Go out and do the dishes

It's the most fun you can have around a table without drinking alcohol.

The pottery cafe is a place where the customer can have his cake and eat it - and then get to take home the plate.

There are 700 pottery cafes in America and 10 more opening every week. Last week there were four in London; now there are five, all competing for the most dreadful name: Art 4 Fun, Brush'n'Bisque-it, Glazed & Amused, Stark Raving Pottery, Thank U4 the Glaze (OK, I made up the last two) - all of them disgorging lurid painted plates and pots on to the EU crockery mountain.

That's what happens in pottery cafes: ordinary people paint crockery - a mug, a dinner plate, an Elvis Presley statue if they can stomach it. At the same time, in the casual and easy-going way that only people with a higher creative purpose seem able to manage, they socialise. Men meet women, egg-cups are admired, brush techniques swapped and glazes exchanged; and before long they start a 24-piece dinner service together.

Pottery painting is enormously satisfying. Stockbrokers do it to de-stress, dysfunctional families function for a couple of hours, stag night parties drop in to decorate a commemorative tea set, babies are brought in to immortalise their footprints on souvenir saucers. Pot painting is a great participatory social event. That's why cafes like Art 4 Fun are organising pyjama parties and singles nights, and why companies like General Electric are adding pot-painting to their team-building weekends. It's the new karaoke, only without the singing (always karaoke's weak point).

What else would they be doing, those people? They'd be down the pub, or they'd be in a restaurant, where at the end of the evening people would come and take their crockery away. At pottery cafes the end of the evening is never the end of the experience, because you return a couple of days later to pick up your fired piece which, according to pot-painting lore, always looks better than when you left it.

I didn't believe the potency of pot painting until I saw it in action a few months ago, while picking up my daughter from a children's birthday party at the Brush'n'Bisque-it in Fulham. The room was eerily, euphorically quiet. It was the quietest children's party I had ever been to. On the face of it, it is very easy to be cynical about a roomful of people in Fulham painting pots, but on the grounds of child noise alone, you have to grant them credit.

Now I have done it myself. I went with my 11-year-old daughter one evening to Chiswick's Art 4 Fun. The shop was bustling, mostly with women who seemed to know what they were doing. One regular customer here is working her way through a dinner service with a complicated cartoon monk motif, another is decorating 130 tiles for a fireplace, which might seem a little expensive at pounds 2.50 each, plus pounds 3 session fee per visit, until you are told that the Japanese tiles on which she has modelled her pattern cost pounds 40 a piece. Customers are encouraged to bring in their own take-away meals and wine, though due to the nature of the merchandise, excessive drinking is frowned upon.

The evening began with a pottery training session by a chatty woman called Rosie D'Apollo, who told us how to clean the piece and mix glaze colours and how ecstatically happy she was to be working every day in such a place. The next two hours disappeared. I don't know where, but they went. I stared into the soul of the pillow vase I had chosen for some minutes, then hatched some lines on it with a pencil. Then I drew in some flame shapes and a large sun. Then I mixed up some colours.

I haven't been so absorbed in anything since the fine art class where I absent-mindedly ate my neighbour's still life.

I emerged from this heroic lacuna more or less as they were closing the shop. It was 10pm and Rosie was prising the thing out of my hands to take to the kiln. My daughter was fussing over a little pot (pounds 11) which she had decorated with intricate spermatozoa hanging from a washing line.

David Berger, who started Art 4 Fun with his wife Ria, emphasises the therapeutic nature of it.

"There aren't many things a family with a broad range of age differences can do around a table which don't involve alcohol," says David.

While Art 4 Fun has a father Christmas's workshop sort of ambience, Ted and Bettina at Glazed & Amused chose an elegant, adult-friendly decor (by Pat Booth, who designed the furniture at The Ivy), reasoning that children will come along whatever it looks like.

Since he left the rat race and entered the pot trade, David has detected some envy in his former friends attitude to him. At the opening party of Glazed & Amused, fashion magnate Roberto Devorik came in saying "What's this potty idea then?"

"Then he spent an hour on this," says Ted victoriously, holding up a yellow plate with large black spots. "He called it Beluga on the Beach."

There is no reason to suppose this DIY passion which has been uncovered will stop at pottery. There are other crafts waiting to be exploited. There could be dough-craft and raffia rooms, craft bars full of loss adjusters on morale boosting weekends, weaving their own tartan slippers. Burger- bar customers will start demanding to injection mould their own polystyrene containers.

There are people of course, who will say that spending pounds 21 on a pillow vase, plus a pounds 3 session fee, plus money for coffee and cake, plus two hours of your own time in labour, is a waste when you can buy a vase in a shop for less, decorated by someone who knows what he's doing.

But they would be missing the point. They would not have returned to the shop two days later in excited anticipation of receiving something inexplicably better than what they had created, would not have borne the trophy home or set the thing in triumph on the upstairs lavatory windowsill and experienced the wonder that what they have made might outlive them, causing all who gazed upon it thereafter to think: "Why did he choose mauve?"

Art 4 Fun, the Creative Cafe, 444 Chiswick High Road, London W4, 0181- 994 4800; Glazed & Amused, 3 Chepstow Road, London W11; Brush'n'Bisque- it 127 Munster Road, London SW6 and 77 Church Road, London SW13, 0171- 736 2167; Colour Me Mine 168/170 Randolph Avenue, London W9, 0171-328 5533

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