words Justin McGuirk
DIY is dead. Which isn’t to say that millions of people don’t still put up their own wonky shelves, but as a cultural phenomenon it has had its day. Like God and “the author” in previous eras – only less portentously – it has been toppled with an apathetic “No thanks”.
Once it seemed that every other programme on television was about DIY. A small army of Handy Andies and TV “design experts” showed us how to turn a home into a hellish bordello of zebra print and purple chunder. But they were eminently forgettable compared to the likeable do-it-yourselfers who lampooned our weekend hobbyism through the 1980s and 90s. Kenny Everett’s character Reg Prescott was a blood-spattered warning to us all. Showing us how to make a Louis XIV cabinet, he’d say, “Make sure you hold the wood nice and steady,” before running the blade of the jigsaw neatly through his fingers. His successor, Home Improvement’s Tim Allen, was less funny but more trenchant in portraying the DIYer as a Neanderthal who’d skipped flint tools and gone straight to Black & Decker.
These days we’re less interested in saving money than we are in making it. Now every other TV programme is about novice developers learning how to manage their builders: the stencil painters of Changing Rooms have become the middle class Roman emperors of Grand Designs.
So where does this leave B&Q, that temple of thrift and well-meant plans that ruin the weekend?
B&Q is a church of self-empowerment. It’s a place where laymen can, for a few deluded moments, feel like professionals. Aisles of chisels, cable clips, angle grinders and veneer effect doors vanish into the distance reassuringly. This is a place of plenty, thinks the Arnie-loving amateur builder before picking up the “Predator” Power Saw Set and growling to himself “Just the job”. B&Q presents the idea that the domestic world is at the mercy of our own agency: “You can do it if you B&Q it.”
But how quickly that optimism turns into regret – and then guilt. The regret that comes with you having to stay in on the first sunny Saturday in ages to retile your bathroom, and the guilt when a month later you still haven’t finished and you wish you’d just paid someone to do it for you.
As a kid, a trip to B&Q was like a trip to a theme park for the imagination. “Imagine if you were the A-Team, yeah, and the baddies locked you up in here.” (The high point of every episode was when the A-Team got captured and thrown into a garage full of blowtorches for cutting their way out and barrels of petrol for creating diversionary explosions.)
In a more aestheticised way, I suspect something similar is true of many designers today. I’ve had some confess to me that they wander the aisles of utility stores just admiring how beautifully conceived the tools are. In today’s appropriative design culture, designers – especially the kind we publish in this magazine – are more likely to buy four hammers to turn into a readymade stool than they are to use them against a nail.
B&Q will remain a place of pilgrimage for fantasists and fetishists, and all those whom Reg Prescott used to address as “You DIY freaks out there in DIY land”.