Interiors: Joined at the cerebellum

When is a kitchen table not a kitchen table? When it belongs to artists Langlands & Bell, for whom furniture `mediates between the body and the building'. Dinah Hall talks home comforts with the least cosy couple in London
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The Independent Culture
IT'S A disconcerting feeling, sitting at Langlands & Bell's kitchen table. A sort of Alice in Wonderland meets Jacques Derrida-ish feeling, if you can imagine such a thing. It's not the desiccated whippet hanging on the staircase leading down to the kitchen that's troubling (this is Whitechapel after all, dead whippets practically two a penny), it's the table and chairs. Are they really a table and chairs or are they, as Langlands & Bell might (indeed, do) put it, a symbol of communication and symbolic tokens of the individual?

This is not as facetious as it might sound. Their work is a kind of archaeological delving into the soul of architecture and furniture, resulting in exquisitely pure pieces of art which are often rather more interesting than the buildings that inspired them. Furniture, with its "parallel structural codes", interests them because "it mediates between the body and the building" - not because it's nice to sit on.

So you can see why it's hard to take the table and chairs at face value. There is such an intensity to their work, to what they call their "poetic exploration of architecture", that you can't imagine them ever switching off and turning prosaic. (I don't imagine the phrase "Have you put the rubbish out, dear?" is heard very often in this house.) In fact, the table, like the chairs, was found in the street. There is a subtle one-upmanship (or should that be one-downmanship?) in this: other people find things in skips, which in themselves suggest gentrifi- cation of an area, while here in Whitechapel people just chuck things out on the street. What actually happened was that they found one metal table, gave it a black top and then cloned it: so what looks like an immaculate piece by Citterio is in fact two tables pushed together. Which brings us back to Langlands & Bell - two people pushed together into one artist.

You may think, now we're sitting round the kitchen table, that it's time we got on first-name terms. But in the context of their work they prefer the formality of their professional name Langlands & Bell - the first clue, not counting the whippet, that this is not going to be a cosy chez Ben & Nikki kind of encounter. "Cosy" does not feature in their vocabulary or their house - though this does not mean they are uncomfortable people to be with. Yes, they are very serious about their work, but this has not stunted their sense of humour.

Langlands & Bell have been joined, not so much at the hip as at the cerebellum, for more than 20 years, since they did a joint degree in fine art at Hornsey. When one speaks the other listens respectfully and watches intently, a bit like ventriloquist and dummy. They are totally unproprietorial about opinions - quotes need not be attributed personally because words are shared currency drawn from one bank of knowledge; they are probably not even aware that they frequently finish each other's sentences.

With their identical crops and their matching black outfits, it is hard to imagine them functioning individually - which could sound horribly suffocating and twee if they were Ben and Nikki of Ealing but is something else altogether when you're Langlands & Bell of Whitechapel and the world (they frequently show abroad). Never has coupledom looked so cool. Unless you count Gilbert & George.

The technical skills which go into making their art pieces so pristine have been honed by years of practical building work. When Langlands & Bell say they built their kitchen, they mean it literally. The kitchen cupboards, almost surgical in their aesthetic, were made by them, as was the beautifully detailed sliding door which closes the kitchen off from the staircase.

In fact, most of the structural work that needed to be done on the house when they bought it as a tumbledown wreck in 1982 was carried out with their own bare hands. In their characteristically meticulous way, they devoted a whole year to the house, working seven days a week until it was done. "We were determined that we would not spend the next seven years tripping over a bag of cement in the hallway."

Though the all-white rooms may appear uncompromisingly modern, Langlands & Bell are sympathetic to the history of the house, which was built in 1790. They hate clutter and believe "emptying out is a very important process", but this is not the mantra of ruthless minimalists who would paint over the amazing wooden panelling. They point out that it was built as a modest home for people with few possessions and by living in it as they do they adhere to their principle that you should not change the essence of a house.

But though they have put such an enormous amount of energy and time into it, in no sense do they regard it as a work of art. "Home," they say, "is a place to shut off, somewhere where we can invite friends, cook, relax." They mention friends a lot, possibly to dispel any notion of Langlands & Bell as a kind of spooky, hermetic twosome.

Ben (we're on home ground here, familiarity permitted) calls the empty ground-floor room a "sitting room". Clearly this is not such a misnomer as "living room" would be, but all the same it's hard to imagine much sitting goes on in there; yes, there is a notional settee (sofa would be pushing it) - two seat cushions on a kind of bench. But does anyone ever come in here and use it? "Friends," says Ben. When I point out that only two people (preferably Gilbert & George) could sit there in comfort, he laughingly says you can fit more than that if everybody sits up straight. It seems an appropriate moment to mention that he was brought up a Presbyterian.

On the first-floor landing is a blackened statue, the Burnt Madonna (Nikki was brought up a Catholic); it was rescued from a church fire in 1985. This and the whippet are the only objects of what you might call "decoration" in the house - the whippet was bought from an old couple in Brick Lane market in 1982: it was the only thing they were selling and Langlands & Bell knocked them down to pounds 4. Which, if you're into dead dogs, is probably a bargain.

In fact, to them it is not so much a dead dog, more a "trace of living". And as such it is related to their work Traces of Living, which is housed, along with other pieces of their art, in the second-floor rooms. Traces of Living is a kind of portrait of the area: placed in adjoining glass cases are various items including a London yellow stock brick, a dried rat (desiccation is clearly a speciality) in a loaf of bread, a hand-carved Bengali rolling pin, some Jewish candle stubs and what they call "a congealed book". It is more intimate than their beautiful but wholly cerebral architectural pieces.

But the most telling piece in this room is the "Interlocking Chair" - two ordinary forms collided in to one so that you are not quite sure where one begins and the other ends. A perfect self-portrait. 1