Quick! Roll up the Persian carpet. Hide the willow-pattern service. Sweep the wok and chopsticks under the Berber rug. Mr and Mx Virtue-Signaller from number 12 are on their way over for tea. How woke is your house? If your impeccably enlightened neighbour ran a finger along the mantelpiece, would you pass the cultural-appropriation test?
First it was yoga classes. Then fancy dress. Don’t go near a costume shop until you’ve consulted one of many online guides advising party-goers ‘how not to dress like an offensive idiot’. Tread carefully with turbans, kimonos, cheongsams, saris, bindis and Native American headdresses. Dare to wear a sombrero? On your own head be it. We’ve had cultural storms in imported teapots over sushi, bánh mì, jerk chicken and Marks & Spencer’s sweet potato biryani wrap.
Now it’s our living rooms. The website Apartment Therapy has published an article asking us to face up to ‘a harsh truth: in design, cultural appropriation is happening on a widespread scale. And pretty much all of us are culpable.’
I’m guilty as hell. Sake cups, hammam towels, mock-Moroccan bathroom tiles… the sake cups are OK, apparently, because we bought them from a handicrafts shop in Tokyo. The tiles are doubtful, if not downright reprehensible, because they came from a depot in Leicester.
It’s all rather tricky. Following the principles of feng shui is acceptable, but according to one associate professor of contemporary hand-wringing: ‘Filling your space with random Buddha statues, silk fans and a qipao is a complete disconnection from feng shui. Unless you are rooted in Chinese cultural heritage or are a practising Buddhist, the aesthetics of the space will not match or contextually make sense.’
The article is noticeably silent on more troublesome items — African masks, ceremonial spears, artefacts used in prayer and religious ritual — which might actually cause offence, while condemning such soft targets as pineapples: ‘Anyone trying to incorporate another culture should ask themselves some big questions when, say, adding that Hawaiian pineapple into a design.’
Why not go the whole hog — sorry, the whole tofu sausage — and ban images of any fruit or foliage not native to the British Isles? So, no tropical prints — bananas, palm leaves, bamboo — and no novelty ice buckets in the shape of watermelons or coconuts. I once interviewed a designer who printed her wallpaper patterns using the cut side of a potato. Well, that’s definitely dodgy. Potatoes are plunder from the New World. Repatriate the potato!
The article doesn’t mention, but perhaps it goes without saying, that animalia is out. No zebra-skin rugs, no leopard-print sofas, no taxidermy, no hunting trophies. No antlers, tusks, peacock feathers or elephant-foot umbrella stands. Definitely no still-life paintings of gamey carnage. No novelty needle-point cushions of foxes in hunting jackets. No fishing flies in glass-fronted cases. No leather-topped desks. No woollen throws or sheepskin mats.
The wool thing is strange. A recent article in a Sunday supplement about ‘the vegan home’ squirmed over the ethics of wool and cashmere. I’ve seen sheep sheared. Off they pop, a little chilly and abashed, as if they’ve just had their trousers pulled down in the playground, but otherwise unharmed.
Beware, too, the bear-traps of fabric and pattern: ikats, batiks, kilims, paisleys and, if you’re doing up a home south of Hadrian’s Wall, tartans. Avoid exotica and think twice before you tiki the kitchen. Do not ‘shop the world’. I am reminded of the (less than diplomatic) Foreign Office joke that you can tell a woman’s first posting by her crockery and a man’s first posting by his wife.
What then would the inspirational, yet indigenous, great British interior look like? Walls by William Morris, fabrics by Cath Kidston. Staffordshire spaniels on the windowsill, Emma Bridgewater mugs on the dresser, framed Tottering-by-Gently cartoons in the downstairs loo. A pinboard pastiche of Merrie England? Not so fast. The person who splutters over a pineapple will wince at Jubilee biscuit tins (monarchist) and Union Jack tea cosies (nationalist, imperialist). All a bit, you know, Brexit-y. To be on the safe side, paint it all greige and hang your hair-shirt as an objet d’art.
We talk of having a tin ear. What about a tin eye? Once you start chucking out the culturally inappropriate chintz, where do you stop? Burn the Brighton Pavilion! Board up the Chinese pagoda at Kew! Raze the Guildhall to the ground! The history of British art and architecture is one of unrepentant plunder: Chinoiserie, Japonisme, Nile Style, Greek Revival, Regency Rajasthani, Ruskinian Romanesque.
I am reaching the limits of my liberal guilt. The other day, when the Today programme discussed the decision of Goldsmiths, University of London, to ban beef from campus, I was frying pancetta to start a bolognese. For the rest of the day I was wretched. Every month I feel more and more like a monster for the way I eat, shop, dress and travel.
My new strategy is this: better belligerence than letting the buggers get you down. When Harry and Meghan announced they were having no more than two children for the sake of the planet, I told my husband: ‘Right, that’s it, we’re having four.’ The first thing I did after reading the ‘When a rug isn’t just a rug: the hidden context behind popular home decor’ article was to Google pineapple door-knockers. (My husband is keener on the knocker plan.)
Call for unity, call for diversity, call for inclusivity, courtesy, kindness, consideration and better conversations. But leave us alone in our homes and keep your judgmental hands off my Japanese tea bowls.
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