The New Statesman Profile - Tricia Guild

New Labour's lifestyle queen bids us forget the past, be Mediterranean and flaunt our emotions. Tric

A couple of years ago I was commissioned to write a profile of Ruth "Ruthie" Rogers, wife of the more famous Richard and co-founder of the River Cafe restaurant. Word leaked. Soon I was receiving calls from friends of Ruthie in high places, and as it turned out she had many friends in high places - politicians, publishers, literary agents, broadcasters. They all seemed eager to relate their warmly remembered anecdotes of her kindness, her flair, her charm - to be seen to be part of her world. Here was something instructive, I thought, about Blair's Britain: a restaurateur with the mesmeric hold of a Wittgenstein. "Ruthie's genius," one of her admirers told me, "is that she's promoting an entire 'lifestyle', a new way of living. She's revolutionising the way we think about food and she's teaching the British how to eat well and live better. They're even eating polenta out in Basildon now. Amazing." Polenta in Basildon; yes, I was truly amazed.

Ruthie herself invited me to her upcoming party. "Everyone's been invited," her publicist told me. Who was everyone? I asked. "Oh, you know, the new establishment - Alan Yentob, Salman Rushdie, Jeremy Paxman, a Saatchi or two, Peter Mandelson, Jacob Rothschild, John Birt, Ed Victor, Polly Toynbee." Everyone indeed!

This season Ruthie Rogers has a rival, another metropolitan sophisticate in whose reflected celebrity the self-styled talentocracy of the new establishment likes to bask - the fragrant interior designer Tricia Guild. Guild, like Rogers, enjoys a lifestyle of millionaire luxury in London and Tuscany, where she and her second husband, the restaurateur Richard Polo, co-owner of the fashionable eateries Orso, Orsino and Joe Allen, have a second home. Guild, like Rogers, eats well, dresses better and entertains her close network of famous friends, including the painter Howard Hodgkin, the actress Patricia Hodge and Sir Jeremy Isaacs.

In person Guild has a kind of elevated hauteur. She is cool, charming, smilingly remote. Her clothes, naturally, are bespoke and flamboyant: a whirl of loose materials. Her much-photographed homes in Holland Park and Tuscany double up, in effect, as show homes, their ever-changing rooms often being featured in Guild's best-selling books, which market and introduce her ideas and designs to an international audience. Tatler, the London style magazine, expertly described her homes as "temples of modern iconoclastic style with slavish devotion to detail". Isaacs is more direct: "In her houses you feel as if you are living in a painting." And most important, Guild, like Rogers, is a proselytiser, on a mission to change the way we live, providing what she calls "a whole atmosphere, an entire alternative lifestyle".

Since 1970, when Guild began operating from a small showroom on the King's Road, London, her Designers Guild label has become a byword for elegance and high aspirational style. She is one of the most imitated and indeed plagiarised textile designers in Europe and certainly among the most consistently inventive anywhere in the world. Her combination of bright exotic colours and minimal designs is unmistakeable. Like a good writer or painter, she has her own stylised signature - everything she produces carries the metaphorical stamp of a manufacturer's logo. And she's popular. In the past ten years the turnover of Designers Guild, coinciding with the arrival as chief executive of Tricia's brother, Simon Jeffreys, has grown from £5 million to £30 million, and the company now has showrooms in more than 50 countries.

But it wasn't always meant to be like that; in fact Designers Guild began with modest ambitions but a clear purpose. Guild, unlike most interior designers, was determined to create a blueprint for a desirable lifestyle, and from the beginning she wanted independence, "to do her own thing and have a presence on the high street".

Nowadays such aspirations sound merely routine; but in 1970 this was a genuinely innovative agenda, especially in a Britain then so mired in recession. The 1970s have been called, inaccurately, the decade that style forgot, and certainly for Guild everything in those unlamented years of high inflation, bad food and trade union unrest seemed "grim and parochial". She says: "There were very few small companies producing textiles, so for most people interested in interior design there really wasn't anywhere to go."

She established Designers Guild with her first husband, Robin Guild, whom she never mentioned when I met her. She was 22. The early years were a struggle, despite the financial support of her father, the fashion designer Sidney Jeffreys.

"I suppose I was lucky to discover what I wanted to do at an early age, and have the conviction to stick by it. When I began I wanted to produce and show textiles, not in abstract, but in an environment. Even from the start, when we only had about 20 different pieces of fabric to show, I bought a little sofa and covered it and did the same with other bits of furniture. So what I was offering was a little lifestyle of my own which somehow explained my work and to which I hoped others would respond."

Today we are sitting in the very same King's Road showroom from where she began, but it has since inexorably expanded, like a passenger train on to which extra carriages have been linked, so there is now abundant space. A cappuccino bar has been introduced on the ground floor, so customers can drink coffee surrounded by the range of over 2,000 fabrics, 600 wallpapers, upholstered furniture, bedroom and bathroom products and china.

What makes Guild such a perfect embodiment of the spirit of her times, what makes Sir Peter Osborne say that she will be "the interior designer remembered in 50 years' time", is her deep distrust of the past - something she shares with Blair. "I grew up in an artistic family; we moved a lot and always lived in very contemporary houses," she told me when I interviewed her recently for the Swedish magazine Scanorama. "We changed our environment regularly; nothing was set in stone. In England there is a fear of the contemporary, of being experimental. It's not quite done."

What's not quite done?

"Well, getting rid of the curtains, changing things around. This idea of being rooted, of staying in one house, comes from the aristocracy - and you see it replicated in those country-house hotels. Howard Hodgkin said some-thing true to me once: 'The British are ashamed of using colour because you have to express your feelings with colour.' "

Much of Guild's inspiration comes, she says, from travel, and she particularly likes Scandinavia because people there have more enthusiasm for interior design and are willing to experiment, to use their homes not as functional spaces but as expressions of their own personalities. "The Scandinavians," she says, "are contemporary-minded, and what I'm doing is contemporary. Their houses seem lighter than British ones, less cluttered. The British are wary of emptiness and open spaces; they're more restrained."

But this surely arises from the shortage of space in Britain, which, unlike, say, Sweden, is densely populated and has scarcely any wilderness left. By contrast, the Swedish and the Norwegians have the largest area of domestic living space per person in the world. So when Guild talks about the clutter of British homes, one cannot help thinking that she makes interior design sound like the bourgeois luxury it is, the plaything of the comfortably rich, gloriously beyond the hot struggles of the poor.

But no - if you don't have much space, you can "paint a wall, be organised, have some cushions - we're not talking about spending huge amounts of money. Most people, once they start experimenting, find they have their own colour schemes, or the beginnings of one. It's all about the practical aspects of using colour, shape and texture in different spaces."

A heightened receptivity to the world around her helps explain Guild's success and why her designs have such an exotic lustre. Many of her more imaginative colour combinations, as seen in her new book, White Hot (Quadrille), amount to nothing less than attempts to defamiliarise and thus revitalise our perceptions. Jeppe Wikstrom, Guild's Swedish publisher, remembers once visiting some of the islands of the Stockholm archipelago with Guild.

"The way she approached the rocks, trees, water and flowers, very slowly and as if she were studying them - I'd never seen anything like it before. The interplay of the colours and light fascinated her. She was extraordinarily in tune with her environment and kept taking photographs for reference."

The cult of "lifestyle" - the trappings of trendiness that now surround restaurants, interior design, the media, sport - is a symptom of the relentless bourgeoisification of Britain, as well as being a reminder of the vacuum at the centre of our culture where once politics and serious thought used to be; and into that vacuum continue to flow what once occupied the margins but now command the very centre, namely the ephemera of lifestyle.

There has been, too, among the British, a collapse of confidence in, well, their very Britishness. Eat at a pavement restaurant, colour-coordinate your home, kiss one another on each cheek, flaunt your emotions, live in cities - there is something coercive about the demands of the lifestyle crowd. They want you to change patterns of behaviour established for generations, to disregard customs and rituals, to become, in effect, less British and more Mediterranean.

So ours is increasingly a society of surfaces and appearances. I am not what I eat, but where I'm seen to be eating - and with whom. The long years of peace, democracy and affluence have enervated us; ours is a nation withering into aimlessness. The age of ideology has passed. We are a people grown bored and comfortable. The energy that drove us first to industrialise and then overseas, in search of adventure and new territories, has dissipated. Instead we have created the society of mass man, of consumer abundance - the tyranny of choice masquerading as freedom.

As for Guild, there is something mysterious about her that's hard to account for. Intelligent, charming but shrewdly circumspect, she leaves much unsaid. She speaks in a breathy, dreamy, semi-flirtatious manner, she smiles a lot but beneath it all you can sense her toughness, her restrained impatience with my questions, particularly when I touch on the self-congratulatory celebrity culture that has developed around design, restaurants and the media.

Guild herself avoids ostentatious displays of celebrity. She prefers to surround herself with friends and family - her chief executive brother, her daughter, Lisa Guild, who runs her press affairs. Her voice drops to a murmur as she talks about them but is animated when discussing her business projects. Her conversation is enlivened by buzzwords and phrases, such as "lifestyle", "creativity", "self-renewal", "energising processes".

What she seems to be, in a powerful sense, is the ideal businesswoman of the new Labour years: metropolitan, wealthy, relatively classless, "creative" and enormously well connected. And like Blair, she has a lifestyle to sell - and she's driven by a kind of cleansing zeal. Nothing, it seems, can slow her unstoppable rise.

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