Surrounding yourself with colour, pattern and decorative objects doesn't mean your home has to look like a junk shop. Oliver Bennett learns the difference between eclecticism and clutter
Glancing at the glossies, one could be forgiven for believing that all modern, urban pads are angular, astringent and almost entirely devoid of decoration. What, one might ask, has happened to all those magpie- like maximalists - the majority of the population, one suspects - who happen to enjoy acquiring and displaying things and who relish plenty of pattern, colour and decoration?

Interior decorators Mark Fenwick and Caroline Cowley, who run Ornamental Arts, live in a Victorian atelier in Chelsea, which is an example of how to be eclectic and highly decorative in a smallish space, without becoming chaotic or cutesy. Essentially a single room, the space is part of a picturesque warren of studios built when the area was still frequented by artists. They found it in Loot, which surprises those who suspect that the free- ads newspaper never yields anything apart from bedsits in squirly carpet- land, and fell in love with it.

At various times their place was a painter's studio and a sculpture foundry for casting bronze, and it retains the feel of a garret, with several large windows in the wall and ceiling and a mezzanine floor with iron railings. Big on charm but short on space, it has to house a mass of their belongings: books, paintings, furniture, curiosities and objets d'art of all shapes, sizes and ages.

The studio has a feeling of poetic languor, which is brought down to earth by the fact that it backs onto the "Shed" end at Chelsea Football Club in west London, which means that, in season, every other Saturday brings chants such as "We'll keep the blue flag flying" right into the comfort of their living-room. Actually, they don't mind too much. "It's incredible," says Caroline, "the excitement is like liquid energy, and you can tell exactly what's happening on the pitch."

Although they claim to try to control their purchases, Mark and Caroline have a restless instinct, and as well as constantly acquiring new things, they move their objets around all the time. Some are antiques, and they have several venerable pieces of furniture, including a Georgian tub chair covered in a contemporary hound's-tooth fabric, a Gothic hall chair, and two turn-of-the-century stools by a furniture-maker called Robert Thompson, also known as the "mouse man" because his trademark was a little, carved, wooden mouse.

There are also plenty of modern crafts, which include ceramics and Fifties glass, although Mark complains about the lack of a more neutral word for such pieces: "Crafts is the wrong word and 'art' is too pompous." Like in a Victorian academy, pictures are everywhere: maps, photographs, paintings. There is even a bit of curlicue fresco work by Caroline on the wall of the galleried bedroom.

It is all very well to aspire to a sense of romantic Bohemian eclecticism, but there are certain principles of placement to observe. First, mix well, as if inviting an interesting group of different guests to a party. "We have a combination of old and new, expensive and cheaper things, which work together," says Mark. Some things were bought in the high street - there are Habitat lamps, for example - and other items have been gleaned from relatives, antique dealers and auction rooms. The latter remain forbidding to many buyers, which is a shame, as they can yield good deals. "Go when the dealers aren't there, when there's a big fair on or in the height of summer or in January when everyone's skint," says Mark, who has bought various things at auction, including a tremendous inlaid chest of drawers for pounds 350. He also recommends casting an eye over antique shops, however fusty looking. "We used to live in Brighton in the heart of the antiques district and bought a lot then," says Caroline.

Another rule, says Mark, is that one should "never pass by a piece of furniture if you like it. If you can afford it, buy it, because it will usually be gone when you get back." Every magpie should remain alert to new, home-improving details. Mark and Caroline are particularly vigilant about the power of making small alterations, as their company makes bronze and brass handles for furniture, hand-cast in the Birmingham foundry where they also make replacement Spirit of Ecstasy figurines for Rolls-Royce bonnets.

As well as being full of things, the studio is also full of colour. There are five separate wall colours - green, blue, red, gold and grey - as well as Caroline's wall painting. The kitchen is painted blue and also has a blue Aga, which lends a rural folksiness to the ensemble. Elsewhere in the studio the different colours separate the areas: slate-grey on the stairs and hallway, terracotta-red in the hearth area, green in the bedroom area.

One of the features of the flat is that there are many surface areas, for humans as well as things. Whereas in a minimalist flat there may be nowhere to sit apart from a hard-edged bench, here, in just one room, there are 19 separate chairs, one of which was designed by Caroline's father in the Thirties. But Mark and Caroline insist that they never feel crowded out by all this inanimate activity, and it is true that it does not feel cluttered and confusing.

It was common to have many things in the Victorian home, partly due to the formal British tradition of the "conversation piece". But there have been 20th-century efforts to sweep away this attitude. At one point, having many things in the home became associated with poor hygiene and possibly even moral turpitude. Indeed, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos - who in the early 20th century coined the oft-quoted saw "ornament is crime" - believed, quite literally, that a propensity for ornamentation was part of the criminal mind, manifest in their love of tattoos among other decorative devices.

And yet even modern minds and eyes require diversion and interest, something which Mark and Caroline achieve with their eclectic decorative mix. "It's simply more inspiring to have a whole range of things around," says Caroline, showing off their latest objet trouve - a wind-up Zeppelin toy.

Ornamental Arts, 0171 351 0541.

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