Sunday 18 August 2019

Katie Byrne: 'Are you an arbiter of good taste or just an unashamed snob?'

Modern Life

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had a ‘taste’ epiphany. Photo: Julien Behal
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen had a ‘taste’ epiphany. Photo: Julien Behal
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

They say there's no accounting for taste but as common an adage as that may be, it transpires that not everyone agrees with the sentiment.

Take Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, the interior designer who spent the better part of the 90s dressed as a glam rock D'Artagnan. In a recent newspaper interview, Llewelyn-Bowen said he once believed that taste was either good or bad. But after that disastrous Changing Rooms episode - the one where he turned a 300-year-old house in Hull into an ostentatious Queen Anne-style manor - he began to see the grey area. "It was the moment in my life when I realised there's no such thing as good taste - or bad taste," he said. "It's 'your taste' and 'my taste', and I had to accept that."

It's rather surprising that a man who wears electric purple suits with no sense of irony didn't arrive at this realisation some years earlier. But still, the question remains: is taste subjective, as the foppish interior designer has come to believe, or is it in fact a hierarchy, with good taste at the top and bad taste at the bottom?

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Even the most open-minded person will admit to having ideas about what constitutes bad taste. Maybe they cringe when they see Crocs or Uggs or seven-inch white patent platforms. Maybe they wince when they see an avocado bathroom suite, a red sports car, a gold iPhone - or anything that involves chintz, kitsch or glitz.

Good taste, on the other hand, is much harder to define. Maybe it's the apotheosis of elegance, restraint and sophistication. Maybe it's the recognition of harmony through the golden ratio of beauty and proportion. Or maybe it's just an elitist facade - after all, the pursuit of good taste tends to be reserved for the chattering classes. It's easy to equate good taste with aesthetic appreciation, but things become a little sticky when we consider its hallmarks. Arbiters of good taste often talk about quality and provenance, which of course can be prohibitively expensive for the working class.

Others argue that good taste can be cultivated, but it's worth remembering that not everyone can afford to expand their palate with tasting menus or expand their mind with gallery visits.

In the same interview, Llewelyn-Bowen talked about the importance of being "individualistic" and not "hiding behind the beige".

Granted, not everyone will appreciate the interior designer's individualist streak (did I mention that he commissioned portraits of Hull homeowners in the likeness of Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys?) but on this point he's spot-on. The beige - as he brilliantly puts it - can become the bastion of the good taste brigade.

Too consumed with the notion of propriety, they avoid, at all costs, anything that might rustle the neighbours. Too afraid to take risks, they stick with the time-tested classics.

The trouble, however, is that taste is mercurial. So while the people who pride themselves on having exceedingly good taste end up collecting antiques and wearing heritage brands - "classic never goes out of style!" - the rest of us come to realise that yesterday's bad choices can become today's good choices.

Take, for instance, leopard print. There was a time when it was the epitome of bad taste. Now it's considered a wardrobe staple for any woman with even a passing interest in fashion.

Likewise, yesterday's good taste can become today's bad taste. The minimalist interiors trend of the 90s - think all-white walls and spartan furnishings - now looks gaudy when compared to the Scandi styling of today's homes.

So what is it then that we're really saying when we compliment people on their good taste? Are we recognising their eye for beauty or are we acknowledging the subtle status-signals that are conveyed through quality design?

Are we admiring their à la mode choices or, in other cases, their point-blank refusal to engage with the vicissitudes of fashion?

Or are we just admiring the reflection of our own tastes in another? After all, when we tell someone that they have good taste, we are, in essence, telling them that their taste is to our taste. As Llewelyn-Bowen puts it, "good taste" is just another way of saying "my taste".

And not recognising that is very bad taste indeed.

Irish Independent

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