Pot luck: interiors

Behind the dilapidated facade of potter Kate Malone's house in East London lie a thousand personal treasures that inspire her work. Dinah Hall reports
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The Independent Culture
FROM THE outside this doesn't look promising. A dilapidated facade and a front garden doubling as a rubbish tip says I'm at the wrong house. A knock at the door produces no result, and eventually access has to gained the fashionable way - by mobile phone.

As an introduction to the house and a statement about chaos contained, the shoe rack in the hall is spot on. "Graham made it," Kate says proudly, a phrase that is to be repeated many times over the next hour. Graham Inglefield is a builder, more by inclination than by trade, because his primary career is looking after their two-year-old daughter, Scarlett. Since they met, says Kate, he "has put himself behind me, enabling me to work". Kate Malone is one of the leading names in the field of ceramics on a monumental scale, and works in a studio ("built by Graham") in the back garden.

The couple bought the house 12 years ago, when it was completely derelict. And derelict is no idle boast. The house failed to sell at auction twice, largely because it had been used as a plant- hire company and was classed as commercial, which meant that nobody could get a mortgage on it. In order to raise one, Graham did quite a bit of building work, such as making the stairs safe and putting in a bathroom, before it even belonged to them. Once the structural stuff was done - including converting the cellar to a kitchen after removing 100 tons of rubble through a small hole in the wall - he conceived and carried out the decoration, hand-painting the walls with motifs inspired by their world travels.

Kate and Graham take two months off every year to go travelling. In her short life Scarlett has already been to Vietnam, India and Malaysia. The travel feeds Kate's work and fills the house: every inch of wall space is covered with Indian pictures and other mementoes. In what they call the "winter bedroom", a wooden four-poster bed from Timor is topped with an Indian wedding canopy. A decidedly weird group of oil portraits from less far afield - Graham found them after they had been chucked out of a house he was working on - hang on the walls. They were painted in the Fifties by the old lady who had lived in the house. The knowledge that she also grew poisonous plants in her garden adds to the shiver factor, but Kate is not unduly spooked.

There are only one or two of Kate's pots around the house - a striking pair of pineapple jugs - but, pushed by Graham, she has contributed several more architectural pieces, including three ceramic mantelpieces, decorated variously with flowers, pineapples and a marine theme. The kitchen, however, is overwhelmingly and spectacularly ceramic. The cupboards are all clad in tiles, decorated in a William Morris-inspired pattern with ceramic leaves as handles, while the work surface is made from glazed kiln shelves.

The significance of this will be lost on non-potters, but Kate says that other potters just can't guess what they are. "Ceramicists spend their whole lives trying to keep glazes off kiln shelves, so when Graham asked if you could glaze kiln shelves to use as a work surface, I said of course you can't. Potters can't think laterally about kiln shelves, you see. In fact, they make a brilliant surface because they are very high-fired." It would have been prohibitively expensive had she not bought seconds quite cheaply at Stoke.

Vying for attention, though, is what Kate calls the "world cupboard" in the corner. Based on Graham's grandmother's china cupboard, it is densely packed, yet not jumbled, with pieces they have collected over the years. With its tiny figures, toys and old bits of china it must be the ultimate look-but-don't-touch torture for any child. After a period of nerve-wracking battering on the glass doors, though, Scarlett has accepted the deal: she's allowed to have one piece out every day.

The house as a whole only makes sense when you get out into the garden and look back at it. With its unusual double-barrel back, it suddenly turns from a down-at-heel terraced nonentity in to an architectural gem. The ugly front facade is, says Kate, a form of security rather than laziness on their part. There's another surprise to come. The ordinary shed door in the wall at the end of the garden opens into a hangar-sized studio on two floors which accommodates 12 potters, sharing resources and costs. At the far end decorative metal doors lead out on to a mews. Kate likens the journey from house to studio to time travel - "you come in at 1812, walk through this door which is a bit like the Tardis, and end up in 1999".

But the journey for her and Graham does not stop here. They plan to sell the house, buy somewhere in the country and convert the top floor of the studio into a flat so that she can work there in the week. The backpacking may be coming to an end, but the search for adventure goes on. 1