Interiors: Where vases go to die: No cowardly monochrome for a designer brought up in Africa who loves British turn-of-the-century pottery. Dinah Hall explores a curious mix of exotic and traditional - and wonders about the dusting

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The Independent Culture
IT IS half past nine on a Monday morning, and we are only the second party of journalists to be entertained by Anthony Collett today. The Daily Telegraph were here at seven for a feature on children's gardens (we got exquisitely brewed Arabica coffee and home-made walnut macaroons - they probably got smoked salmon kedgeree). At a pinch he could squeeze in the Observer for lunch - perhaps they could do the studio/

summerhouse halfway down the garden. Slip through the hedge beyond this and you get to a dark green, wooden cottage which looks from the outside as if it would do nicely for a family of four with exacting aesthetic standards.

This is the playhouse for Georgia, China and Jesse, designed by their father, in front of which are three immaculately planted flowerbeds - also, you suspect, designed by dad but don't tell the Telegraph. Could those perfectly spaced marigolds really have been cultivated by children? Collett jokes that he stood over them with a whip, but it was probably a tape measure.

All of which - the macaroons, the children's house, the flowers - adds up to a man with a defined sense of style that invades every corner of his house and life. Not a very Nineties sort of thing to be, of course, but Collett shows no signs of relaxing his standards to accommodate fashionably casual attitudes.

There is something admirably obstinate about the way he has imposed his style on a rather grim Victorian pile he bought for practically nothing at auction 10 years ago, sacrificing a respectable postcode for potential in one of those scuffed areas of London usually described as 'colourful' by people who don't live there. The time and money he has spent on it could never be recouped in an asking price: the sort of person who expects this standard of interior couldn't cope with finding exotic fruits for sale down the road on market stalls instead of where they belong in Harrods' food hall.

Collett changes out of his suit (Comme des Garcons, wasted on the Telegraph) and slips into something more Independent on Sunday, a yellow shirt and navy-blue embroidered waistcoat which go rather well with the drawing room where we begin the guided tour. The walls, covered in ersatz gold leaf, gleam but do little to lift the spirits of the photographer who is fast realising that he is not going to be able to photograph using natural light.

'Of course it is dark in here but to me it seems bright, whereas I find white rooms are not bright but glaring. You get more nuances with this, more mood changes,' says Collett. 'It is a room for people,' he adds, meaning that it comes to life in company and candlelight, though at first sight it looks more like a room where vases come to die. Every available surface - usually an Aesthetic or Arts and Crafts cabinet - is covered in them. To the uninitiated they may look like something to avoid at a car- boot sale but in fact they are all fine examples of British studio pottery from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Collett's favourite period of design.

It's at this stage that an interview with the cleaning lady would be a good idea because it seems so prosaic to talk about dusting to Collett; so back to aesthetics. 'I always had a fear of colour - I thought I couldn't understand it until I started collecting these vases and putting pale green with sang-de-boeuf, yellow with turquoise. It made me realise that good colour can be put next to any other colour - as long as it's good.'

So cowardly monochrome disappeared dramatically from Collett's life, to be replaced in the drawing room by purple skirting boards and cornices and deep red walls up to dado height. Daylight is screened through two pairs of curtains: dazzling yellow ones which act as a kind of luminous petticoat to exotic shiny purple and red velvet ones.

Good quality cotton velvet wouldn't have achieved the same light-reflective quality - 'it has to be the nastiest, cheapest sort - Dacron nylon or something,' explains Collett, who knows instinctively when cheap and nasty is OK and when it's not. And then there are the flowers. Collett is not a roses and gypsophila man. He goes for animalistic, carnivorous-looking things that you hesitate to turn your back on. Altogether it's an odd mixture - quite exotic and mysterious, and yet almost fustily English, too. The very essence of colonialism in fact.

Collett was born in Zambia to an expatriate civil servant and Polish mother: at the age of seven he was packed off to boarding school in South Africa, which involved a four- day train journey, unescorted by adults, across the continent. A wonderful experience in retrospect - but at the time it was hard to concentrate on the scenery when all around you big boys were getting drunk and holding little ones out of the window. 'We used to come home three times a year - I spent nine months of my life on a train,' he reflects. Perhaps this is why African nostalgia does not feature very obviously in the scheme of decoration, though Collett claims that something of the 'saturation of colour' (a favourite phrase) might originate there. 'It's a bit more subtle than hanging spears and shields on the wall,' he says drily.

In keeping with the Arts and Crafts tradition they so admire, Collett and his partner David Champion, whom he met at art college in South Africa, provide everything from architecture to door handles for their clients: most of the furniture they design themselves but they are also enthusiastic commissioners of craftsmen and, unlike many designers, generous in attributing the work done by others. They describe themselves as 'classicists', meaning that they deal with classical proportions and traditional materials but do not 'do pastiche', Quinlan Terry style. 'We restrict ourselves to a certain palette and vocabulary, but then invent and are contemporary with-in that,' Anthony Collett explains.

Although he has done a few projects in similar style, his home is not, he says, typical of his work: 'That depends on the type of client and the type of building.' It reflects his own preferences. 'But it is a breeding ground for ideas.'

Downstairs in the kitchen/dining room it is difficult to see what is contemporary and what is original Arts and Crafts (in fact it is difficult to see full stop. You can just about make out the photographer's pained expression). A beautiful ecclesiastical Arts and Crafts sideboard runs down the entire length of the dining room, forming the basis of the design for the oak kitchen cupboards. Two wooden settles either side of the fire- place are also new, but the table and chairs are Ambrose Heal originals.

Collett is right - there's nothing pastiche about it; and though the palette (one soon gets the hang of his vocabulary) is sombre it perfectly accommodates flashes of vibrancy, like the paintings by Nicholaas Maritz and Hylton Nel's wonderfully crude pottery. Curtains - with which Collett & Champion are always inventive, no estate agents' swags and bows for them - are brightly coloured rays of felt, sewn so that the seams protrude. Half an hour here is enough to convince you that he was telling the truth about the drawing room as well - suddenly it seems quite bright. But you can see why the children need their own house. -

ADDRESS BOOK

SHOPS

Paul Reeves, 32b Kensington Church Street, London W8, tel 071-937 1594. British design - furniture, textiles, glass, ceramics, metalwork - from 1860 to 1940.

Peter Adler, 191 Sussex Gardens, London W2 (by appointment only, tel 071- 262 1775). Dealer 'with the best eye in serious African art'.

Pruskin, 73 Kensington Church Street, London W8, tel 071-937 1994. Very good Twenties and Thirties art and furniture.

The Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, London W1, tel 071-629 5116. Turn-of-the-century paintings and furniture.

Decorative Arts Fair - four times a year at Kensington Town Hall, Hornton Street, London W8. Good for ceramics.

Alfie's, 13 & 19 Church Street, London NW8. One of the best antiques markets - not too smart, full of good finds.

Contemporary Applied Arts, 43 Earlham Street, London WC2, tel 071- 836 6993. Stockists of South African potter Hylton Nel.

CRAFTSMEN

Paul Jobst, The Manor Barn, Woodhill Lane, Long Sutton, Hants RG25 1FU, tel 0256 862030. One of the new generation of designer blacksmiths, making balustrading, furniture, light fittings.

Mark Kirkley, 26 Drysdale Street, London N1, tel 071-739 1183. Interior metalworker - makes good lights.

PLACES OF INSPIRATION

Natural History Museum, South Kensington, London SW7. The building, not the bones.

The Tower House, Melbury Road, London W11. Sumptuous house designed by William Burges in 1875 - 'rich and witty'. Privately owned, sometimes opened to groups like the Victorian Society.

Cragside House, Rothbury, Morpeth, Northumberland NE65 7PX, tel 0669 20333. Victorian mansion by Norman Shaw; the first house lit by hydroelectricity. Owned by National Trust.

(Photograph omitted)

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