David Wainwright has done more than his fair share to put Indian furniture in the interiors of the Nineties. Now he's going further afield for pieces with much simpler lines, says Hester Lacey
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LOOK AROUND your home, or anyone else's, and you are more than likely to spot something Indian; a wooden chest, a throw or carpet, a brass pot, a sculpture or carving. And one man who has done more than his share in popularising such exotic decor is David Wainwright, whose three London shops are packed with ethnic antiques. But while he is not forsaking India entirely, these days he is foraging further afield, in China and Indonesia.

"It's a logical move," he explains. "Perhaps you have a heavily carved chest from India. It's a headache just to look at it, you're tired of it but its naturalness is still charming. So you start looking for things with the same idea behind them, but of more simple design. You look for a country where proportion and simplicity are as important as the carving itself. In India they don't give a damn about proportion; I once tried to find the Hindi word for proportion and they don't seem to have one."

The obvious place to start, he says, was Java. "Java had been a Dutch colony for 400 years. The Dutch like simple forms in exquisite wood. Shaker furniture is based on the Dutch influence in Pennsylvania, and Javanese furniture continues the same theme." Chinese work, similarly, combines simplicity and line. "The further east you get, the more important function becomes. The Chinese are obsessed with proportion; they even have rules on where to put their furniture."

He believes this trend will go even further for him, towards Japanese-style severity; but for now, he has crammed his shops with east Asian furniture and ornaments. There are antique Manchurian lacquer linen cupboards and jewellery boxes; a turn-of-the- century teak cabinet from Madura, an island off the north-east coast of Java; a Javanese screen; wooden Chinese lunch boxes; a Chinese chest decorated with carved bats and butterflies for good luck; an elmwood wine table from Manchuria; terracotta pots from Java; porcelain boxes made from pieces lost in shipwrecks and scattered across the seabed in the Malacca Straits; all this and much more. The famously chic and minimalist Hempel Hotel in west London has many examples of Wainwright imports, most notably the gleaming rows of Indonesian drums made from hollowed and polished wood.

All Wainwright antiques and objects are hand-made and unique; he eschews the mass-produced, tacky products made especially for the export and tourist markets. "If you are remotely sensitive you can tell if furniture was made with passion - perhaps as part of a dowry, or for a new baby," he says. "This is why my furniture slaughters Victorian furniture, which was made with cynicism and mass-produced. There is no such concept in Asia - things are not made to be sold. That is our edge - you never see two pieces alike."

He sources his own wares, even though it can be dangerous. "You hire a jeep - cars are no good, they just get messed up - and it has to be the most powerful jeep you can lay your hands on, you don't economise on transport. If the area is vicious, you take a truck and buy the stuff there and then and take it out. If not, you find the village head-man, introduce yourself, and just chat - find out what's available," he says nonchalantly, rather in the mode of someone jaunting off into hinterlands no wilder than deepest Surrey. Two of his Javanese suppliers have been murdered in the last four weeks. He has been nearly drowned in a flash- flood in Indonesia. In one Indian hotel, a man in the neighbouring room was stabbed to death because he failed to lock his door. But Wainwright remains undaunted. "I've made 84 visits to the East now and you get to smell trouble. The worst thing is riots between two religious groups. Java at the moment is hell. But I'm growing very fond of Sumatra - it's wild, and Borneo too, though it is dangerous ."

Getting out and finding his own supplies is essential, he believes, to the nature of his business. "The deeper you get with what we would call primitive people, the closer you get to God, for want of a better word - perhaps you could say nature, I'm not a religious man," he says. "They look into your eyes and they can see if you're honest - luckily I am. I'm not out to rip people off - they have the edge, they have the language. The only edge I've got is to pay a bit more and be absolutely straight."

In China, he says, it was "useless" trying to buy from dealers in Hong Kong. "I went deep into the interior," he says. "The further from the Western notion of civilisation you get, the friendlier the Chinese get. City Chinese are cold and pragmatic; while India is romantic, China is much less so, they are just coming out of communism and are sick of not having things we take for granted." He did not find China as easy to love as India. "In some parts of the desert in India, camels are still the main form of transport, so you actually see your coffee-tables swaying on the backs of them. Once you drive into China, you see egg-box architecture, concrete blocks, rubbish dumps, scrap heaps, belching tyre factories, sickly paddy-fields, it's a terrible let-down until you get further away. The secret to China is to go where it's hilly."

His first trip east was to India; he was 17 (he is now 39). "I took a bet with a friend that I could hitchhike from Calais to Kathmandu." He lost the bet. "I got a bit carried away in Afghanistan. It was very hard to leave Kabul. It was the real hippie era, the early Seventies, everybody was very thin, rather graceful and genuinely nice at that time. Travelling then was more romantic and much easier: it was a very liberal time. We little hippie types could run as wild as we liked."

His first foray into selling concerned ivory bangles. "In those days Rajasthani women wore ones that had been imported from Africa a century or so before. When the women died, the family would hang the bangles in a tree near where they had been cremated; then someone realised that ivory was valuable. They were selling for about seven pence each." He started importing in a small way - just as much jewellery as he could carry - and then moved into fashion before he made furniture and antiques his main business.

But he has still retained a certain hippie ethos. He claims an "allergy" to precious antique dealers, who, he says, are mostly "chronic snobs". "Antiques dealers make four mistakes," he says. "They all speak with artificial public school voices they weren't born with, to show how learned they are. They keep their front doors closed - we don't, we welcome everyone. They light their shops really badly. And nine times out of 10 unless you're dressed like a king they look at you suspiciously. Anyone would be put off." Though his largest and best pieces of furniture are priced in the thousands, there is plenty for under pounds 10: coins, glassware, stoneware, much of it genuine antique. "It allows people with very little money to buy something old and romantic," he explains. And people with lots of money come in too. "I don't think there's a major English pop star we haven't sold to," says Wainwright.

His own current favourite is an inscribed stone plinth originally from outside a Mandarin school in the 1870s. "We had it translated and it reads `When you study you should work hard but most importantly you should be loyal to your family'," he says. "Isn't that good advice?"

David Wainwright: 251 Portobello Road, London W11 (0171 792 1287); 61-63 Porto-bello Road, (0171 727 0707); 28 Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead, London NW3 (0171 431 5900)