Design: Nicely brought up but badly behaved

You thought the 1890s were the very last word in decadence, but our own fin-de-siecle is doing pretty well, too - going out in a flurry of disembodied hands, necklaces made of mock Viagra tablets, 60-channel television and an epidemic of hype.
In the classic Decadent text of the late 19th century that was to influence Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, the anti-hero of JK Huysmans' Against Nature, the Comte des Esseintes, retires to a Parisian suburban villa to indulge his taste for exquisite objects. His epicene pursuit reaches its apogee when he decides to have the shell of a tortoise embossed with jewels, carefully chosen so as to make a perfect aesthetic complement to his Persian rugs as the creature crawls around the house. However, it refuses to move; and the comte realises that his pet has perished, overwrought by the weight of gems on its back.

As we crawl through our own fin de siecle, weighed down by worries about the Millennium Bug, would anyone dare to replicate the comte's gesture? Perhaps. Louise Taylor, co- curator of the Decadence? show that opens this week at the Crafts Council, quotes one of the exhibiting artists, Grayson Perry: "Decadence in our age is not just a matter of bejewelled tortoises and Venus flytraps, more an epidemic of hype, the cult of celebrity, 60-channel TV and worn-out irony." It is an opinion borne out on Perry's pair of classic urns, apparently prettily decorated in gold, which on closer inspection are seen to feature sordid scenes of mayhem and murder.

Grayson Perry was among "50 or 60" artists contacted by the show's curators. They were asked "Does decadence exist now, and what does it mean to you?" The result is the fin-de-siecle cabinet of curiosities to be found here. Significantly, the show has been designed by Simon Costin, famous for his dead-animal jewellery in the Eighties. Costin's high fashion/ art profile gives a glamorous if not dangerous edge to the display - he wanted to have the signs written in human blood, but was overridden by the Crafts Council on grounds of safety. The result is nonetheless impressive: a sepulchral interior of neo-classical black-velvet drapes clutched by disembodied gilded hands - the sort of place a decadent's body might lie in state.

So are the contents lying in state, a last gasp of de luxe one-offs in the face of increasing minimal utilitarianism? Mary Shoester, who, along with her co-curators Philip Hughes and Louise Taylor, has refined the show's intellectual approach, defines the aim of Decadence?: "At the end of every century, culture becomes obsessed by where it's been and where it's going. Where is the happiness in life?" This worrying anxiety has an obverse side: a retreat into luxury. For Taylor, Decadence? is about "redefining luxury... it's not sequins, but cashmere"; the exquisite, the hand-made, the unique.

This show could furnish an entire apartment for a modern-day Comte des Esseintes: from Neil Wilkin's steel-and-crystal chandelier to Carl Hahn's rustic Gothic chair made for a young girl, "nicely brought up but badly behaved"; from Kei Ito's bleach-splattered linen housecoat, to the Timorous Beasties' screen-prints of thistles and vine-entangled fish that resemble a William Morris for the 21st century.

You'd have to take out a second mortgage to be able to afford John Makepeace's Fifteen, a chest of drawers assembled from burr elm and wild cherry, its every joint and edge so rounded or mitred as to become a sensual object in its own right. But your breath must be reserved for the back room where, hanging from the ceiling and dispensing reflected shards of light on to the other exhibits like a decadent benediction, is Andrew Logan's Icarus - the falling would-be angel with his wax wings, here rendered in mirror and stained glass, curving around him as he tips out of kilter.

Perhaps the pieces that best fit the purist's conception of decadence's deathly symbolism are David Hensel's jewellery. One Day Off is a necklet, fashioned from flame-like tufts of red silk and mock Viagra tablets (the 1968 Drug Act precluded the artist and the gallery from using the real thing); another choker, Millstone, aims an inert bullet at the wearer's jugular. A neckpiece made of mammoth ivory and fine gold wire displays key words - "violence", "venom", "guilt". And most extraordinary of all is a garrotte in red silk, which recalls the red ribbons worn around the necks of French Revolutionaries.

Hensel's work "is designed to encourage extravagant behaviour... I feel decadence is a natural cultural phase, that indulgence in opulence, an amassing of high-quality decorative art, is always the decadence of the Patron, never the artist".

In a culture where time is the most precious commodity, notes Shoester, to lavish time on creation can be a decadent act in itself. Her favourite piece is Ingeborg Bratman's 12-ft-long necklace of Mabe pearls from the South Seas.

Decadence? undoubtedly seeks to capitalise on a Zeitgeist. We live in an irony-ruled culture in which art has become almost an idea in itself; where Elton John can employ two people to arrange the 2,000 fresh flowers he orders for his London homes each week; where cocaine is the new opium of the masses (a truly decadent piece for the show's curators to have commissioned might have been a coke-sniffing straw and mirror). Yet there is a sense in which decadence, as a continuing strand from successive fins de siecle, is a precursor to regeneration.

She sees the show as having "the ambience of an 18th-century salon"; visitors are encouraged to sit on Carl Hahn's chair, to touch Neil Wilkin's chandelier. And, if they are in a truly des Esseintes frame of mind, they can buy it all, too.

`Decadence?' is on at the Crafts Council Gallery, 44a Pentonville Road, London N1 9BY, 0171-278 7700, from 21 January to 14 March

Philip Hoare's `Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy & the First World War', is published by Duckworth, price pounds 11.95

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