguns and Landcruisers in its car park.

It would be easy to fill a list of well-designed things in Homebase with hand-tools and vernacular accoutrements alone. A hammer and a nail. There. It’s too easy, but I chose just one of this kind – a square wooden mallet, surely a pre-medieval design. To balance that, I picked out a relatively modern hybrid tool: the Stanley Surform – a plane which works like a cheese grater, A bit of Fifties technology that always seemed clever to me. I chose one with nice ergonomic-looking yellow plastic handles.

I did brave the barbecue section, but it’s all such rubbish. As far as I can tell, the best barbecues, if you’re that way inclined, are usually the ones you make yourself out of old bricks and oven racks.

The outdoor furniture section was equally disappointing – all that bendy soft plastic, and those curious square open tent things that people are meant to sit under. There was one circular three-legged steel “bistro table”, finished in gunmetal grey, that looked OK, even if it was a crude copy of better-made better-designed objects.

The disturbingly extensive lawn section offered more. Now, I can get into gadgetry, particularly when the gadgets have little motors attached. Safety regulations, sadly, mean the old-fashioned petrol cylinder mowers – once among the most satisfying of functionalist machines – are now so shrouded in various plastic guards as to have lost their character completely. But Black and Decker has produced a neat little rechargeable electric mower, the Accu-cordless, which makes a positive virtue out of its flimsy plastic mouldings. The curse of the electric mower has always been that vulnerable and unstowable cable: doing without it would be a great leap forward. It says it can cut a bit more than the area of a tennis court before the battery runs down, so that would cover most town gardens.

Black and Decker gets my vote for other rechargeable tools, too. Namely the Versapak cordless range, which looks better than the Bosch equivalent. I like the “multi-purpose tool” because of its smallness and its lack of a pretentious name. It allegedly does everything, whatever “everything” means in this context.

There is also get a multi-piece Versapak set with bigger, more dedicated, tools. The small cordless drills are much favoured by car thieves (they make short work of door locks) so just think what it could do for you. And remember to don your Vitrex safety specs when using them – great things, made wholly of transparent polycarbonate, which even fit over the wearer’s regular glasses.

When it comes to gardening, I like to call a spade a spade. I’m never convinced by funny-shaped new garden tools that claim to be easy to use. The fact that they never stay in production long proves my case, I think. So I skipped the tools and instead picked the Zag Move’n’Groove. This Israeli-made product is a little plastic box on wheels, in the universally recognised gardening colours of green, grey and yellow, with a lift-up seat lid to stow things under. Presumably it’s for mildly infirm gardeners to sit on as they weed and trowel, but it looks to me like a great thing for children.

Out of a vast range of water-dispensing bits and pieces, my favourite is Hozelok’s little flat hose cassette. The fabric hose winds up flat, to save space, like a fireman’s does. The catch is that you have to unwind it all before it works © properly, but I think it’s worth the trouble.

There is no need to look very hard here to find plenty to put into the “worst design” category. How about Friedland’s 833E Harmony door-chime, which plays 25 different tunes in sequence, from the William Tell Overture to the Battle Hymn of the Republic? Or Homebase’s own Victoriana shower cabinet, which looks as if it is framed in gilded celery? Or even their extraordinarily awful Lion’s Mask fake stone fountain? It looks like a baroque urinal, and claims an “authentic finish” despite clearly being plastic.

It was a hard choice, but all these things could possibly be used ironically, even successfully, by certain designers and architects.

I challenge any of them, however, to make a style statement out of one of the Holts Fruits of the Forest in-car air fresheners. These offensive and useless objects are little wooden fruit-shaped dangly things impregnated with chemical smells of strawberry, vanilla and pine. Someone sat down and designed them. That someone may even be a Design Week reader, though I sincerely hope not.

And so to the best. I was tempted by the American Mag-Lite range of torches, with their aircraft aluminium construction and spot-to-flood focusing device. Like Swiss Army penknives (which are also to be found in Homebase) they are classic objects. But, in the end,

I plumped for a straightforward galvanised metal bucket. It costs about five times as much as a basic plastic bucket and is far heavier and noisier. But who cares? It looks 20 times better, and could not possibly be improved.

The best

1 Galvanised metal bucket, 30cm, 12.99. Why pay more at the Conran Shop?

Almost the best

2 Mag-Lite aluminium focusable torch range, 9.99-27.99. As approved by NYPD.

The good

3 Square wooden mallet, 5.99. These were old-fashioned even when Westminster Abbey was built.

The good

4 Stanley Surform metal planer file, 11.99. A rare example of an improvement on a vernacular hand tool.

5 Black and Decker Versapak VP 940 KA multi-purpose cordless tool, 49.99. Great for breaking into other people’s Landcruisers.

6 Hozelock 12.5m compact flat hose cassette, 24.99. Fire brigade principle applied to the suburban garden.

The good

7 The Accu-Cordless GRC 730 rotary mower by Black and Decker, 194.99. No more sliced-cord misery.

8 Zag Move’n’Groove wheeled seat/tool box, 12.99. Garden fun for oldies and children alike.

9 Vitrex polycarbonate safety specs, 3.99. For that rocket-scientist look.

So bad they’re good

Friedland 833E

Harmony doorchime. Plays 25 tunes. Over and over and over again. No photo can do it justice.

8 Homebase Victoriana shower cabinet, 209 for door, 179 for side panel. The apotheosis of flimsy bathroom kitsch.

9 Homebase Lion’s Mask recirculating fountain, 89.99. Looks and sounds just like a urinal. Why not try it out in the shop?

The worst

10 Holts Fruits of the Forest wooden in-car air fresheners, 1.99 each. Look frightful, smell worse. Has the world gone mad?

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