Buddhas in suburbia

How do you spot the only house in a London street that doubles up as a shop? Look for the disco glitterball in the front room. Charlotte Packer investigates
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Finding the studio of Steve Wright and Donald Jones is not difficult. Theirs is the only house in the neat little East Dulwich street with a Derek Jarman-style front garden - shingle, bamboo and found objects - and a disco glitter-ball glinting through the bay window. There are more hints of what is to come, such as the bright lilac sign on the sober black gate, but these are noticed only in retrospect. Instead, the weather- beaten chunks of wood and the seaside feel of the garden lead the first- time visitor to imagine that yet another shop dedicated to driftwood mirrors and frames lies beyond.

A second lilac sign on the side gate which acts not only as entrance to the shop and studio, but also to Wright's home (Jones lives across the road), invites you to ring the bell for attention. Somewhere inside, mingled with the strains of Frank Sinatra, it rings, and you wait, and then a few minutes later the gate opens to reveal a turquoise hallway flooded with sunlight from above. Climb the step sparkling with mirror mosaic, and you are transported from the fringes of Peckham to a sunny paradise, which is a cross between a Mexican carnival and a trip to Rajasthan.

For lovers of kitsch and colour, this is heaven: every shelf, table and ledge is covered with jewelled trinkets, tiny charm bracelets and miniature shrines from Mexico; bright straw bags dangle from hooks and are piled on the floor; Indian wedding garlands decorate shelf fronts and doorways; key-rings and candles are heaped together. High above it all, a statue of the Virgin Mary, framed in ornate sprayed gold plastic, gazes down benignly.

Once you have taken it all in, you see that everything bar the Virgin is for sale. These two brightly painted rooms have been transformed into a vast souvenir shop, an amalgam of every cheap and cheerful promenade shop you have ever been to.

"You should have seen it yesterday," says Wright. "We'd got it looking perfect, and then we had a really good day and lots of things sold, so now there are gaps." Not that you can imagine how anything else would possibly fit into the space.

"Though we call it a shop," he continues, "it is really a studio, and we see it as a giant painting, or installation, which we keep taking apart." Looking around their "installation", you would guess that both Jones and Wright are inveterate travellers with a particular fondness for Mexico and India. But the truth is that they have not had time to visit either country (though they plan to go soon); they simply have an unerring ability to identify items that sum up the spirit of these places. For the time being, they satisfy their wanderlust with regular trips to Dungeness and Zennor.

Jones and Wright are fascinated by souvenirs, whether they are a tacky snow dome containing a city's most famous monument, or a pebble pocketed during a weekend by the sea. This preoccupation with found objects and souvenirs is not just limited to the stock they buy in; it is also evident in their work. Jones's simple, sturdy furniture, which he describes as "patchwork in wood", is constructed from different-coloured planks of wood reclaimed from garden sheds. Although quirky and reminiscent of the driftwood school of furniture design, the clean lines of the tables and cabinets, and their simple glass tops, give them a modern edge. Collages by Wright contain mementos gathered from his travels, while an appliqued hanging of a blackbird, its wings adorned with mother-of-pearl buttons, is a record of the day he met the Pearly King of Peckham.

At the back of the shop-cum-studio is a room holding a long, wide workbench at which Wright and Jones work on their mosaics, collages and other mixed- media pieces. A year ago, before the shop was even thought of, this back room was given over to storage and packing for the decorative wrapping- paper, greetings cards and notebooks that Wright was designing and shipping around the world. Although hugely successful, with vast orders coming in from across the UK, Japan and United States, he grew tired of endless nights spent boxing them up, and days spent sitting at trade fairs securing more orders.

"It had got to the stage where I really was thinking of leaving London," he admits. "We were both fed up with it all, and ideally we wanted to move, to live by the sea somewhere in Cornwall." They had considered using the house as a showcase for their own work and for work by other designers and, at a friend's suggestion, they decided to give the shop a go, before bailing out. They had also been dithering over how to decorate the room, so the prospect of the public wandering through gave them the impetus. "We kept saying, `we must do something with this room'," explains Jones. "And one day we found ourselves covering the walls with silver paper." Since then, the room has had several makeovers, and is currently basking in hot Caribbean pinks and blues.

The shop grew quickly and had soon taken over both ends of the double- length sitting-room, and Wright had to move his things out. "I still use these rooms. At night I clear everything off the table and eat in here. But really, I don't need much living-space - I could live in a broom cupboard if I had to." Having always let the top half of his house as a self-contained flat ("I don't like living upstairs," he says; "I like to be grounded"), the only place left for his bed was the kitchen, which now resembles a cottagey bedsit, with a bed squeezed into one corner, an armchair in front of the fireplace, and the "kitchen" occupying an L shape at the other end.

Through the open door at the end of the studio, customers can glimpse the pair's next major project: the garden. "We are going to mosaic the whole thing and build a temple at the end." Jones, who is a costume designer, has plans for figures sporting elaborate head-dresses. At the moment the garden is empty, apart from piles of broken china which has been colour- sorted in readiness. The steps out to the garden have been cemented and work on the first mosaic should start any day now. This is all part of an ongoing plan in which the shop shrinks and the whole ground floor becomes one large installation. Their customers, however, may insist that some vestige of the current shop remains; after all, they are travelling from as far afield as Devon and the Midlands to snap up Wright and Jones's mixed-media creations, and to stock up on cheap and cheerful Mexicana.

Steve Wright and Donald Jones's studio, at 45 Melbourne Grove, East Dulwich, SE22 (0181-299 3164), is open on Fridays and Saturdays from 11am- 6pm, or at other times by appointment only. Ella Doran's new earthenware collection, `Silence', will be launched at the studio on 21 August