When I was much younger, I had to empty and redecorate my Grandmother’s flat after she died.  My grandparents moved to London from Canada in the late fifties and decorated the flat to a high standard.  No expense was spared.  By the late nineties when I came to empty and redecorate, the flat was exactly the same as when they had first moved in.  So: hugely dated, and in need of serious refurbishment, rewiring and general reinvention.  I actually relished the project.  I hadn’t really given much thought to my interior decorating tastes because being in my early twenties at the time, I had always lived in places my parents had decorated, or College Residence buildings where brown carpet and magnolia are kings.  I guess you learn to like what you know, and my parents’ tastes are quite conservative, so I was not going to go crazy with the decoration.  Anyway I was going to try and put it on the market to rent out, so I didn’t need anything polarising.  The last thing you want is for people not to rent your house because they don’t like the jungle mural you had commissioned, or the novelty light-fittings you thought were hilarious in an ironic sort of way.

I am actually surprised that my tastes are so conservative.  We grew up in a house that my parents bought in the mid-seventies.  The people who had the house before us had just finished redecorating and decided to move to a larger house and we therefore inherited their questionable taste.  Until my parents decided in the mid-eighties to embark on what was to turn out to be a five+ year project to redecorate the whole house, our house was a lesson in why the words used to describe 1970s decor are bold, gawdy and psychedelic.  The whole house was wall to wall shag pile carpeting in varying shades of loud.   All of the wallpaper had large flowers or designs on them in dizzying colours.  The kitchen was yellow tiles with flowery wallpaper.  Everything about our house was loud and painful to the eyes.  We didn’t notice it at the time, my brother and I were too busy being excited about having a big garden to run around in to notice that we had moved into Badtaste-istan.

So back to my Grandmother’s flat.  It was, I’m sure, the height of good taste in the fifties, but now needed some serious updating.  My Dad suggested enlisting the help of an actual interior designer to help us.  An aunt of ours had just updated her flat upstairs in the same building and he was impressed with her work.  So I agreed because let’s face it, I was wet behind the ears and not really confident enough to take on the project alone.  This lady came highly recommended, and she had a team of people behind her which meant that she got the thankless task of coordinating everyone.  I could definitely get behind that plan.  At first she seemed really nice, competent and organised.  I guess at the interview stage, they all do.  I realised early on that she and I had a few fairly basic personality differences, but I wasn’t marrying the woman, so I didn’t think anything of it.  We put the plans in motion, she gave us a quote (which made me throw up in my mouth a little) and I went to the bank, got a mortgage  and work got underway.  Or at least, it would have if she had done her job and filled in the necessary forms required by the building to carry out works.  Cue two weeks of us paying a team of workmen to tiptoe around the house trying to demolish an apartment whilst not making any noise so as not to alert the neighbours.  Once again, a good start.

Eventually work got going and they demolished and moved walls, rewired the whole place and generally got it closer to looking like a modern apartment.  And then came the actual decorating part.  The flat is in an old building and my grandparents had put carpet over what was essentially antique parquet flooring.  I definitely wanted to save the floors and abandon the carpet idea.  Those floors are beautiful and covering them up with carpet is a crime.  And this is where the generation gap came into play.  My Dad and the lady were in favour of carpet.  When I asked them why, it transpires that for their generation, people who didn’t have carpet,  didn’t because they couldn’t afford it.  Leaving the floors bare was tantamount to saying I am poor and I thought I’d just polish the wooden floors and hope you wouldn’t be too offended my them.  I assured them that this was no longer the case, that people were now spending thousands of pounds bringing in Norwegian wood flooring and here we were with a gorgeous wooden floor that just needed sanding and polishing and we are not going to cover this up no way no how forget it.    The parquet flooring was going to stay.  Score one for me.  I felt proud of myself for sticking to my guns and establishing that even though we had hired the designer, she wasn’t going to walk all over us and we had opinions and demands too.

This initial battle was the first of many.  She was in favour of all sorts of bizarre and frankly unnecessary ‘touches’ as she called them.  For example:  she wanted all of the light switches to either be recessed into the wall or made of Perspex.  I couldn’t understand why.

“It ruins the whole room to have a light switch by the door” she said rolling her eyes at me as if I was too stupid or ignorant to understand basic principles of interior design. “It’s nice for people not to have to see the mechanics of everything.”

Ok, I was in favour of not showing ‘people’ the mechanics of everything, which is why we plastered the walls over the wiring and plumbing.  But was I going to be upset by the knowledge that someone out there (and really, who are these ‘people’ she kept going on about?) knows that in order to have lights in my house, I have to flip a switch?  Well, no.  Not really.  It is infinitely better than having to grope around with greasy hands to try and find the damn switch in the first place.  Eventually I realised, that a lot of these extra ‘touches’ were simply more expensive, and since she got 15% on top of whatever we bought (not to mention what she got from the actual companies) she was merely suggesting things that she thought she could get away with.  I have no doubt that many people totally buy her pitch and then spend the rest of their lives fumbling about in the dark, but I wasn’t having it.

The biggest bone of contention between us however was the kitchen.  I had very specific ideas about the kitchen.  I am a keen cook, and for me the kitchen is the most important room in the house.  It is where I spend most of my time, and where I can be creative in a way that allows me to express love for my family as well as starting and finishing projects on the same day.  The kitchen is the heart and warmth of the house.  I went to the kitchen place she suggested and had a great time with the guy there choosing features I felt would be practical and eschewing fluffy useless ones that she had incorporated.  I wanted a large American style fridge freezer  and she found me one that would fit flush into the kitchen.  I didn’t want that one.  I wanted a big fridge that fits stuff and is deep as well as wide.  Most fitted fridges are shallow and that wasn’t what I wanted.

“But it will stick out and ruin the line of the kitchen!” she cried.

“Unless it blocks my path to the oven, I don’t really care.” I replied.

She huffed and puffed and  whinged, and called my Dad to ‘talk to me’ but Dad told her that he didn’t mess with me when it came to the kitchen (go Dad).

Then I asked her to raise the work surfaces.  I was intrigued by the fact that I could actually design a kitchen with myself in mind.  I know I was going to rent it out, but eventually the plan was to move in there one day, and I thought that raising the kitchen surfaces by 10 or 15cm was the perfect way to eliminate back pain for me.  I am not  as I have said before Gigantor or anything, but I am, I guess, a little taller than average, and the standard height of work surfaces is just a little bit too short for me.  Her response left me slack-jawed.

“Why do you want to raise the work surfaces?”

I explained about the height thing.  I told her we were only talking about ten or fifteen centimetres.  These were her next words.

“Are you going to be cooking, washing up and cutting vegetables? The maid will be doing all that.  Maids are usually short.  I think we should leave the counters where they are.”

Remember those basic personality differences I mentioned earlier?  Here we are.

I had visions of everyone having toy kitchens to accommodate their short maids.  Fisher Price could do a roaring trade if they pitched to the Ladies with Staff Brigade.  They could have their low kitchen counters and those little toilets like they have in primary schools.  The only way I convinced her to do it as I wanted, was to ask her what I was supposed to do on the maid’s day off.

After that it became a theme.  I would comment on how impractical a light fitting was because it was impossible to change and the response was

“Are you going to change the light bulbs?  The maid is going to do it.  What do you care?”

The whole project became a nightmare with both of us standing firm.  It was practicality vs prettiness and we clashed a lot. I didn’t object to prettiness you understand, only if it stood in the way of practicality.  Also prettiness was fine within budget, but really, I had a finite amount of funds and no amount of  ‘but it will look so nice’ was going to convince me to spend £850 on a light fitting for the  bathroom.  My poor Dad used to don a UN helmet and flak jacket to come to meetings at the house. She even suggested installing a separate bathroom behind the kitchen because:

“You don’t want them using your bathroom.”   Seriously?! I mean, it was the late nineties for Goodness’ sake.  Anyone seen The Help?

Anyway, after about a year and an extra 50% over budget due to ‘unforeseen and unforeseeable circumstances’ (blah blah blah), she finally finished and left.  The flat looked lovely despite the obvious eyesores like visible light switches and bare wooden flooring.

I still haven’t lived in that flat yet, but if/when I do, I am sure I will enjoy chopping vegetables, and changing light bulbs. Or I will just have to hire a statuesque maid.  Shorties need not apply.

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