Robin Ashenden

The hell of interior design

I’ve managed to ruin my bathroom

  • From Spectator Life

I spent seven hours yesterday cutting up cardboard boxes into little square pieces with a Stanley knife and stuffing them into rubbish sacks. I’ve just moved house and my home is piled high with bulging black bags and looks like Leicester Square during the Winter of Discontent. Given that I don’t currently have the necessary bin from the council, I could end up living with them forever. 

These are just some of the stresses of moving into a newly bought flat. Everyone knows the legal process of buying a place is an ordeal – the multitude of documents you can’t find and questions you can’t answer, the survey that over-stresses all the problems, apparent 11th hour impediments to closing the deal that, as in a Hollywood film, finally evaporate as completion day approaches. 

The room now has a clinical look, soulless and arctic. You feel less happy inside it

But just as strenuous is the period after you’ve moved in – a world of endless decisions and choices, each one of which may be wrong and will cost money to repair. I’ve already bought a dud tablecloth and pair of curtains, both of which will have to be returned (I’m tempted to just give them to Oxfam and avoid the red tape). But both of these pale beside the long-awaited armchair, which was so quietly disillusioning it seemed to teach me something about life itself. 

I’d wanted this armchair – from a certain well known Swedish manufacturer of furniture products – for such a long time. It had a pleasing 1950s solidity, a kind of four-square quality, that made me think of the early Bond films. But when it arrived, it turned out to be – the first disappointment – self-assembly, and no armchair in God’s earth should be that. Armchairs ought to look as solid as Mount Rushmore, as though they’ll outlast you and your grandchildren, and there should be something arcane, known only to experts, about their composition. I already felt I knew too much about this one’s secrets and that daylight had been cast upon magic. But it was when I’d constructed the thing – a collection of shapes, all covered in a horrible papery material which I then had to tug the fabric onto – that reality started to dawn. The armchair was nothing like I’d imagined. 

It was just so much bigger than one could have expected it to be. I know we have an obesity problem in this country and that these people, if overlooked, tend to get whiny and litigious. But this chair seemed to bite great chunks out of my living space, and had a seat so needlessly outsized it was possible to sit on it and feel lonely. I’d obviously made a mistake too ordering it in grey. There was now a white elephant in the room. Perhaps visitors would be kind enough to skirt over it and pretend it wasn’t there. 

Actually, they won’t need to. The company has a generous returns policy and, disassembled once more (thank God I didn’t cut the labels off), the beast goes back today. I’d also pondered sending back the Shaker-style daybed it took me nine hours and every inner resource of patience and coolheaded thinking to put together, and which turned out to have a hairline crack in one of its feet. But I just couldn’t face taking it apart and looking at so much particle board again (a substance I now nurse a settled loathing for), so the daybed stays. Some mistakes have to be lived with. 

There is also bathroom-gate to deal with. I just knew the magnolia my bathroom had come in was all wrong and that it should be white – a virginal, pristine white, the white of freedom and space and light and clean new beginnings. Having masked up the entire room (it has black ceiling beams) and taped polythene to the floor, I duly splashed five litres of ‘Brilliant White’ matt emulsion over it. At the end, having listened to the entire audiobook of David Nicholls One Day (a singularly misnamed book – doing the bathroom took three) I grabbed a moment to stand back and survey the effect. The room now has a clinical look, soulless and arctic. You feel less happy inside it. 

So it’s back to the drawing board/Homebase with that one too. My sister tells me these mishaps on the way to having a pleasantly decorated home are quite normal, and that, in furniture terms, you have to bark your shins a few times and factor in the odd cock-up to get the look and atmosphere you’re after. I’ve heard wise people say you should live in a flat for a few months and just let it speak to you before you make any decisions about doing it up. But who has the time? A kind of madness has overtaken me. I just want to get the job done.

So what colour should I paint the bathroom in? Going back to magnolia will be a climbdown, and I’m sure there’s something bold and off-the-wall – some cool cascade of aquafresh blue, an invigorating mint green – that would work miracles in there. Perhaps there’s some secret bathroom colour I don’t know about, which will take me to a peak of bath time serenity, a shade so tranquil and sedative it will stop me worrying, worrying about things like what colour to paint the bathroom in. I can’t balls it up again, so now have a fistful of tester pots from Dulux, with names like ‘Willow Tree’, ‘Marine Splash’ and ‘Nordic Sky’ (none of them, on first splatter, quite living up to the lyricism of these titles). 

Among them is a low-risk number called ‘Fine Cream’, and this is probably what I’ll plump for – what I have already, just in a warmer version. I am, I realise, probably an off-white kind of person. It seems preferable, on balance, to sit in a neutral bathroom fantasising about all the bright, bold paints you could have done it in than actually to choose and commit to one of those colours, which may let you down or start to grate at a future moment in a way that off-white never does. Anyone who wants to see this as a metaphor for wider things in life is welcome to. But I probably shan’t be inviting them round when the place is finished. 

Written by
Robin Ashenden
Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

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