Design: Oriel the wizard of Walworth

Surrounded by massive resin heads, Jacobean jewels and a six-foot glass unicorn horn, a south London sculptress has created something rich and strange.
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The Independent Culture
Deep in darkest Walworth, beyond even the now departed glamour of the Labour Party headquarters, a lock-up shed with a corrugated roof hides the creation of fantastic things. Amid mugs of tea and a TV blaring Home and Away, resin branches are sprouting surreally from ridged trunk- like bases into efflorescent twigs; composite androgynous heads stand in rows, flames or feathers shooting from their tonsures like baroque toques; and, in one corner of Oriel Harwood's studio-workshop, rises a six-foot-high clay model of a unicorn's horn, now cast in clear glass and about to grace some lucky new owner's domicile. The place is a childhood fantasy in progress, Dungeons and Dragons crossed with a John Galliano catwalk.

These audacious pieces - neither furniture nor ornamentation, but something in between - are not made for meek persons or clinically-Nineties interiors. They are heroic, flamboyant, unashamedly ostentatious outpourings from the creative mind of Harwood, some 15 years in the business of recreating her fantasies.

Two years ago Harwood and her partner, Stephen Calloway - he of the mid- Victorian dress sense and waxed moustaches - found two 1790 houses which had long languished as offices of a taxi firm. Calloway approached the owners and asked if they were willing to sell. The result was that the pair acquired 20 rooms, three workshops, a courtyard, and a marvellous view of one of Railtrack's less busy south London lines. Now the courtyard sprouts lilac in tubs, purple clematis jackmannii on the walls and classical acanthus by the kitchen door, while across the way the workshop is home to Oriel Harwood's cottage industry.

Strewn around this mini-estate carcasses of resin forms lie about tantalisingly bubble-wrapped ready for assembly in some new home: horned candlesticks seemingly raided from an Assyrian tomb; blank-eyed "Tesra" heads, apparent escapees from Sir John Soane's Lincoln's Inn house; chandeliers of branches and thick oak leaves moulded over frosted glass. It is an Aladdin's Cave of art-in-progress.

Having trained at Middlesex as a potter, Harwood graduated in 1982, producing at her degree show a vivid primary-coloured glazed ceramic fireplace and glistening candelabra fashioned from serpents. "And I hadn't even seem Brighton Pavilion at that point" says Oriel, whose name is as baroque as her pieces. A Crafts Council grant helped her set up a workshop in 1984, and she had her first one-woman show, Architectual Ceramics, at Burgh House, Hampstead, which announced her intention to blur the edges between architecture and applied art.

Since then her work has mutated through a series of phases: 1980s baroque to "tulipomania" Delft-inspired oversized ceramic vases constructed to hold single tulip blooms in serried ranks. As these creations were featured in all manner of glossy magazine spreads, Harwood felt herself in danger of becoming typecast in an "Aren't they jolly?" trug-and-headscarf cliche. Instead, fate in the form of a burglary in the late Eighties sent Harwood's work through a darker phase: Jacobean jewel motifs, darkly lustred and spiky; and punk goth baroque which she likens to a film set for The Avengers. It was her first collection for a dealer, and Harwood was mortified when none of it sold: "I wished a rock star would buy it."

Instead she got a commission from Nigel Coates of Coates-Branson to decorate the interior of a clubroom in Tokyo. The brief was golf and Scots Baronial: Oriel's witty reaction was to construct a fantastical fireplace with golfball and thistle motifs and a tartan glaze. The photograph of the piece in situ - a dark den within a startlingly modern exterior - looks subversively decadent for a golf club. Another room commission for a restored country house involved Strawberry Hill gothic plaster branches creeping their way up the walls and along the ceilings. "It took a thousand screws to fix them up" says Harwood, who privately imagines all sorts of disasters and confesses to breezily telling owners, "Oh, it'll be no problem!"

It vexes her that despite 15 years of considerable work, her name is not yet recognised in the business. She despairs of getting a big commission. And yet her work is gradually moving out over the world. She now sells through David Gill, whose "very Catholic tastes" encompass the 20th century rococo/baroque/neoclassical influences on which Harwood's work draws, along with more modernistic influences. He is in the process of opening a warehouse-style showroom in Vauxhall, a massive white space which will provide a Saatchi-like setting for Harwood's work.

The scale and extravagance of her designs make them eminently suitable for movie sets, and she has already ventured into film work: Cruella de Ville's bedroom in the recent remake of 101 Dalmations was entirely based on her designs. Her neoclassical heads are also currently being installed in Christian Dior shops world-wide.

Fey her art may seem; its construction is not. Her dusty and overstuffed studio looks like a cross between a car bodyshop and a stonemason's. Her work has become refined in its very surface: the clay models are now gouged with naturalistic channels, inspired by close-up photographs of vegetative forms. Her art is growing into something feral and neo-romantic. It is both European and English, fantastic and surreal, and comes from a covert culture of excess, the aesthete's aesthetic offensive, flying in the face of what is considered "good taste" in an expression of flagrant escapism.

It follows a "secret history" of taste which draws on notions of otherness, a family tree of flamboyance from the 18th-century Gothic of Walpole's Strawberry Hill and Beckford's Fonthill to Wilde's "house beautiful" and Beardsley's black-and-red-painted Pimlico drawing room; from Robbie Ross's Half Moon Street rooms painted "dull gold" in 1917 as a protest against the war to the Sitwells ("big heroes", says Oriel) and their Carlyle Square dining room, where green walls and grotto furniture gave visitors the feeling of being under water. Indeed, Calloway has already chronicled the style (renamed "bugger's baroque" by some 1930s wit) in his magisterial tome, Baroque Baroque .

Modern supremos of "good taste" are anathema to Oriel and she despairs of the modern dictatorship of interiors. "I get enormously furious about Conran's influence - we're stuck with it because he has such financial clout". In the face of such cultural diktats, her declared fantasy - "I want to live in a Sicilian palace" - is tantamount to subversion, and room by room, floor by floor, the couple appear to be creating her dream. Their top-floor suites are already under way: Oriel's canary yellow and gold - "an Indian theme" - with an oval bathroom laid with bronze mosaic; Calloway's twin dark green and already spotted with archival prints of 18th-century marveilleuses and incroyables.

Harwood's relationship with Calloway - they met 11 years ago, and married soon after - is a battle of styles. Calloway, the performing dandy flaneur, documents the taste which his wife is recreating in rather more extreme manifestations. "Stephen is not adverse to the pastiche heritage stuff. I baulk at that . . . being that obvious. If Stephen suggests something I do exactly the opposite . . . we're happily at war!"

They are quite contrary creatures in their way: friends talk of wild parties in Walworth at which their host will be found attired in frockcoat and patent shoes, while his wife will be the party disco queen. Next year the pair intend to throw the definitive hedonistic millennium party. The home boys of Walworth won't know what's hit them.

Philip Hoare's latest book, `Wilde's Last Stand: decadence, conspiracy and the First World War', has just been published in paperback by Duckworth, pounds 11.95

Oriel Harwood's work is available at David Gill, 60 Fulham Road, London SW3 (Tel: 0171 589 5946/ fax: 0171 584 9184).