Illustration by Dan Mitchell

Goodbye to all that stuff

We used to love filling our homes with possessions. Now, less is more — indeed, it’s everything

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

When did “stuff” become a dirty word? There was a time — not too long ago, though seemingly now on another planet — when owning stuff was all we aspired to, and the more the better. How we used to sniggeringly pity the impoverished student in his chilly and horrible digs with just that Che Guevara poster, a guitar and the Baby Belling to his name.

And if we inhabited a bedsit, incarcerated by dingy magnolia walls, drooping net curtains, cracked and curling linoleum flooring, the trusty Ascot water heater and a pea-green candlewick bedspread, we might at least console ourselves with the burning determination that one day we would be the proud possessors of all that our elders and betters had always flaunted: a house or flat of our own, oh yes by all means — but one that was crammed with all the stuff that was seen to be essential to a respectable middle-class existence. A grand piano was always seen to be a lovesome presence in a room, regardless of whether or not a member of the household could actually play the thing. Fitted carpets were virtually de rigueur (swirling and faintly bilious Axminster, if you could run to it) as were heavy curtains, preferably replete with pelmets, swags and tie-backs.

Then there arrived for the dining table a gilded chariot especially designed to contain a box of After Eight mints

No one could seriously be expected to manage without a three-piece suite (bonus points for either a riotous chintz, or else uncut moquette and copious fringing), nor a large television set, its sheer vulgarity to be concealed within a reproduction Regency commode. Also highly desirable was a lit-up glass-fronted cabinet, alive with Royal Doulton figurines such as a flower girl, a balloon seller, a newspaper vendor or some other variation on the picturesque and destitute peasant.

The coffee table was quite essential — not for coffee cups, but for the display of the sorts of books that would encourage outsiders to think well of you: reading them was entirely optional, though generally to be resisted. And that is before we got on to all the labour-saving white goods in our gleaming kitchens with built-in Formica units. Upstairs was the kidney-shaped dressing table in the “master” bedroom, alongside an en suite bathroom with its spanking white grouting, the actual bath and basin said to be the colour of avocado, a fruit that no one had ever eaten, nor even heard of. The correct car in the garage, but of course, and ideally one that bore the cipher GT in chromium letters on the boot (and who could actually care what GT might stand for? It just had to be there).

This was an era when wedding presents were of prime importance. Everyone could reel off the typical list by heart: leading them all was the silver-plated toast rack — always affordable and practically entirely useless (the perfect gift, therefore): the bride and groom could generally be assured of receiving no fewer than a dozen. The heavy wooden canteen of cutlery and a dauntingly vast dinner service, this to include quite bewildering arcana such as gravy boats, and even a tureen.

G-Plan furniture was king —  Clean lines and hard edges became the order of the day

All of this would be sure of making an appearance only when the happy couple could no longer defer having round for supper the very people who had loaded them down with such cumbersome lumber. The gifts that were seen to be the most desirable (if only from the point of view of the donor) were exclusively aspirational — gimcrack versions of grandness glimpsed in Hollywood spectaculars or stately homes, largely along the lines of heavy cut glass, an onyx table-lighter or a candelabrum. Then there arrived for the dining table a gilded chariot especially designed to contain a box of After Eight mints: sophistication had reached its acme. All of this was fairly soon seen to be the nonsense it was, but the desire and even need for new and status-enhancing stuff was perfectly understandable: the war was not that long over with, and many had lost even the few possessions they had had. That war also served to knock on the door of the class system, if not to break it down, with the result that people’s eyes had been opened to possibilities: they now wanted and expected that much more than their forebears, seeing acquisition and active consumerism as a mark of advancement.

During this time — the late 1950s — “contemporary” furniture had, like a gaudy Jezebel, splayed wide its slim and tapered brass-ferruled legs right in front of our eager eyes, and rather suddenly a brand new aesthetic was in town. G-Plan furniture was king — and if you couldn’t afford it, there were plenty of knock-offs around. Clean lines and hard edges became the order of the day — central heating obviating the traditional hearth (a room’s new focal point being the ubiquitous gogglebox in the corner) and encouraging the growth of newly trendy indoor hothouse plants.

But although all the fustiness was fading and the dynamic had become that much more youthful (Terence Conran’s Habitat very much upping the ante), still the appetite for stuff remained as voracious as ever it was: just different stuff, that’s all.

In the light of this, to zoom forward to the present day, the merest glance at current attitudes is really rather telling. In any magazine feature on interior design, you will see the very same 1950s and 1960s furniture and accessories: it is as if the intervening half-century and more has never even happened. Originals of these pieces — especially if by one of the idolised names such as Eames, Saarinen, Bertoia, Panton and quite a few more — fetch untold thousands at auction, while Georgian and Victorian furniture (rudely dismissed as “brown”) is snubbed for the banished pariah it has become.

It is in passing amusing to note that all the reliable indicators of poverty have been turned on their head

The appeal to the young of “mid-century modern”, as it is called, is, I think, two-fold. First, there seems to be a blanket ignorance of the fact that all of this stuff was originally designed many decades before they were even born: with their customary vanity and self-entitlement, they imagine it to be new, vital, fresh as a bleeding daisy and created just for them. The other factor is its very spindly sparseness — for these days (ostensibly, at least) less is not just more, it is everything.

I understand that it is difficult to convince the young of the merits of capitalism and its consequent spoils if they know full well that they are, in the face of the frankly insane state of the property market, extremely unlikely to amass any capital. And in one sense, a new asceticism might be seen to be just what is needed, following on from so many years of yuppiedom and bloated consumerism. But can such apparent modesty of appetite truly be all that it seems?

It is in passing amusing to note that all the reliable indicators of poverty have been turned on their head: they have mutated into the object of desire. People used to put up with bare floorboards because they could not run to a carpet; they endured hard chairs because upholstery was out of the question; they wore work clothes and ripped trousers because they had no others. But this “pared back” look is now the longed-for ideal, along with white walls and windows devoid of dressing.

Colour generally is out — and so are pictures, unless they be black-framed moody monochrome photographs, which are very self-consciously, though oh-so-casually, leant against the wall. Why are they leant against the wall? A nail might be seen to be over-ostentatious? Trying too hard? But trying too hard is exactly what is going on here — this whole Spartan and throwaway look is choreographed to within an inch of its life.

These are people who actually pay someone to “declutter” their home — a ritual purging that they will gleefully extend even to themselves in the form of conscious abstinence or veganism: a highly visible rejection of all that is traditionally pleasurable. And here we have it: it is this very visibility that is key — for we live in the age of Instagram, where they can virtue-signal and humblebrag for 24 hours a day. Each “simple repast” (an unadorned table bearing a bowl of garbage lovingly “foraged” from a bog), the upcycled pallets and beer crates, they all add up to the most boastful display of woke and on-trend correctness.

The overall purpose — as with the “influencers” dressed up like a Kardashian and pouting against a background of somewhere improbable — is to arouse an unstoppable envy in the deluded millions of souls who are the target audience. Just as with the candelabra and After Eight trolleys of the past, these people are at pains with every post to put across that this is the right way to live and be: here is the coolest thing, and hence the enviable status.

But renewed novelty is, of course, the essence — the average attention span being about as long as it took you to get this far into the sentence — and so the buzzword now is “renting”. Instead of owning the same old things, you can delight your idiot audience with fresh fripperies daily: look at all my fabulous clothes and possessions, none of which I actually own. And not just that: they will happily also rent art, laptops, toys, garden furniture, dogs (!) — and even people, in the form of bridesmaids or “friends” (not, apparently, prostitutes, just company). The way forward? Or the route to insanity?

Sensible traditionalists will always value the true stuff, however: the things one has gathered lovingly over a lifetime. Books, pictures, heirlooms, things of real beauty to the beholder — nothing to do with fashion or status-enhancing, but simply for the sake of one’s very own personal and lasting pleasure. Because the stuff one loves — that’s for keeps.

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