The people’s gin palace

The Ideal Home Show provides a shopping fest the for tastefully challenged. Matthew Valentine goes to London’s Earls Court to soak up the atmosphere

The Daily Mail Ideal Home Show at Earls Court will provide a depressing vista for the average Design Week reader. Notoriously, even defiantly, unfashionable, it is bursting at the seams with leatherette furniture, “Dunroamin” wall plaques and floral dinner services. It’s as if Habitat never happened.

Exhibition visitors who have been to Habitat, or even adventurously popped into a Conran Shop, are likely to find themselves offended by what the Daily Mail considers ideal for the home. Unless, that is, they view the entire exhibition in more post-modern terms, concentrating on the amusing nature of some of the truly nasty furniture on display.

Luckily this state of mind can easily be achieved. The most direct route to it is via the Gordon’s Gin stand on the first floor. Sample-sized glasses are handed out free, and you can get a refreshing double gin and tonic for 1. For an extra 50p you can keep the souvenir glass. A fiver spent wisely here will make a tour of the bowel-clenchingly tasteless exhibition almost bearable. In a peculiar omission this Gordon’s oasis is not listed on the exhibition guide. It is just around the corner from the Jack Daniel’s merchandising post, not far from the neon sign of Singer sewing machines.

Visitors unwilling to resort to alcohol abuse to enjoy the show will still benefit from the geographical advice, which is always useful when visiting the Ideal Home Exhibition, or indeed any exhibition at Earls Court. The huge size of the venue – the exhibition covers around 6 hectares – and the general lack of right-angled corners make navigation difficult. The signage doesn’t help. Trying to find the Nigel Coates-designed Oyster House without the 3 showguide proved impossible.

This may be intentional. The captive audience at the show is fleeced for every penny. A small cappuccino costs 1.40 and the cheapest sandwiches were around 3. Charity scratchcards are on sale too, if you’re still feeling flush.

The Oyster House – it’s in the back right-hand corner – promises to be the highlight of the exhibition. It looks impressive from the outside, with clear ground floor walls and copper-plated roof. What the inside is like, I have no idea. After waiting for an hour I was refused entry on the grounds that television crews were filming.

The suspicion that the cameramen were being imprisoned, to prevent them filming the patterned chairs and leather sofas offending the senses throughout the rest of Earls Court, was reinforced. Many television crews went into the Oyster House, but I didn’t see any come out.

Recently, BBC2 screened a Modern Times programme about London flats with minimalist interiors. One coveted Battersea apartment, sold when children made it impractical to live in, was turned into a chintzy boudoir by its new owner. The general audience reaction, one of cringing, may explain a reluctance to let TV crews roam freely. With even politicians finally acknowledging the role of design, and Cool Britannia firmly established, it seems ironic that what should be a showcase for the best domestic design looks like the furniture pages of an Argos catalogue.

The argument in defence of the show’s style – that it shows what people really want – is, of course, a strong, if depressing, one. Sure enough, people queue to get into the showhouses, with their fake Tudor or Edwardian facades and conservatories or pergolas. But, surely, most visitors would at least like the chance to see something a little more contemporary than onyx statuettes and metal-framed, glass-top coffee tables.

One positive aspect of the exhibition is its use as a barometer of what audiences will pay to see. Specifically, if people will pay to see 6 hectares of tired furniture they should be easily be impressed by the Millennium Dome at Greenwich, whatever eventually goes in it.

The Ideal Home Show runs until 13 April at Earls Court One, Earls Court, London SW5

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