Carol Sinclair's work is literally down to earth. Stone and wood are her inspiration, and she traverses the country to find just the right pebble to fit in her creations. Dinah Hall met her at home and in her studio (main picture)
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The Independent Culture
I DIDN'T find Carol Sinclair. Her work found me. Amid the purring velvet decadence of curled-up chairs, the tortured curves of futuristic chaise longues and the rich confusions of modern design that fill Jinan in Golden Square in London, Carol Sinclair's sculptures send out invisible rays of memory and longing. Here, in this shop so sophisticated it calls itself a gallery, there is everything the urban materialist could desire, from a rubber-studded chaise longue to a stainless steel wardrobe.

But all I want to do is stand and look at Carol Sinclair's pebble-studded orbs and let the call of the sea wash over me. I am back as a child, remembering the feel of a special stone's smooth roundness in the palm of my hand. And then the salt smell of the sea gives way to the journalistic whiff of a story. I imagine how Carol Sinclair lives, photogen-ically by the sea in a whitewashed cottage, bleached driftwood on the mantelpiece...

Which is how we come to be nowhere near the sea, on the borders of Essex and Suffolk, standing on the hard white-tiled floor of one of the least rustic, most minimalist living rooms of rural England. A Sixties Italian plastic swivel armchair sits with its back to a Le Corbusier chaise longue, solitarily contemplating the meadowlands outside. In front of the venetian blind-clad glazed walls of the house - an unspectacular 1930s property when bought 19 years ago, extended in phases as finances permitted - stands not the clapped-out 2CV of my imagination but a couple of matching dark grey Fiat Puntos. There's no Aga in the kitchen, no driftwood on the mantelpiece. Even the lawns, which give on to meadows and are watered by a meandering stream, are severely clipped.

Only Carol fits the preconceptions: slightly weathered but smooth, like one of her pebbles; and almost as silent. She is married to Ian Sinclair, an industrial designer who was one of the finalists in the BBC Design Awards with his amazing paper torch, so thin you can slip it into your wallet. They are an odd combination - he of the clipped lawns, she of the wild meadows - but evidently one that works: the eldest of their three children is 28. "I think we stimulate each other with our differences, help each other with materials. The chess computers Ian designs have become quite pebble-shaped recently."

Certainly it would be wrong to assume that their minimalist style of living is designer-dominated: visually it may seem to have more in common with the strong lines of Ian's work, but spiritually it is the right environment for Carol, who likens her sculpture to the contemplative qualities of Japanese design. "It's about stillness, really. And observing things. That's why I need to live in the country. I can spend an hour just sitting in the meadow looking very closely at a patch of ground and see very small things going on that most people don't notice". And as far as the minimalism goes - for her it is not far enough: though how you could pare the living room down any further it is hard to imagine. In a strange way, though, it is supremely comfortable. In a city it might seem a cold, designer statement but here, open to the landscape outside, it feels incredibly right. It feels serene.

One of Carol's acknowledged inspirations is the late Jim Ede, the curator/art collector who created Kettle's Yard in Cambridge: in the house which adjoins the gallery and is open to the public, spirals of pebbles are as revered as the paintings of twentieth-century artists such as Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson which hang on the walls. Flicking through the book that he wrote on Kettle's Yard you can see why Carol connects to Ede. Describing a photograph of the floor he wrote: "As I look at those floorboards in the photograph they become intensely a part of myself; cracks, notches, joins, the passage of darkness and the transparency of shadow, never perceived, create someting which I had not reached when I walked across them. It is this, I think, that Rilke means when he writes that we are here to tell things to the angels; that as created beings we have this perceptive power and that it calls out to be used."

Carol has only been telling things to the angels for the last few years (she graduated as a mature student from Central School of Art in 1987), but the capacity had always been there. As an only child with no tele- vision or siblings to distract her, she spent a lot of time by herself, observing. She still has a stone she picked up as a child. Today she travels far afield - to Wales and Northumberland - to find the particular shape or pattern of a stone that inspires her. "Human beings are naturally drawn to worn things," she says. "I suppose it's to do with the expression of time. We have a kind of reverence for things that have taken centuries to wear."

By honouring the stones in her own particular way Carol believes that she is helping to protect the environment that is so important to her: "If people can appreciate it they won't want to destroy it." But she acknowledges that she might be on slightly dodgy ground here - strict environmentalists would no doubt say that she should leave the stones where she found them.

But the quandary between environment and art is less divisive than that between art and craft, over which she agonises. She considers her work to be art rather than craft, and so is particular about the kind of environment in which it is sold. Displayed in a crafts gallery it could easily be pushed in to a category in which it does not really belong. Carol obviously feels guilty about the intellectual elitism that surrounds this area and tries to tease out a justificatory definition. "I suppose with craft you take more pride in the materials and workmanship, whereas with art it is more the thought and experiences that have gone in to the piece. I don't labour over the crafting of it - I enjoy working on the materials but I get bored with finishing the pieces. The excitement is in the initial idea, which is why I have several things on the go at once."

Her middle daughter, Jo, who herself recently graduated from art school, criticises her mother's work on these sensitive grounds; she loves the big pieces but feels that the smaller pieces are verging on craft. Still, in the end, who cares? Not the angels, that's for sure.

CAROL SINCLAIR: her work is on sale at Jinan, 17 Golden Square, London W1R 4JB (0171-434 3464); Workshop Design, 3 Bridge Street, Cambridge CB2 1UA, (01223 354 326); Edna Read, The Sculp-ture Shop, 380 Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes MK9 2DF (01908 696303).

JOAN MOLLOY: hand-made clocks using stones, shells, etc. Limited editions from Contemporary Applied Arts, 43 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LD (0171- 836 6993); or to commission from designer (0181-694 1911).

SKK: indoor and outdoor lamps disguised as large stones, 34 Lexington Street, London W1R 3HR, 0171- 434 4095

HAUTE DECO: inspired knobs for drawers and doors, 556 King's Road, London SW6 2DZ (0171-736 7171).

STONE AGE: large selection of sandstone and limestone floor tiles, 19 Filmer Road, London SW6 7BU (0171-385 7954/55).

STONELL: natural slate flagstones, Unit 1, Bockingfold, Ladham Road, Goudhurst, Kent TN17 1LY (01580 211167).