Interiors: City of lights

Artist Charlie Dossett would prefer to spend a day tiling than exhibit his work in a gallery. Kate Worsley meets a man who likes to hide his light under a bushel
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The Independent Culture
FOR A MAN who practically rebuilt his house to take advantage of the all-round light, Charlie Dossett seems strangely reluctant to make use of it. The big sash windows that provide a near 360 degree view are all draped with reed blinds or sheets of white muslin, permanently obstructing the views.

But that's exactly how the 30-year-old artist likes it. He is jealous of his privacy, and his flat, on the corner of a busy road in west London, is perfectly situated for nosy passers-by. "After the building work had been finished and the walls painted white I suddenly felt a bit exposed," he says. "This place looks great when all the lights are on at night, but I don't want anyone looking in."

It is the lights themselves that would fascinate, more than the scene they illuminate. For anyone looking in would see a fantastical multicoloured cityscape of miniature skyscrapers, painstakingly sculpted from card and lined with tissue paper. Above them, panels depicting pockmarked lunarscapes and drifting bubbles glow eerily on the walls. These have been carved out of polystyrene and mounted in neon lightboxes salvaged from a disused office. Much of the remaining wallspace is occupied by other artworks.

It feels like a private exhibition space and, in essence, it is. Dossett's home is also his studio (he works by night, in seclusion) and few people, apart from his friends and family, have seen any of his work. His one show, in a temporary workspace near Baker Street, consisted mainly of works that had to be lent back to him for the occasion. "The exhibition was just an excuse for a party, really," he says. "So far I've mainly sold the lights to friends. That way I always have access to them. I've always found it hard to let go of my work, but it's something I've got to get over."

When Dossett bought his flat five years ago, it was an uninteresting conversion above a launderette (he took over the latter last year, when the freeholder became exasperated with the constant building work). Although the flat has been extensively remodelled, it has a deliberately shabby chic (mountain-bike tracks in the carpet, scuffed walls) that is very west London. Dossett himself (hunched, lean and sandy-haired) is Notting Hill born and bred. Charming and self-effacing, his scarcely audible voice creates the impression that he doesn't really mind whether you hear what he has to say or not. In any case, his voice keeps being drowned out by thumping music from downstairs. His girlfriend, Liz Fairley, a singer and Playstation music programmer, moved in about a year ago and works from the bedroom, which is now dominated by a huge kitchen worktop, brought in to support all her recording equipment.

The flat was a lucky find. "I bought it off the building society as a repossession. In fact, the police were round only last week chasing the previous owner," Dossett explains. On first sight, it seemed cramped and pokey: the large L-shaped room at the top had been partitioned to create two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the ceilings, which have since been raised to the height of the rafters, were oppressively low. His brother Ben, a property developer, drew up the plans and Dossett did much of the work himself (he used to work on building sites as a student and still works intermittently as a builder). But during the early months of work on the building, he was often out of action, first in hospital and then recuperating at his mother's house. Years of heavy drinking at college caught up with him and kidney problems landed him in hospital. "There were complications after the general anaesthetic and I had to have some of my stomach removed. I was down to eight stone and as I'm over 6ft I looked like a POW. I was quite sick for a year."

Confinement stimulated his creativity. He drew comic-book scenes based on memories of Portobello Market and then, making use of drawers full of card hoarded by his architect father, started to make the skyscraper lights. "I was so weak that paper was all I could handle," he recalls. His first was in plain grey card, but they have become more and more colourful. They are constructed from a single sheet of card and each of the 400 tiny windows is cut out by hand. As a child, Dossett was fascinated by the paper models of hotels and houses developed by his father, but Dossett's own construction techniques, using just a ruler, a scalpel and a few judiciously placed paperclips, are entirely self-taught.

Dossett's other love is cartoons (his heroes are Moebius, Windsor McCay and Bill Watterson), and a simple humour is on display throughout the flat. There is the goldfish shower curtain, the graffiti-style sign on the bathroom door reading "Dump" and groups of miniature vividly coloured painted comic panels framed in one-inch polystyrene sheets line the stairwell. "That was my mother's idea," he explains. "They are light and easy to hang. That's how I got the idea of the polystyrene carvings and the lightbox panels."

Despite the darkened windows, sunlight streams through the skylights in the main room, and the white walls make the whole place feel airy and light. Rectangular oil paintings in rainbow colours are ranked up and down the walls and two 6ft-long leafy strands hang decoratively from plants positioned on a high ledge. A brightly coloured tiled coffee table is just one of the many pieces of beautiful Fifties furniture that used to belong to his grandmother, and their graphic period patterns sit comfortably with his own cartoony style.

Whether Dossett's work will stay behind closed doors is an open question. A recent foray into the art market foundered when he found out what sort of cut the gallery would take (a standard 50 per cent). "I might as well do a day's tiling for pounds 60," he says. At the moment he is considering plans to mass-produce his lights to sell by post as flatpacks. "They take so long to make that I end up having to charge what seems like a disproportionately high price," he sighs. Having them stamped out by machine would certainly be easier. But part of the visual pleasure comes from knowing that each tiny window was judged by eye and cut by hand. And that no two lights will ever be the same.

Charlie Dossett can be contacted for commissions on 0181 968 4663. Prices for lights start at around pounds 100