Property: Going against the grain

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The trend is for stripped-down, simple interiors. Rosalind Russell meets a man with a mission to turn us on to vibrant wood

When the BBC needed a beyond-the-norm fashionable piece of kitchen furniture to feature in Jennifer Saunders' Absolutely Fabulous, where MFI is social suicide, it was Robert Conway they commissioned.

His Conversation Pieces - one-off, hand-made, kiln-dried English Redwood freestanding furniture - were sold through Edina and Patsy's favourite shop, Harvey Nicks.

While grateful for the exposure that Ab Fab gave him, Conway still smarts over the standard BBC offhand treatment of artists and artisans (and himself in particular), after he had worked like a dog to get the piece finished on time.

For the Conway furniture is undoubtedly in crossover country between art and function. It's about as far as you can get from the current fad for buying stainless steel fitted kitchens. Original, striking and decorated with old ironmongery salvaged from farmyards, or ancient locks, the pieces are not for the conventional or faint-hearted.

Although a craftsman, Conway cringes at the over-used description of a craft exhibition. His work now is sold directly to a discerning public from his converted shire horse stables workshop and gallery in Shillingford, Oxfordshire, or via small, select gallery exhibitions. His buyers are mostly Europeans, Japanese and UK-based Americans.

The British, he claims, have yet to be 100 per cent convinced of the beauty of knotted wood painted vibrant colours where flaws in the grain are elevated to positive advantages. He is working on bringing us round.

A more widely available collection from his newly formed Handmade Furniture Design & Production Company has a softer, less uncompromising appearance. They can be created in almost any combination of colours and styles, and he says they retain the essence of the original designs but are more commercially targeted.

Conway is something of a retail pioneer. He used to own the Covent Garden General Store, when it was the first trendy shop to open in the area after the closure of the fruit and veg market. With its soothing classical music and quirky, exotic goods not sold anywhere else in London, it was a huge success.

"I lost it all in the crash of 1989, when Barclays pulled the plug, as they did to thousands of other businesses," he says. The store subsequently became just another shop where tourists could buy cheap novelties.

A passionate rider, Conway retreated to his house in north Norfolk and put his seven horses to work in a riding holiday business. "The only north Norfolk cowboy in existence, that was me," he says drily.

It was during a visit to London and to the Conran shop in particular that he found the marker to his next career. He came across rugged, unusual furniture designed and made by a cousin of Andy Warhol, also an artist. He compared it to the current British fondness for wood polished like glass, restrained and with all the knots removed, and decided the homegrown version had no soul. Conway flew out to the Florida Everglades to meet and learn from Richard Warholic and left inspired.

The designs, he says, have had to be Anglicised to some extent. The rough strong designs which owed much to the furniture of New Mexico have been adapted for cool-climate chic.

They do not fit easily into the chintz and fluffy sofas of the average British home. They are, thinks Conway, for the adventurous more inclined to quarrytiled floors and white walls. It's not that the prices are any higher than those charged for conventional furniture in major stores. A handmade bedside cabinet will begin at around pounds 150. Conversation Pieces start at pounds 750 and can go up to pounds 2,000, which is no more than a run-of- the-mill large Welsh dresser.

For authentic Mexican furniture and accessories, London-based House of Mexico has three stores, with a new one due to open in south-west London in the summer.

The company was launched a year ago by Alan McSharry with a friend who had been living in San Diego and who had bought Mexican furniture for his own use. It soon became apparent there was a market in the UK for the exuberant and colourful Mexican designs.

McSharry now makes five or six visits a year to producers to find rustic furniture, mirrors, ceramics, paintings and jewellery. They import Telavera pottery and also black pottery from Oaxaca.

"We do sometimes have to tone down the rustic colour for the home market," says McSharry. "But we find it's popular here because so many people already have pine. It is collectable and very durable.

A six-seater table with parquetry top - made from the different grain of blue and Brazilian pine - costs around pounds 550; an eight-seater pounds 630.

The Handmade Furniture and Design Company 01865 858650; House of Mexico 0181 357 8800.

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