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One exception to the dreary status quo

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EXHIBITIONS Ideal Home Exhibition At Earls Court, London SW5 until 13 April

Walk into this year's Ideal Home Exhibition and the first sight to assail you is a lot of multi-coloured bedding and a collection of overstuffed sofas. Unkindly, but not inaccurately, compared by one visitor to a visit to MFI, the whole show has a decidedly 'retro' feel - but the kind of retro that is far too recent to qualify as nostalgia, let alone 'heritage'.

You could be forgiven for wondering which decade you are inhabiting. Between the clip-on skirting boards, the World of Chocolate, and the caravan with its baroque Dralon sofas and centrepiece gas fire, there are a few feeble indicators of the 1990s - the mobile-phone salesmen, the gym equipment - but no sign at all of the proposed changes in housing being driven forward by projects like the Millennium Village and Glasgow's Homes for the Future.

The four show houses sit round a kind of village pond with an air of the most banal out-of-town development. They have some innovations internally, such as home studies and water-saving devices, but all within a framework so 'traditional' it scarcely even acknowledges Ikea. The droning voice-over may tell the crocodile of visitors that there 'are vaulted ceilings for a touch of drama and splendour' but the bathroom still has carpet on the floor and the three-piece suite matches the curtains.

The only alternative on offer is Nigel Coates' much-trumpeted 'Oyster' Concept House, which seems a world apart. Marooned in a kind of green prairie beyond the garden-implements section, it looks as if it has dropped in from an update of The Ice Storm. After the shock of seeing a well-known drawing finally transformed into copper and glass, the dominant impression is of the lifestyle that Coates has created inside.

And that is as far from antiseptic futurism as you can get. Of course there are gizmos, and last Thursday Coates himself was there, making sure that the projectors and sound systems were switched on and swiftly tidying up before the arrival of Cherie Blair. But the over-riding sensation, in such contrast to the other houses, is that this one is inhabited.

The occupants have just popped out, and I wasn't too sure I wanted to meet them when they returned.

Downstairs, with its continuous open spaces, is all very rational, despite the cacophonous tape of music plus squealing cat and barking dog, the television projected onto the curtains, and the kitchen where the only fresh food comprised a tiny loaf of ciabatta and a huge plantation of that trendy comestible, wheatgrass.

But go upstairs and you realise just how oysterlike this house is, with its copper shell closing up to conceal a range of discrete and, surely, slightly squalid activities. The inhabitants are a family, a couple with two teenage children. The son's room has a kind of abstracted leopardskin carpet which emphasises the way the floor slopes up to the window - surely ideal for skateboarding, and there is the skateboard on the floor beside the electric guitar. This boy has his mattress raised up on a box and half-concealed by a curtain, which still allows glimpses of his collection of pin-ups for nocturnal contemplation. And the whole ensemble is completed by a five-foot-tall multicoloured phallic lamp and a lipstick-red powder-compact chair.

His sister is surely some kind of Lolita in a room where quilted white bedding extends across the floor, to be covered with pink and red cushions and discarded sequinned garments. The parents' room is more conventional but with its fake-fur seating, giant television, bottle of spirits, and unidentified pharmaceuticals has its own louche air. After seeing all this, and passing through the bathroom which, although sternly elegant, had the kind of slatted flooring sufficiently uncomfortable to satisfy some masochistic urge, I encountered the final room, the home office, with a jaundiced eye.

Here was the sophisticated flat screen computer, there the book on 1960s design, but surely this was a smokescreen. Nobody could write for long in the unergonomic chair; the only conceivable activity was the scripting (and possibly, with the ponyskin rug, bright lamp and curtains across the room, even the directing) of pornographic videos.

And what do the Ideal Homies make of this? 'There's nothing here for me' asserted one, and several criticised the sloping floors as a waste of space. But as they scurried back to discussing iron bedframes and water features, they could have reflected that Coates' vision of the future ignored both the dreary status quo of this year's show and the worthiness of so much that is proposed for tomorrow.

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