House proud

Design - Adam Wishart on ideal homes

The "Daily Mail Ideal Home Show" has been peddling examples of home-making futurism since 1928. But this year, for the first time, this vision of the future is almost entirely predicated on the internet. Of the four houses in the "dreamhome village", three are evangelists of the network.

Yet as hype outstrips real internet penetration (only a fifth of British households are actually connected), it will take more than a showhome to provoke Middle England into its own digital makeover. The public I spoke to seemed more concerned with the plastic-feeling finishes in the fourth "dreamhome", House Beautiful, than its lack of a front door on the superhighway.

Despite this, cash-rich technology companies are rushing towards the gates of suburbia, and what better market than the Daily Mail's demographic. Laing's Internet Home is sponsored by Cisco, the world's most valuable company, which dominates the manufacture of the internet infrastructure. Behind the net curtains of this quarter-timbered brick-built replica of a house from Watford is an engine rammed with technology. As the press release proclaims, the public can "discover how the new age of internet technology is set to change family living".

Almost every room has a network connection: all of the main systems of the house - heating, lighting, and entertainment - can be controlled from the internet or a portable handset. The computer can tell the imaginary Lucas family, carefully drawn in the accompanying infomercial, when their larder is low; and the boffins have installed a way of operating, and presumably twitching, the curtains online.

The recorded voice-over guide proclaims: "In the Internet Home, there is so much more to do with your time." For the crowd of pundits gripping their plastic bags and bargain home-cleaning equipment, this leisured utopia neither resonated with their busy lives nor prickled their sensibilities. When I was there, the most excitement was created by the bathroom, the only room in the house without its own network hub, with the ladies from Luton particularly liking its tiling and lighting.

If the Internet Home demonstrates a souped-up version of the now, then the "concept house" HangerHouse is its extrapolation into 2020. The accompanying brochure tells us that it is the product of an imaginary corporation which sells its wares via the web. At the show, iMacs - nestling in the plastic lawn just beyond the front gate - imagine the perfect individualised home based on the answers to a few personal questions. For some unknown reason, it chose to clad mine like a log cabin.

The house actually in the show draws design inspiration from the blueberry iMac itself. Three giant, cut-and-twisted coat-hangers are clad in white-and-blue translucent plastic. It looks something like a giant modernist newspaper rack, or a rather over-designed shopping casket. This imaginary future will be manufactured and modular. The idea is rather like an Ikea "storage system", in which users can buy and assemble parts and then add to them as their family and aspirations grow.

Inside is the nerve centre, LivingHub , which its designers imagine will speak to every intelligent system in the house, from the lighting to the loo, which checks the householders' urine daily. Like the visions of the future from the Sixties, the HangerHouse is sterile and uncluttered, and in its world there is no downside to technology. The designers have come up with a set of companion ideas and brands for hobbies, cooking and sleeping. But without a nod towards our real concerns of the future, whether that be Franken-foods or dwindling privacy, it can't hope to spark the imagination. It is like that other modular and manufactured form, the disposable aluminium take-away dish, and just as empty.

The dreamhome village is at the centre of the Earl's Court Exhibition Centre, but at the "Ideal Home Show", like so many great British conurbations, the real action is at the outskirts. There crowds cluster around the 650 stalls, with perfect-teethed hucksters selling every thing from cherub-painted lavatory seats to the "the world's best" food-mixer. It is as if all the esoteric products and eccentric shops that used to find home in the city centres of Britain have died and found this to be their heaven. Here, those who do their weekly shop at the out-of-town superstore can have an eclectic retail visitor experience. And it is here that the "killer application" of this year's show can be found: most families getting on the tube seemed to be clinging on to one, and it wasn't a network hub or automated curtains. It was a brush with an rubber head and the promise of easily swept lawn-clippings.

Alan Wishart produced The Dome: trouble at the Big Top for BBC2, shown earlier this year

The "Ideal Home Show" is at Earl's Court until 9 April. Ticket-line 0870 903 9033

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy