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Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Revealed: Gaddafi's Taste For Despot Chic
Pictures of Libya's embattled tyrant in talks with the South African President reveal a taste in interior design that could only be a dictator's
By Peter York This commentary was published in The Independent on 01/06/2011
South African President Jacob Zuma meets Colonel Gaddafi in Tripoli
There is an undeniable news value to the pictures released yesterday of Colonel Gaddafi in talks with the South African President, Jacob Zuma. But it is hard to look at them without being struck as well by their aesthetic implications. Here, surely, is – among other things – an interior fashion moment, an exotic global celebrity version of London's currently leading Big Money interior look: Dictator Style.
These aren't exactly Andreas von Einsiedel's carefully composed full-room shots for House and Garden. They're just corners of Chateau Gaddafi, reportedly part of his much-bombarded Bab Al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli But they're enough for me, because this style has been one of my special subjects since I researched and wrote a whole book about it, Dictators' Homes, published in 2005. True, there are more urgent stories coming out of Libya. Yet these scenes offer an insight into the embattled despot's mind.
I could walk just 500 yards from my own gorgeous Regency house in W1 to the Edgware Road – the top, Marble Arch end – and knock on any door in the big houses and blocks there and find this look. And in Mayfair and Knightsbridge, too. It's the aesthetic of everyday rich folk in petro-dollar world; and of dictators.
So what have we got here, in this tiny but semiotically loaded corner? Check it out against our "get the look" 10-point plan for Dictator Style. First there's more shiny new gold than you could shake a stick at. It's everywhere – all over the chairs, with their flaming gilt-wood backdrops for the dictatorly head; on the low table; on the gilded eagle-on-orb affair; in the gilded plates and hero-of-the-desert trophies in the glass cases behind them; in the gold-leafed filets at the edge of those cabinets; and on the miniature stately galleon rendered in metal just behind Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi's extraordinary head with its perpetual shades.
Then there's the power and aggression symbolism of Animal Heroes. You can't go wrong with a lion or an eagle, hence this rather odd-looking object with its silver and silver gilt; its horned perch, its studding of precious and semi-precious stones. And below is another kind of power symbol, popular in this kind of decoration: photographs of Me (Lion-of-the-People, Beloved Leader, whatever...) with other Men of Destiny.
The furniture is repro, or, more precisely, repro classic French furniture – the favoured style, practically the only furniture style in this aesthetic. Ancien Régime Froggy is favoured because it's studded and slathered with so much gold. But it's usually interpreted pretty freely to squeeze out that last anachronistic bit – like the flaring headrest. The fabric will usually be new, shiny (never aged or faded; shabby isn't chic in Dictatorland) brocaded silk, as here. Silk that miraculously looks nearly as good as polyester.
The built-in furniture features another familiar theme: expensive exotic wood veneers. It looks like bird's-eye maple, once a deco favourite, in the lighter panels. And French polished to high heaven. Why have matt when you can have shiny?
The dinner table shot is pretty good too, like a still from one of those 1990s Channel 4 comedy series with lookalikes. It has overtones of Simon Amstell's dinner-with-mum-in-Finchley comedy, Grandma's House, too: this mass murderer of his people sitting down with Jacob Zuma, former ANC rebel boy, now looking like a worried old bank manager. And it's a bit Hyacinth Bucket, too. The short apricot silk curtains above more birds-eye maple cabinets with twinkly cut-glass handles. There are heavily cut crystal wine and water glasses (Royal Stewart?), a cobalt-blue rimmed dinner service, almost certainly made in Stoke-on-Trent, and a blaze of Home Counties blossom beyond the window with its rather utilitarian bronze finish handle.
But, behind it all, lifting this positively suburban bit of comic domesticity, framing Muammar Muhammad al-Gaddafi's head again, is the crucial material of Dictator Style: marble. Attractively redundant, non-structural marble mini-columns (they could actually be alabaster, but it's the look that counts). Marble is money, marble is Imperial, marble is historic, as in Alma-Tadema's visions of Roman baths. Marble is crucial.
So far, so absolutely by-the-book in just this little corner of a North African palace that's forever Big London 2011. So what's the betting that the rest of the rooms would display the following features?
First, bigging it up. I'd expect these rooms to be seriously oversized. Bigging it up helps you to impress and intimidate, central to the everyday work of dictators. Then you'd expect a lot more shiny glass. At least two monster chandeliers of the old Dubai Hilton kind. Chandelier drops, the diamonds of interior decoration, glittering away against massive mirrors, framed in yet more gorgeous gold (never "distressed" or knocked back), give that Ferrero Rocher look instantly.
And that elusive picture of the roomscape in the round will make you think of the eclectic glories of one interior style above all others. It'll make you think hotel or, more precisely, the extraordinary eclecticism of the public spaces in a top-of-the-range Sheraton or Hilton from around the early 1970s. Just the time people like Colonel Gaddafi were picking up hints to gracious living. Those hotels combined the most modern steel-frame construction with an amazing Monster Mash of period references in their decoration, plus reassuring suburban Americana to make their American Express corporate guests feel at home.
Be aware: Dictator Style isn't ironic. It may not be exactly your moment, Mr Islington television producer, with your distressed brown leather chairs from Upper Street, or Mrs Notting Hillybilly with your New England clapboard and 1950s chintz Cath Kidston bathroom, but it is one version of the Top Dog style in non-dom prime and super-prime Big London. The place where overseas buyers, as we know from Savills research, predominate. Not only is Knightsbridge already a corner of Dubai but the Arab Spring means that Middle Eastern Flight Capital will take an even bigger share of the largest houses and flats in Central London over the next couple of years. Mayfair is probably off-limits for Colonel Gaddafi's next move, but just think, where are the Mubaraks, with their X billions, going to end up? Or even the top Bahraini Bananas? And where will they turn to for the look they love? It has to be Salon Française of the Edgware Road...
Peter York's 'Dictators' Homes' is published by Atlantic Books