In The Studio: Richard Deacon, artist

'Having too many people around made me feel paralysed'

Richard Deacon is constructing what looks like a campfire with nails. I ask how many nails, and he says instantly:"157." They were displayed in Deacon's Welsh Pavilion in the 2007 Venice Biennale, and have been stored here in his studio in a prosaic plastic storage box. "I found a nail on the beach in Newcastle and I had it cast," Deacon says. He has taken them out today as they are to be photographed for Bronze, the forthcoming Royal Academy show.

Deacon was born in Wales and came to prominence in the 1980s alongside artists including Richard Long, Alison Wilding and Tony Cragg. He won the Turner Prize in 1987.  

Deacon now works on an industrial estate in Herne Hill. His is the smartest unit in the estate, a double-decker. He moved here in 1991, leaving Brixton, where he had been in a shared space. He is the only artist-tenant, unless you count the furniture-maker next door. He says he likes "working where other people are doing other things." The estate is "very vibrant and quite social", he says, though he is often away, having been for the past three years on the teaching staff of the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The faculty reads like a who's-who of successful artists, including fellow Brits Cragg and Peter Doig.

Downstairs, alongside a pile of wood, stand a rack of shapes that resemble the upturned hulls of rowing skulls. It is almost eerily quiet. Deacon likes to keep the place to himself. He goes away to work with people, he says, reeling off names of collaborators in various places – Matthew Perry in West Norwood for bending wood, Gary Chapman in Bletchley for steel, and Niels Dietrich in Cologne for ceramics. What he does want, he says firmly, is a place that is "private" – and then he looks at me, correcting himself: "semi-private." In the past, he says, having too many people around has "made him feel paralysed." But because of this, "the place has become somewhat merely a depot and not an active studio".

Going upstairs, we stand in front of shelves covered in objects. I am drawn to a carefully arranged group of miniature animals. He tells me he started to collect them when his children were small "as I was frustrated by Playmobil and how few animals they had. I collected them from all over when I was travelling." I point to some fossils and gourds nearby and say I can see the influence of these forms in his work. "Yes", he responds, "there are the shapes, the typology, and somehow the representation of history. And there is sentiment involved as well; some of these toys were my mother's and some" – he points at a lurid plastic Marge Simpson –"well, I find her hair interesting".