Picture it; it’s mid-century New York, you’re a liberated working woman who’s been taken out for cocktails and steak by one of the senior ad directors at the company you work for, and after dinner, he invites you back to his flat for a nightcap. It’s the penthouse, open plan, and there’s a bar, a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe chaise, and the biggest Hi-Fi system you have ever seen. You are overcome by twin thoughts of “he’s so sophisticated” and “he can provide for me and our yet-to-be-conceived children.” Welcome to the ‘bachelor pad’, as coined by the Chicago Tribune. By the 1960s the term was being used liberally in Playboy Magazine, which featured interior spreads of status-symbol homes for the single man and told you what to buy to ensure that the pad was “the outward reflection of his [the bachelor’s] inner self–a comfortable, liveable and yet exciting expression of the person he is and the life he leads”–the expectation being a life of largesse, style and success, and the apartment being somewhere any woman would be lucky to linger.
And yet, when it comes to contemporary Britain, straight, single and ‘stylish’ is a rare find in a man. Polled interior designers predominantly drew a blank when asked about bachelor pads–unless the bachelor in question was ‘not the marrying kind’. Similarly-polled single girlfriends–i.e. the kind that are regularly invited back for nightcaps–reported horror stories that either related to a Jeff Koons balloon dog collectible, too many mirrors, an indoor putting green and an unbelievably vast television (“it was like he thought Selling Sunset was a design show”) or to Withnail & I standards of depravity. Is there a middle ground? And might we find it? Or is the very nature of a show-off bachelor pad too much for the typically self-deprecating British man?
First, we need to address the history. America and Britain are ever linked by our common language and film culture, but the mid-century version of the bachelor pad this side of the Atlantic wasn’t quite the same. We still had rationing in the early years of the 1950s, and London still contained vast swathes of bomb-damaged areas. So when David Hicks was working on the Eaton Place–the house he’d persuaded his mother to buy for him to decorate–he used antiques, Edwardian-era Cole & Son wallpapers, and had to buy the strong-coloured fabrics he wanted from a theatrical supplier–there wasn’t anything in scarlet, vermilion, cerulean and emerald available from traditional interiors shops. The result, as his son Ashley Hicks later described, had a distinctly “masculine clarity”–but it also had his mother, which is an unusual bachelor pad accessory, although there is no suggestion that a bachelor pad is what Hicks had been aiming for. Because the other important consideration when it comes to the concept in Britain is that the high-end apartment for the single man already existed, namely, Albany.
Located between Piccadilly and Burlington Gardens, the palatial townhouse was transformed into 69 bachelor apartments, known as ‘sets’, in 1802. Among others, Lord Byron, Aldous Huxley, Lord Snowdon and Kenneth Clark have all been residents (incidentally, residents no longer have to be bachelors, though there’s a ban on children under fourteen.) And what crucially separated the American bachelor pad from the British set is that the latter were less about attracting a mate (women weren’t allowed into Albany until 1880) and more a place of refuge, and somewhere to comfortably receive your (male) friends.
But David Hicks’s Eaton Place house did get a spread in a 1954 issue of House & Garden, which kickstarted his career. In 1960, he married Pamela Mountbatten, the daughter of Prince Philip’s uncle, and shortly afterwards found himself doing up Prince Charles’ bachelor suite of rooms. They were definitely more palace than penthouse, and more about outstanding antiques than contemporary design, but nonetheless, “that might have been the ultimate bachelor pad,” suggests Guy Goodfellow–if, that is, “it wasn’t David’s own set at Albany, which he lived in with Pamela,” he continues–though a wife isn’t a traditional accoutrement to that particularly category of housing, any more than a mother. (The children, incidentally, lived in Oxfordshire, or at boarding school.)
In 1980 Prince Egon von Furstenberg published the irresistibly titled The Power Look At Home; Decorating for Men, which evidently never reached biblical status for it’s (sadly) no longer in print–although there was a moment that decade when the bachelor pad was a vital element of yuppie culture, until another book killed it, namely Brett Easton-Ellis’s American Psycho. Patrick Bateman might have had a Mackintosh chair and oversized black and white Robert Longo artworks, but his dates risked being butchered against the backdrop of the industrial stainless-steel kitchen. Further, fast forward to the #metoo movement and to be perceived as exploiting the power dynamic is a strict no-no.
There’s also the economy to consider. The vast majority of people in their 20s and early 30s, i.e. pre-marriage, live in shared, rented accommodation, for reasons relating as much finance as friendship. Cities are expensive, and the creative industries are not renowned for generous starting salaries. Sure, the young Nicky Haslam used car paint in his Waterloo cottage to ‘lacquer’ the walls – but can you imagine trying to negotiate back your deposit if you did similar?
But that period pre-marriage is also a moment when taste is still developing, and you’re working out what you like, having fun with it, and maybe dipping your toe into buying art. We have found attractive bachelor pads–though they’re far from the ostentatious examples pedalled by Playboy. Victoria von Westenholz says she enormously enjoys working with single men “as decisions tend to be made so quickly”; she’s currently developing a scheme she describes as “stripes in strong colours, and the occasionally chintzy pattern but more pomegranate than pretty.” A single friend who owns an ex-local authority flat in north London took Edith Wharton’s description of Laurence Seldon’s bachelor apartment in 1905’s The House of Mirth as his inspiration, with its many books, shaded balcony, ‘shabby leather chairs’ and ‘pleasantly faded Turkey rug.’ (The idea of the bachelor home as a retreat wasn’t an alien concept in pre-1950s New York, either.) And Guy Goodfellow has recently designed what perhaps is best described as a bachelor ‘pod’. The client is married, but at the top of the family home “is an apartment that’s all about self-indulgence, based on the Villa Kerylos. There’s an atrium with a glass roof, columns, and lots of greenery. There’s a huge gym, entertaining spaces, televisions that slide out of everywhere–there’s even one on the roof terrace–so that he can have a game on in the background. There are hidden pocket doors everywhere, with marble skirting extending across them, every single available bit of technology, and there’s even a mirror over the bed but it’s a deep, dark antiqued mirror–hugely flattering.” Guy equates it to the ’man den’ or shed–but it sounds vastly more fun than the tartan and cigar-decked dens of the imagination, “and importantly, it’s not about hiding,” he says.
Conceivably, the Playboy bachelor pad of old was a false construct, fed to us to bridge what was a moment of strongly encouraged consumerism (the magazine had to sell advertising space, after all) and the post-war crisis in masculinity (supposedly caused by women’s appearance in the workplace, as well as clubs and bars). Today’s versions are still a reflection of those who live there, but in a less prescribed manner. Of course, the key to being comfortable in your design choices is to be comfortable in yourself. For all the bravura and facsimiles of success, were any of those mid-century Mad Men characters truly happy?