Interiors: Cluttered to perfection

He hoards odd objects; she arranges them. Jane Burton visits a terraced house where order and clutter are impressively united
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The Independent Culture
WHEN ARTISTS Mark Francis and Nicky Hirst decided to buy a house and move in together, it seemed like a recipe for disaster.

For the previous seven years Francis had wallowed in a bachelor pad full of lovingly hoarded clutter, while Hirst had lived out a minimalist dream in a studio off Brick Lane. "She had a roll-up futon, a table and maybe two cups," says Francis. "I was living in one of those ocean-liner blocks of flats at the Elephant and Castle, a real mess - it used to really freak Nicky out. I think I was intrigued by the way she was living at the time. There was something quite pure about it, that I didn't have. Initially, I did wonder how it was going to work out."

Four years on, miraculously, they have managed to balance their cluttering and minimalist instincts, and have created a home that not only suits them both but also accommodates their 16-month-old daughter, Erin, and Snowy, an energetic fox terrier (both disciples of the cluttering camp).

From the street - a busy through road in Camberwell, hemmed in by Brutalist high rises - theirs looks no different from any other house in the Victorian terrace. Step into the sitting-room, though, and it is apparent why this house is unique.

Cream walls are tongue and grooved from ceiling to floor, turning the room into a tight little ship-shape cabin. The idea came from the Admiralty Lookout on Lundy Island: "Very simple and rustic, it was that sort of simplicity we liked," says Francis, 36. Simplicity didn't last long, though, once he had finished unpacking his boxes.

Framed antique prints of flora, fauna and human anatomy cover every inch of the walls. Bookshelves are crammed with scientific tomes. Perched between a leather sofa and two comfortably battered armchairs are three surgeon's models of dissected torsos (with disconcerting charm, Erin hugs and kisses them as if they were outsize dolls).

Then there are the steel medical display cases containing a pickled lizard, plastic foetuses in various stages of development, Victorian illustrations of skin diseases, and an assortment of animal skulls.

Of all the rooms in the house, this is the one that most impressively reflects the passions which inspire Francis's work. His mesmerising paintings are derived from microbiological photography of bacteria, cells, and chromosomes. These he abstracts into rhythmic patterns, graceful loops and grids, or seething, compressed clusters; meditations on the body's inner landscape.

His work has been acquired by a slew of galleries, including the Tate and the V&A. The Blairs chose one of his paintings for the new-look "modern" Downing Street.

But there are none on the walls here. "I can't bear to look at my paintings at home," explains Francis. "I see enough of them in the studio during the day. I actually like to be removed."

Even so, the house is not exactly a retreat from his studio at the Delfina Gallery in Bermondsey where Francis spends his days, just a different forum for exploring the same recurring obsessions. The dense hanging of the prints in the sitting-room, for instance, is echoed in the formal design of some of the paintings, with their close networks of cellular structures. The home, like the paintings, is testament to an enduring fascination with medical science.

"I'm intrigued by the actual workings of the body, the mechanisms. I don't see the blood and guts," he says. "I've always had an interest in science. When I had to make those decisions about O-levels I was upset because biology clashed with art. And I've always collected things, but since we moved here it's become a lot more serious."

Tucked away upstairs are cupboards full of life-size medical diagrams of the body, drawers stuffed with maps of Antarctica, and a collection of eggs. Even the bathroom threatens to be overrun by collaged pictures of diseases of the mouth. "It seemed like the right place to put them, where you're brushing your teeth," Francis laughs.

Luckily for domestic harmony, Hirst, 35, approaches this compulsive hoarding as something of a challenge to her own creative eye. Despite the accumulation of biological curiosities, the effect is surprisingly serene. Everything is ordered, from the neatly aligned pictures to the carefully orchestrated objects in the cabinets. You could call it minimalised clutter, or as Hirst puts it: "Mark has stuff and I arrange it. I think the aesthetic kind of follows through."

As an installation artist, she has dealt with bigger messes than this (for a site- specific project at the Barbican she made a sticking-plaster curtain as a comment on its scrambled architecture). "Sometimes when I'm arranging food tins in the kitchen I feel it's a part of what I do anyway, it's how I make things," she says. "My ideal scenario for an installation would be to be presented with a given space and to make something out of what was already there."

Hirst's own studio, converted from a spare bedroom, is a marked contrast to the rest of the house - unencumbered, white- walled and airy. The kitchen is much more of a shared domain. They knocked out a wall to join the cooking and dining areas, stripped the floorboards, and recently gave the walls a coat of rich, deep red paint. "The walls were all cream which felt more minimal, but then we got tired of it, and thought a bit of colour would brighten things up," says Francis (he has recently brought a similarly bold infusion of colour to his paintings, after years of working primarily in black, white and grey).

Again, what might amount to a muddle in less adept hands is transformed here into an orderly visual cornucopia. Pots and pans dangle sculpturally from an iron bar running the width of the ceiling. Long open shelves are stacked with a decorative line-up of ingredients. A row of bottled mushrooms, chanterelles and ceps, is the result of yet another of Francis's consuming hobbies. "I've got over a hundred fungi books," he says. "We go to Scotland to collect mushrooms for three weeks every year."

What gives the kitchen coherence, though, is the furniture, an eclectic array of gleaming metal. A hospital trolley does duty as a sideboard, a sterilising cabinet hides the dishcloths. There is a steel filing cabinet, a set of shelving from a delicatessen, and some lovely Fifties aluminium dressers. It doesn't feel antiseptic, perhaps because each well-worn piece comes with a hist- ory. Nothing is new, except the fridge and cooker. "I do like modern furniture but I prefer to look at it rather than live with it," explains Francis.

This magpie theme and its glittering prizes continues, from the salvaged deep-fat fryer disguised as the perfect modernist corner cabinet in the hall, to the hospital lockers used as bedside tables (Francis used to have a studio at the old Lambeth Hospital in Kennington, and several of his best finds came from there). Even the dog sleeps in a functional wire- mesh basket.

Their enthusiasm for this utilitarian style seems to be genuinely shared: "Most people are horrified by old Victorian hospitals with cream and green walls," says Hirst, "But we go - wow, this is gorgeous. There's a definite aesthetic link."

They have been collaborating on a photography project for King's College Hospital. In one picture of an operating theatre the floor is carpeted with leaves, in another the ceiling sprouts a delicate whorl of fungi. The mix of coolly clinical and organic beauty in the work is an interesting parallel to the ideas at play in the house.

It may not be their house for much longer, though, since they have almost outgrown the space. Already they're checking auction catalogues in search of something bigger: a school perhaps, a pub, or even an old cottage hospital. "If we move, it would be nice to have different types of installations, a very minimal room with a concrete floor and nothing in it except a huge display case," says Francis. "It would be one way for me to incorporate the clutter."

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