‘Trump-like madness!’– our critic’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s £200,000 No 11 refurb

Carrie and the PM blew £7,560 on sofas, £8,500 on lamps – and £3,675 on a ‘Nureyev drinks trolley’ that actually features two pairs of brass hands desperately clinging on. Is this the most metaphorical home accessory ever?

“We shape our buildings,” said Winston Churchill, “thereafter they shape us.” He was referring to the rectangular design of the House of Commons chamber, and its influence on the adversarial nature of British politics. But he may just as well have been predicting the maniacal psychosis induced on Boris Johnson by his £200,000 flat renovation.

The newly revealed invoice for the gaudy makeover of the No 11 apartment, by “boho-Sloane” interior designer Lulu Lytle, has raised eyebrows with its lavish list of £7,560 sofas, £8,500 lamps, and a £3,000 “paint effect” in the hallway. But it also provides a revealing window into what might have triggered Johnson’s recent bout of Trump-like madness.

Take the £3,675 Nureyev trolley. At first glance, it looks like your standard Kensington oligarch’s drinks cart. Its tempered glass shelves are protected by ornamental rails topped with twiddly finials – always handy to stop bottles falling off when your superyacht hits choppy waters. But look closer and you will find two pairs of polished brass hands emerging from the top of the frame, their clenched fists clinging firmly on to the handles of the trolley. It is the perfect ostentatious allegory of Johnson’s desperate attempt to cling on to power, his chubby, unyielding fingers lovingly hand-wrought in solid brass by the finest Sheffield craftsmen.

A dedicated page on the website of Lytle’s company, Soane, recounts how the design is based on a pair of 1940s French drinks trolleys that were once owned by ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, in his “fabulously decorated” Paris apartment – a place where the chintzy carpet seems to have devoured not only the sofa but also the walls. Nureyev clearly shared other traits with Johnson, beyond a taste for gilded tat. As the dancer’s portrait painter, Jamie Wyeth, recalled: “He never thought he had enough of anything.”

Barbed-wire cage … the Espalier Square wallpaper, £2,250 for 10 rolls.
Barbed-wire cage … the Espalier Square wallpaper (£2,250 for 10 rolls) and the Rattan Leighton table (£3,650). Photograph: Soane Britain

While the decorating scandal has long been known as “wallpapergate”, it might be surprising to learn that the infamous “gold wallpaper” is neither gold nor one of the more expensive items on the list. A snip at £2,250 for 10 rolls, the Espalier Square wallpaper design is another French knock-off, derived from an early 19th-century pattern, depicting interwoven green branches in a neverending grid. “Lulu has always loved the ancient horticultural art of ‘espalier’,” gushes her website, “where fruit-bearing trees are trained across garden walls.”

We have no way of knowing how the Johnsons deployed the wallpaper, but we are told that Lytle imagines the design being used to cover not only the walls of a room but also the ceiling, to give the “all-encompassing effect” of a fruit tree trained into a tunnel or pergola. Sadly she seems to have misplaced her scale ruler: the result looks less like an espaliered tree than a barbed-wire cage, of the kind in which a particularly desperate prime minister might attempt to shield himself from the outside world.

Crumpled copper pancake … the Aten Hurricane Wall Light.
Crumpled copper pancake … Soan’s Aten Hurricane Wall Light. Photograph: Soane Britain

If the Johnsons weren’t already driven round the bend by the wall-to-ceiling cage effect, the light fittings would probably have done the trick. Coming in at £1,775 each, the Aten Hurricane wall lights take the form of crumpled copper pancakes – hand-beaten by Cornish coppersmiths, natch – with glass shades shaped like upside-down wine bottles. Spookily described by Lytle as “particularly atmospheric in dark areas”, they have an unnerving similarity to the Eye of Sauron, the vertical candle flame creating eerie shimmering arcs across the beaten copper backdrop. With his barbed-wire cage guarded by a pair of Sauron eyes, it’s no wonder that Johnson felt invincible from the onslaughts.

Beyond the sense of fortified desperation, the shopping list reflects other sides of the prime minister’s worldview. In keeping with Boris’s talk of “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”, Lytle’s aesthetic has been criticised for its colonial undertones, with patterns featuring exotic animals and Orientalist motifs. She has defended her designs as the result of “30 years of research” and said in one recent interview that she was “completely baffled by the idea that having a woven lion on my wall from Nepal could be anything other than respectful”.

Instead, she likes to think she is following in the footsteps of William Morris, the socialist artist and designer who saw craftsmanship as a route to fundamental social change (he later realised he had spent his life “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”). Like Morris, Lytle sees her work as championing a revival of lost traditions, peddling a Brexit-friendly message as “the Boudicca of British craftsmanship”, as one antique dealer described her.

Foremost in her crafts crusade is rattan, a material with its own allusions to colonial verandas, and the Johnson bill includes several such items of rattan furniture – the £3,650 Leighton table and a £3,800 Hurlingham bookcase, which would both be at home on the terrace of a Raj-era governor’s palace. When Britain’s last rattan workshop, Angraves in Leicestershire, went into administration in 2011, Lytle bought the machinery and hired two of the staff. In another exquisite piece of Johnsonian symbolism, she also acquired the rights to Dryad – the company that designed rattan seating for the Titanic.

Theresa May’s No 11 decor might have been dismissed as a “John Lewis nightmare”, but that sounds infinitely preferable to being stuck inside this folksy, chintz-laden sinking ship.


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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