The British class system as we know it is dying. Where once people could identify themselves with absolute certainty as upper-, middle-, or working-class, now everyone has squished together to form a woolly central nebula.
Local pubs, once the epicenter of working-class communities, are closing in droves. Flat-screen TVs and smartphones, once symbols of an upper-middle-class elite, have become the norm. You can’t judge people on where they shop, because everyone, regardless of upbringing, has figured out how cheap Home Depot is. Even the old fail-safe of listening to how someone refers to an evening meal (“supper” is upper-class; “tea” is working-class) doesn’t work anymore, because everyone increasingly just calls it “dinner.”
Let’s put it another way. David Cameron is an Eton-educated former prime minister descended from William IV. My dad was a plumber. And yet, despite this enormous gulf in our upbringings, we can both sincerely claim to be middle-class. The old ways have become meaningless. Up is down and down is up. All our tried-and-true class signifiers mean nothing anymore. It’s even difficult to figure out class by the sound of someone’s voice now that the days of Received Pronunciation have been replaced by flat glottal stops. Prince William talks like a sedated 1980s yuppie, for instance. Queen Victoria would be appalled.
With one possible exception. David Cameron’s writing shed is done up in Farrow & Ball paint, whereas mine is not. And this is extremely telling. In short, the only thing in the world left to demonstrate that David Cameron is better than I am is his choice of paint brand. This is the power of Farrow & Ball.
All our tried-and-true class signifiers mean nothing anymore.
In a world gone mad, Farrow & Ball endures. A 74-year-old company founded on an insistence of avoiding modernity at every turn, it produces a paint with a status like no other. Fanatics will justify the price—a gallon of All White costs $110 compared with about $20 for an identical amount of mass-market emulsion—by waxing lyrical about its deep levels of pigmentation and how it reacts to different types of light on differently facing walls at different times of day. If you’re a certain type of person, a home simply isn’t a home without Farrow & Ball.
And yet trouble might still be on the horizon. FB Ammonite Ltd., Farrow & Ball’s parent company in the U.K., reportedly posted a $34 million loss last year, citing economic headwinds and that old catchall “continued uncertainty surrounding Brexit.” The bulk of the blame is being laid at the feet of D.I.Y. chain Homebase, which closed 43 branches after a botched takeover resulted in its sale to a corporate-restructuring firm for about $1.30. But still, tastes change. People move on. Farrow & Ball posted a similar loss the previous year, too. Might this be the end?
If it is, it’ll be yet another death rattle for Middle England. All sorts of legacy brands have fallen by the wayside in recent years. Mothercare has closed. Land Rover is now a subsidiary of India. John Lewis might not pay its staff a bonus for the first time in nearly 70 years. These failures are all sad, but the loss of Farrow & Ball would be seismic. It supplied paint for Raleigh bicycles. It supplied paint for the War Office. Losing Farrow & Ball would be like watching Mary Poppins get shot through the chest with a whaling harpoon.
Despite its history, though, Farrow & Ball only became truly popular in the early 1990s, when The World of Interiors magazine highlighted the work that the company had done under license to the National Trust, renovating various crumbling country piles with historically tasteful oil-based paints. This close alignment with stately British institutions remains; just last year it launched a partnership with the Natural History Museum, with a collection inspired by Abraham Gottlob Werner’s 1814 book, Nomenclature of Colours. If you ever wanted to paint your living room Broccoli Brown, now’s your chance.
Losing Farrow & Ball would be like watching Mary Poppins get shot through the chest with a whaling harpoon.
And then, of course, there is David Cameron’s shed. A $30,000 Cotswolds shepherd’s hut that quickly became a totem of his desire to run away and lick his wounds following his resignation, Cameron’s shed is arguably the most high-profile Farrow & Ball project in the U.K., painted in three different shades: Mouse’s Back, Old White, and something that goes by the vaguely obscene name of Clunch.
If you’re a die-hard Ball-head, these ridiculous names are all part of the attraction. But if you’re a detractor, they’re yet another weapon in your arsenal. After all, what sort of moneyed, out-of-touch lunatic would you need to be to want to paint your kitchen in a color called Borrowed Light or Churlish Green or Dead Salmon, especially when—at least to a layman—every single shade that Farrow & Ball has ever produced basically looks like an identical blob of oat-colored beige?
Then there’s the expense of the stuff, which is so vast that it has genuinely prompted government investigations. Last year a state school in Kensington narrowly escaped censure from the Department for Education after it was discovered to have spent almost $20,000 on Farrow & Ball paint, and another $7,700 on Jo Malone candles.
Plus—and this is something you’ll learn if you’ve ever asked a professional decorator to paint your room in Farrow & Ball—the stuff is notoriously rubbish. Online decorating forums are full of angst about uppity customers who want their living rooms done out in Savage Ground. “It’s overpriced!!” one user wrote. Another said, “The coverage on their products is a shambles.” “It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes,” wrote another. The complaints go on and on. “It needs four coats!” “It’s like living in Russia!” “Can you tell the guy who makes up the names to cut down on the drugs as it’s getting out of hand now.”
Even people who have lived with the paint sometimes found themselves frustrated at how easily it chips and marks, since there’s a world of difference between carefully restoring an ancient mansion and painting a house that people actually have to live in. But impracticality doesn’t seem to matter. Once you’re in with Farrow & Ball, you’re in hard. You just have to look at all the breathless longing that accompanies every one of its Instagram pages to see that.
This longing is probably why Farrow & Ball will weather this storm. Wanting to overspend on something in order to provoke jealousy in your peers is not an exclusively British trait. And this is why Farrow & Ball’s long-term success might depend on the global market. It’s already going through a period of compromise to expand its reach—in 2014 it was sold to a private-equity fund; in 2017 it altered its formula to become easier to apply—and now it’s more high-profile than ever. The Web site of the Musée Rodin, for instance, has its own page thanking Farrow & Ball for enhancing the color of its rooms.
And in November the company was awarded perhaps its biggest honor yet: a Saturday Night Live sketch about a drunk woman so deranged with lust for her “jackass million-dollar paint” that she tears her family apart over it. To its credit, Farrow & Ball responded in kind, by taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times showcasing its newest shade, English Roast (“subtle hints of bone-dry satire and a lingering aftertaste of charred British beef”).
My sense is that Farrow & Ball will be fine. It’s too posh to fail. As a species, we cry out for aspirational brands like this, and soon the whole world will be covered in four coats of Sulking Room Pink. Just don’t touch it, though, or else it might chip.
Stuart Heritage is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL based in Kent, U.K.