LAST YEAR, Andre Dubreuil moved back to his native Perigord in south-west France. He had lived in London for 21 years, working as an interior decorator, antiques dealer and furniture maker. But at the age of 40 he felt there were better ways to spend his time than in a workshop in the badlands of Queen's Park in London.

Instead, he chose to live and work in the magnificent 18th-century Chateau Beaulieu, which stands in 200 acres of woodland and is surrounded by a farm growing sunflowers and maize.

'Besides,' says Dubreuil, maker of some of the most imaginative and highly-wrought contemporary furniture, 'I was selling most of my work in France or else to order in the United States. It took me a long time to decide on the move back to France, but it hardly matters now from a professional point of view whether I work in central London or rural France.'

Dubreuil began making furniture in 1985. He taught himself to weld and made his own brand of what you might call rococo or baroque chairs, tables and cabinets. His 'spinechair' made his name, when welding furniture out of scrap metal was hip, but unlike so much of the refuse-style furniture of the mid-Eighties, this was a beautifully resolved design using welded metal in a sculptural, rigorous and highly functional way.

Used in advertising in the late Eighties to promote anything from an overpriced Docklands flat to haute couture in Vogue magazine, the spinechair became an icon of the designer decade. It is still in production, made by a blacksmith on the edge of Dubreuil's village.

'The spinechair paid the rent in London,' he says, 'but I've no idea how many are made now, where they are sold or even what they cost. Today I'm concentrating on furniture made to order.'

If you were clever enough to have bought a Dubreuil chair three or four years ago, you will now be sitting on a small fortune - or at least a solid investment. Only a short while ago Dubreuil's work sold for a few hundred pounds. Today a metal table with bronze filigree work, copper decorative motifs and alabaster costs about pounds 9,000; a cabinet rich with decorative metalwork and inlaid with colourful glass beads from India can cost up to pounds 30,000.

Yet Dubreuil's new work is not going to make him rich. 'I agree a price with a client at the time of the commission, and if I cannot keep within the budget I take a loss,' he says. 'Last year I made a set of four lamps; we sold them for pounds 100,000 and still made a loss.'

You begin to understand the economics of a piece of his furniture when you spend the day in his workshop, housed in a former barn on the edge of the woods surrounding Chateau Beaulieu. Here Dubreuil and his assistants - Didier, from a local village, Philippe from Provence and Kevin, a former brickie from County Mayo - work a long, hot day at forges, lathes and anvils. Behind perspex goggles and steel visors they twist iron, heat copper and batter steel as the sun beats down on the roof above.

The progress on designs as intricate as Dubreuil's is slow. A single piece usually requires the application of several hard-won skills over many weeks. Given the quality of the materials and the precision of the work, it is hardly surprising that most pieces of furniture cost around pounds 10,000. But they will last more or less for ever.

Dubreuil does not lack new clients; his limit is time. 'I want to make things as well as I can,' he says. 'There's no point in cutting corners, or getting someone else to produce second-rate copies. I make some pieces for myself when things are quiet, but I got to the stage a long time ago where I could no longer afford to keep my own work.'

The magnificent setting of Dubreuil's workshop can give a misleading impression of his circumstances. He seems to live in splendour, and in the local village of Mareuil he is known as 'young Monsieur Andre' as if he were the indolent son of a grandee. But Chateau Beaulieu belongs to his parents, still hard at work in their late seventies; they bought the chalk-faced house and its grounds 30 years ago, when it was a near-ruin in an unfashionable area. This is not a country playhouse for rich business people, but the solid if elegant centre of a hard-working estate.

Nevertheless, Dubreuil is still considered to be exotic in the village. Driving into Mareuil in his leopardskin-look Renault 4 van (the effect was created by stripping the body to bare metal and burning spots with a blow-torch), he cuts a rather exotic figure. With his shaven head, beady eyes and hysterical laugh, he can hardly help being the local character.

He is, however, very much part of the local scene and happy to be back home, where for most of the year he is master of Chateau Beaulieu and of Arts Decoratif, his furniture business. In London his name was invariably linked with those of fellow metal-furniture makers - Tom Dixon, Mark Brazier-Jones and Ron Arad - and he was considered part of a formidably fashionable set.

While it is true that parties at his workshop and his art gallery openings were not to be missed, and that fashionable youngsters queued to work with him, Dubreuil himself is not fashion-conscious. In the mid-Eighties his way of doing things happened to coincide with fashion.

He does not miss London life, but the original group of young assistants who came to France with him last year did and, one by one, they have left. Only Kevin, a 23-year-old, remains from the original London team. 'I'm not surprised,' says Dubreuil. 'It's quite a lonely place here, there are no nightclubs, no exciting bars.'

Ruhlman, a pedigree airedale terrier, and Conran, a simpering mongrel bitch, have enjoyed the move to France more than anyone. Chasing deer, rabbit, foxes and game birds (and, in the autumn, wild boar) through the woods of Beaulieu has made them two of the fittest dogs in the world. Dubreuil's dogs have been joined by two half-Siamese cats, and a donkey is on the way. During the day the animals lie around contentedly in the workshop, undisturbed by hammers, blow-torches and welding guns. They are undisturbed, too, by the sound of Dubreuil's brother as he roars repeatedly over the house in his French air force Mirage jet.

Chateau Beaulieu is a happy meeting place between nature and technology, and since Dubreuil returned to France his work has become richer and more colourful.

'It's also not so very far away,' he says. 'I have my fax machine, and by TGV I can be in Paris for the day and back home in time for dinner.'

Perigord is perhaps no country for young men but when, like Dubreuil, you reach 40 and the world is beating a path to your door, it is not such a bad place.

(Photographs omitted)