Interiors: Drawn to the light

Kate Dineen, the only woman in the world to practice the ancient Indian art of araash, has transformed an ex-council flat into a glittering retreat. Lisa Freedman visits her
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THE CHEERLESS stone staircase of Kate Dineen's squat, brick ex- council block offers a chilly homecoming to its inhabitants, but you can tell that she has the resources to deal with the barbarian aesthetics even before you have rung the bell.

Beside the front door, framed gracefully within the black gloss frame of the former coal hole and recklessly exposed to adolescent marauders, sits a carved wooden swan. "I was going to throw it away," she says, as she invites me in. "But then I thought I'd leave it down to fate. Now I'd be really upset if someone took it."

Inside, the vista down the spinal corridor of her three-bedroom flat is streamlined and stripped, subtly coloured, inventively lit - and exotically quixotic. As unexpected a contrast to her Sloaney- chintz, south London neighbourhood as it is to the Artex and brown gloss of its previous inhabitants.

The artist herself is equally unusual. A graduate of the London College of Printing and the Royal College of Art, Dineen's career evolved out of graphics, through textiles into a most rarefied form of sculpture.

She is the only woman in the world, and the only person outside India, who has mastered the ancient art of araash. Araash or, as it is known in English, Jaipuri fresco painting, is the technique of combining layers of marble dust and slaked lime, grinding the mixture till smooth and then tapping in pigments to make patterns. For long the livelihood of a caste of masons from Rajasthan, this laborious medium was widely used in the famously grandiose palaces of the district's wealthy maharajahs. Today in India it is a dying art, but in Dineen's skilful hands in England it is a very vibrant reality.

Her current Cork Street exhibition is monumental and masterly: chunky, moulded pieces in graphic mono-chrome grids and exquisite curvilinear forms pierced with brilliantly coloured reworkings of the symbols of sexuality and fertility. An ancient art form rejuvenated by a modern master. Though she herself is of "bog Irish" extraction - she is the sister of the documentary film-maker Molly Dineen - and divided her childhood between Birmingham and London, her love affair with India began when she was 17. "It was the colour, the light, everything," she recalls. "I was never a hippy or into drugs - just the visual onslaught of the place. It gave me butterflies. I couldn't leave it alone."

After completing her MA at the Royal College, she went out to India on a British Council scholarship and, she says, got "a bee in my bonnet" about araash. She then travelled to Gujarat to apprentice herself to Sri Gyarsilal Varma, one of the few remaining master craftsmen in India still teaching the technique.

After a nine-year pupilage and a PhD she remains devoted to her master and continues to work on projects in India, but in London, in her domestic environment, her relationship with the country becomes more ambivalent. The Asian influence in her flat - which she has owned since student days at the Royal College - is marked but, like her sculpture, it is India synthesised through a westernised sensibility.

In the contemporary chic of the hand-built steel kitchen, Indian metal pots and utensils are skillfully jumbled alongside the 90s must-have Dualit toaster and sleek Conran Shop designer objects. Fashionable, expensive- looking suede floor cushions (run up at a fraction of the Notting Hill cost in India) are scattered on the sitting-room floor among images of the elephant-headed Hindu god of fortune, Ganesh, and an antique Indian cradle, which she says she "may get to use some day".

Her East-West design philosophy has a considered morality. "I don't like treating India like a shopping spree," she says. "I'm against bringing back container-loads of goods when I go there to work. I once went into a shop in Notting Hill which imports Indian stuff and there were three floors of shrines, which just made me cry. I'm such a hypocrite, but it did put me off. I cooled off a lot."

When she bought the flat - the down payment was made from the sale of her first commission - the only sense of Eastern promise it had was the superb dawn seen through the kitchen and spare-bedroom windows. The flat itself was entirely devoid of charm.

"It was pretty much a dump. It had been empty for three years," she remembers. "I had to rip it right back."

Interestingly, much of the process of "ripping back" has been left deliberately unfinished, becoming a decorative statement in its own right. The doors - stripped of decades of gloss - now have the antique weathered look a paint specialist would be paid thousands to simulate. And the pinky terracotta plaster, which started the redecoration of the west-facing drawing room, has been left unpainted because its peachiness perfectly complements the rose of the setting sun.

A willingness to appreciate the beauty of a developing process is very much a part of Dineen's work, and her approach to interior design reflects her vocation. The sophisticated interplay of materials, colour and light; the bold management of pattern and form; the demand for unity and for surprise - these are all qualities which you can't buy flat-packed at IKEA. And equally, though the flat is very much within the modern minimalist aesthetic, it shares none of IKEA's ruthless ditch-the-past attitude to contemporary style.

Though sparsely furnished throughout, the low-ceilinged, frugally proportioned apartment is kitted out in an astonishing array of costly materials. In the hall and master bedroom the original flooring has been replaced with rich planks of antique French oak, which the charmingly determined Dineen managed to wheedle off some friendly builders who found themselves landed with excess. The coffee table in the drawing room is two united marble mantleshelves dragged back from Calcutta. The kitchen table is a rough- hewn marble remnant from a City facade that she discovered in a stoneyard near her studio. "I saw it when I was cycling past one day, but when I went back to get it, it had been turned to hard core," she says gloomily. "At least I managed to salvage a few pieces."

There are lights everywhere; on the floor, on the ceiling, on the walls. Dodgy Ganesh night lights in pistachio and fuschia, imported from Bombay's thieves' market and daringly rewired; sophisticated copper table lamps from contemporary Danish designers; outsize light bulbs from obscure Soho electric outlets. Everywhere light and lights are used to dramatic, surprising and ever- changing effect. In the study, a tube of display lighting she picked up in a Dubai shopping centre has been looped on the wall over her glass-topped desk as a piece of sculpture. In the hall cupboard - now part-glazed - a 15-watt bulb atmospherically illuminates her collection of books. In her bedroom, a marble lotus carved by a friend is home to a moodily flickering candle.

The work of friends is everywhere. Photographs, furniture, even her about-to-be-delivered bed. Begged, borrowed and generously paid for. Though she is as delighted as anyone to pick up an Asian tinker's effort for a few rupees, like many artists who've learnt the economics of creativity the hard way, she's scrupulous about giving true craftsmanship its just reward. "You must pay craftsmen properly. My bed by the furniture designer, Bernard Harman will be a life piece."

And though her flat is by no means entirely filled with "life pieces" - even she would not predict that the fluorescent-pink lilo, imported as a "holiday romance" from a recent trip to Greece, will be a long-lasting relationship - the flat is everywhere full of life. Dineen's energy and enthusiasm, her generous spirit and demanding eye have turned something that was once just student digs into an original portrait of the artist as a young woman.

Araash is at Robert Sandelson (0171 439 1001) until the end of September. Kate Dineen (07971 884 018)