Charlie's dilemma

Observations on the politics of wallpaper

The Office of the Lord Chancellor is not the only office facing a shake-up this summer. The ultra-cool style magazine Wallpaper also under-went a redesign, following the departure of its founder,Tyler Brule, and a sharp decline in readership. However, one reader who is likely to have remained loyal is the former Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine. Renowned for his expensive tastes, in 1997 he spent £60,000 on wallpaper as part of a £650,000 refurbishment of his official apartment in the Lords.

But fashions change as quickly in interior design as they do in politics and magazine publishing. Although his office firmly refuses to comment on the subject, Irvine's successor, Charlie Falconer, will surely fancy a change. If so, he should understand that wallpaper has always been a political subject.

Originally, wallpaper was used by the wealthier middle classes to try to create the effect of tapestries, and it has been used for walls and ceilings since the Georgian period. Like many things that start with the people and then filter upwards, such as Lynx deodorant and supporting football teams, it wasn't long before it was being used by royalty.

The greatest wallpaper designer of all was William Morris, a man who knew that it was impossible to separate politics from interior design. "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," he wrote. As Falconer stares at his walls, he would do well to consider this. But having been a champion of the arts and crafts movement and a supporter of the individual craftsman, Morris would have felt some unease at the mass-production printing methods that made his wallpapers so popular and affordable. Despite his socialism, he would have been more likely to approve of the finely crafted stuff Irvine chose to decorate his walls. That said, Morris may have had a better plan for the expensively decorated apartment. In his Utopian novel, News from Nowhere, parliament is used as a store for horse manure.

Wallpaper readers are more likely to head for the expensive designer wallpapers offered by labels such as Burberry or Ralph Lauren. These readers, says Wallpaper, are "well-dressed, brand-savvy, constantly travelling consumers . . . They probably spend as much time in hotel rooms as in their urban pads." They may not get the familiarity that comes from seeing the same walls each day with paper carefully put up so that shapes tessellate, patterns match and interlocking squiggles interlock, but they can carry the magazine with them in their executive cases. Home is where their copy of Wallpaper is.

The same applies to the wallpaper on their laptops - and here, perhaps, is the answer for both Falconer and the Treasury. The wallpaper design on your computer screen - the picture that provides the background to your desktop icons - can be downloaded for free, and changed as often as you like.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The time of fear