Design: Wood, paint and random patterns

Sculpted animals lope across her desk. Sometimes they fall off, but at least they make the computer bearable. By Ruth Padel
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I WORK happily anywhere except my desk, which radiates reproach. Bills, unanswered letters, things that force decisions such as forms asking me if I want cable television. I go there only for deadlines, and re-drafts that need the printer. Otherwise I work in bed or, ideally, for complicated, effortful prose, in a cafe. When I lived in Crete, I drafted my first prose book in a Heraklion coffee shop with a red leather dachshund in the window.

The only thing that makes the desk bearable are painted wooden animals: big ones, as robust as possible, for I grew up among dangerously fragile ceramics. At my grandparents', we ate alongside a large Tang horse, scratching his bottom with protuberant teeth. My cousin was once found under the table with an 18-inch Tang dancer whose clay hand was moulded to her all- too-fracturable hip. The baby had her wrist through the arm/hip triangle and was trying to shake it off. Those Chinese things must have given me a taste for animal shapes around the place, but I don't want to worry about breakage.

The best is a dancing zebra, pounds 13 from Cucina, a gift shop in England's Lane, London. When an aggressive mound of unanswered letters pushed him off the desk, I superglued his hock back and he's fine. He's stood by me through three books of poems and the painful mutations of a book I thought was on women's desire but is really on male rock music. Now that one's nearly (touch wood) finished, I realise that I've depended on the cheerful cockeyed swirl of his chest, and his goatish grin.

I like these animals, I think, because most things round us don't need to be the shape they are. Radios in the shape of bumper cars, phones disguised as Elvis or Garfield - a lot of design makes changes only for the eye, to something whose function is inside itself: like a calculator. But animals - cheetahs, okapis, caribou or capybaras - have to be their shape. An animal's shape says what it does: its beauty is determined by its function. As with tools. When a French farmer made a handle for Robert Frost's axe: He showed me that the lines of a good helve/ Were native to the grain before the knife,/ Expressed them, and its curves were no false curve/ Put on it from without.

Which Seamus Heaney says is about poetry as well as axe-handles. What makes a poem or axe-haft beautiful is a line that's native to the material. In other words, organic.

That word "organic" casts a spell today because we are stuffed to the gills with designed materials. Sainsbury's "organic" food sales went up 50 per cent in Camden last year. We scamper like lemmings to "organic" shampoo, yoghurt, compost, pain-killers or beef. (Beef may be lethal, but how's it ever inorganic? "Organic" just means "maybe better for you".) If they made organic Apple Macs or Ford Fiestas, there'd be a riot.

Yet "organic" is the enemy of "designed", and we yearn for that too. We're in an organic-versus-design double bind. "Engineered" is good when you're checking out the turbo elegance of a new Mercedes, bad when you put "genetic" before it. We adore artificiality, and shun it. That's why I like the paradox of a natural design: design created only by need. And the best example of that is a bird. Hence (I think) the current craze for painted ducks.

The best duck I know lives down the road from me and has seen Andrew O'Hagan through his first novel. She came from the Pyrenees - roan wings, blue neck, big white blob of an eye, kohl-black, self-possessed pupils: one day I'll find a duck like that. I've got an elegant Zimbabwean heron for pounds 26 from Zamani (which now sells tribal art in Highgate Village, beside the dentist who's looked after me since I was 12), plus a pounds 38 red goose from Kristan Baybars in Gospel Oak.

Kristin Baybars looks like a toyshop, but the window says it isn't. "Any resemblance to a toyshop is in your imagination." Her anarchic dolls-house display (men shaving in the kitchen, women picking nits out of kids' hair) is obsessive, extraordinary and addictive. Dolls-house freaks from Holland to Honolulu murmur over minuscule dovecotes in the tumultuous back room. We chose wallpaper for my daughter's dolls' house there: green brocade for the Music Room, Turkish red for the stairs. Now she's too grand for toys I go, unaccompanied, for painted animals. I spent the advance for this year's book of poems on an ark painted by Jill Hancock, a folk-paint genius with an eye for triangles. She used to make sumptuous boxes for Harrods but has now reverted to toys: though Baybars says she might make a box, on commission.

I've never learnt to paint, but I'm mesmerised by its techniques. Painting is like writing without worrying. My only medium, though, is matt emulsion. Since 17, the longest I've lived anywhere was six years. I once made five kitchens in nine years: gas pipes, walls down, floors up, the lot. It's hell for living and working, but I love the way all that work changes how you see. I couldn't manage stencils; they'd smudge and I get anxious if I try to follow rules. And they are too, well, designed, for me. I only copy, freehand. I spent a whole summer painting the back door with two Balkan dancers from off a Greek Christmas card.

Some people read cookery books for comfort; I obsess over how-to-paint books. Anne Young's Paint Roses and Castles: Traditional Narrow Boat Painting (from Hegners, a pilgrimage-worthy artists' shop at South End Road, London) is too technical for me to use but I get a buzz from reading it.

"Painting Blue Flower: Step 1: Start flower with yellow disc. Step 2: Encircle with mid-blue discs. Step 3: Small white dots round yellow circle. Step 4: Add pale blue strokes round edge of each petal. Step 5: Add a small off-centre pink crescent. Start at the top, put slight pressure on brush, making the bristles spread a little. Gently lift pressure and turn point of brush very slightly so the paint trails away at the base."

There. All you need. Do it (if you can) on watering-cans, pianos, shoe-horns, dog-kennels, dogs, computers, toothbrushes... anything you fancy.

Wood is my other obsession. Loping after the zebra on the desk is a chunky naked wood armadillo from Brazil. Our oak kitchen table came from my grandparents' back porch. I polyurethaned it to a dark, tigery brown like slubbed silk. Its only blemish is an acid-burn from when my daughter's table-vandalising spaniel decided a pack of Duracel AA batteries was a treat unjustly withheld from her. She left the field only when acid began dripping from her fangs. Dog fine; table scarred; batteries unusable.

Paint on wood, though, is the best of both worlds. Whoever painted my zebra curved the stripes perfectly into his friskily dependable wooden body. I once knew a mathematician researching zebra embryos. God knows where he found them in Oxford, but zebras are, apparently, the example of infinite mathematical randomness. You never know what stripes will get up to next. (See the jungle-fur frames round the new-look Miss Selfridge mirrors.) On my quilt-drenched desk, beside the computer I also dearly love but only for what it can do, I find that zebra dream of wood, paint, and endlessly random pattern to be endlessly comforting.

Cucina, 8 England's Lane, Belsize Park, London NW3 (0171-722 7093); Zamani, 314 Highgate High Street, London N6 (0181-348 4994); Kristin Baybars, 7 Mansfield Road, London NW3 (0171-267 0934); Hegners, 13 South End Road, London NW3 (0171-435 0786)

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