It all started when a new shop, Objects of Use, opened in Oxford. As I’ve mentioned before, Oxford is crap for shopping and particularly crap for anything useful. There used to be Gills the ironmongers tucked away down a street that was so narrow I used to overlook it even when I was specifically going there, but Gills closed down around the time I moved back. It is much missed. So now if you want anything practical for the kitchen or bathroom, the options are Boswell’s basement or online.
Objects of Use is no replacement. It’s a small shop, with a very small array of carefully selected items that are indeed useful, but have also obviously been chosen for other qualities as well. There are no brand names here, because that’s not the point. So the water glasses are the sort of tumblers that are used for serving wine in cheap restaurants in Italy; the pans are plain cast iron; the vegetable brushes are wooden; and they stock traditional lunch pails of the sort that weigh a ton when empty and are circular, and therefore simultaneously pleasing to look at and hopeless for all practical purposes. You get the aesthetic? Everything is so basic, so understated and subtle, that the shop is clearly offering the opportunity to purchase goods whose whispered statement is ‘This is not a statement.’
It is the anti-Cath Kidston, which is great because I detest that spotted ubiquity. But I think it’s part of the same continuum that embraces taking the ordinary and over-designing it so that it can be sold to people who already have everything they actually need but don’t yet have it with flowers on. The epitome of this, to my mind, are those tins that say ‘String’ and are perfectly shaped to hold a ball of twine and nothing else. What particular combination of time, money and OCD do you need to have to buy a tin specifically for string?
But now that everyone is broke and the economy is stuck somewhere behind the U-bend, spending lots of money on pointless, over-designed stuff might look a bit tacky. Everything in Objects of Use goes to the other extreme. I call it the ‘New Austerity’ (you read it here first, folks!), wherein you spend just as much money as you would if you’d bought something that looked expensive, only instead you’ve got something that looks slightly rustic and, ideally, vaguely French. Or, at least indeterminately continental. I’m wrapping in the current obsession with shabby chic here too: take a knackered table, paint it badly in shades of Farrow & Ball, call it French style, and bang an extra three hundred quid on the price.
However basic the item’s appearance, however dodgy the paint job, it’s just conspicuous consumption in disguise.