A toast to mediocrity

Signature designers will always demand a premium price tag, but to be really successful your work needs to be good and ordinary.

Berry Bros and Rudd, wine merchant of St James, is so long established – over 300 years in the same place – that it is by common consent the oldest vintner in Britain. Moreover, it’s still a family firm – seven various members of the Berry and Rudd families still run the business. Which is thoroughly 21st century, by the way. Despite its picturesquely ancient premises conveniently close to London’s clubs and St James’s Palace, it consistently wins awards as the best on-line wine retailer.

I used to frequent Berry’s. Indeed, I feel that in another life – the life of an unattached, private-income type with no need to do anything much to get by, probably living in the nearby set of Georgian chambers, Albany – St James’s would be my patch. Handmade shoes from Lobb or Trickers, hats from Lock and Co, shirts and suits from Jermyn Street, tea at Fortnum’s, fine cheeses from Paxton and Whitfield (est. 1797), various splendid restaurants and, of course, Charles Barry’s wonderful Reform Club. True, the district’s excellent Modernist department store, Simpsons, closed a few years back. Then again, it became a huge bookshop. So most of the essentials of life, as well made as they can be, are all there within a few hundred yards.

You’ll probably be pleased to know that I don’t live that life. No, I’m a slightly worn-at-the-edges family man who inhabits the media village of Crouch End. Though I do have three pairs of now venerable bespoke shoes from Trickers, two very tattered hats from Lock’s, a couple of Jermyn Street shirts with fraying collars, and various wines from Berry Bros and Rudd getting old in my cellar. Having teenage children, I can’t afford indulgences like these any more. But that doesn’t matter. The only reason I brought any of this up is because of the name of one of Berry’s own-label wines: Good Ordinary Claret.

Berry’s is touchingly proud of this cheap, non-vintage blend, and so it should be. Because, despite all the dizzyingly famous and stratospherically expensive names on its encyclopaedic lists, this £5 bottle is what it sells most of. The name is the point. Because the pursuit of the Good Ordinary is without doubt the noblest activity that any designer or maker can attempt.

And it’s hard, because – moving from oenology to design – Good Ordinary generally means anonymity. In product design, it’s something people buy because it does a useful job, looks OK, doesn’t break immediately and doesn’t break the bank either. Fools buy the cheapest example of a product, or the most expensive, on the basis of a label, but Good Ordinary is classless. Good Ordinary is John Lewis.

Classless? Certainly. It’s exemplified by the chatelaine of Chatsworth, ‘Debo’ Devonshire – last of the celebrated Mitford Sisters – writing that she buys most of her clothes at agricultural shows, because they’re better made than the pricey offerings of Bond Street. So says Debo the dowager duchess. I wouldn’t know, but I believe her.

William Morris, John Ruskin and their various fellow-travellers all believed in Good Ordinary. Arts and Crafts was meant to be all about that: good taste, fine craftsmanship, without pretension, available to all. They didn’t quite manage it. Maybe Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea, or Sir Terence Conran got the idea of Good Ordinary rather better than those 19th century idealists. Presumably because they were prepared to embrace machine production in a way the Arts and Crafts folk weren’t. Thus, Robin Day became the personification of Good Ordinary with that famous, ubiquitous polypropylene chair. Priestman Goode achieves Good Ordinariness with its Virgin trains, Seymour Powell with its toasters and kettles. A thousand unknown designers do it all the time with fridges and washing machines.

So if Good Ordinary is the noblest aspiration of a designer – and anonymous design, working in the background, the ideal – where does this leave the pricier signature designers, from Jasper Morrison to Marc Newson? Do they still suffer the William Morris problem of unintended exclusivity? I think they do.

But I’m a sucker for it. If I had the money I’d buy Morrison every time. Just as I’d go for the bespoke shoes again if I could raise the mortgage. And let me admit now that I never buy Berry’s Good Ordinary Claret, much as I like the name. This is because of a simple fact of life governing all consumer items. Above Good Ordinary, and below Stupidly Expensive, you get Slightly Better. It’s not much of a manifesto phrase, to be sure. But it is terribly tempting.

Please e-mail comments for publication in the Letters section to lyndark@centaur.co.uk

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