Shopping: Check It Out - Hidden Art Open Weekends

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Indy Lifestyle Online
FOR PRESENT-HUNTERS who can't face another battle through the high-street crush in search of the same Christmas presents as everyone else, the artists and artisans of London's East End are opening their workshops for an alternative shopping experience.

Around 600 designer-makers are taking part in this year's three Hidden Art weekends, which are now established as one of the capital's regular pre-Christmas events. Ceramics, glass, furniture, jewellery, mirrors, mosaics, clocks, hats, lighting, paintings and fashion are on sale for a fraction of the prices they would command in the shops, and there are demonstrations and mulled wine to inspire you while you browse.

"You can buy anything from pounds 1 to pounds 11,000, from well-known designers to those who may turn out to be the new up-and-comings," says Dieneke Ferguson, the project's director. To help you find your masterpiece of the future, a specially produced Hidden Art map points out clusters of studios, such as the watchmakers and jewellers in Clerkenwell, or the ceramicists and furniture-makers in Hackney.

My own first stop was Columbia Glassworks, tucked between the street markets of Brick Lane and Columbia Road. The windows of this 19th-century mews workshop are filled with brightly coloured plates; the shelves are lined with delicate tumblers, vases and lamps.

Co-founder Nick Blackmore guides me through Sputnik lights, K2 table- lamps and the striking Milifioris: more usually found shining away in Purves & Purves or Harrods. Along with the recognisable, there are some pieces that never reach the shops. "Hidden Art gives us the chance to experiment," says Blackmore, pointing to a table full of twisted glass bottles. "We can play around with brighter colours, unusual shapes; take more risks. The rest of the year we are judging the market."

Visitors can buy these one-off prototypes for one-off prices (pounds 25 to pounds 45 for a vase) and, as well as glass blowing demonstrations, there's also a pounds 2.50 lucky dip - "Children love it, but adults cheat by feeling what's inside," says Blackmore.

A few doors down is London Timepiece, which restores 20th-century clocks (from pounds 30 to pounds 300) and displays school, railway and traditional wooden clocks Moss Brothers Metal Designs displays a collection of wrought- iron furniture; round the corner is Columbia Road, with its artisan shops and Sunday flower market.

Ten minutes walk to the north and you reach 20 more venues around The Broadway, next to London Fields. Here normally empty premises jostle with the more permanent workshops, displaying the work of scores of people - hats by Alva Wilson in the Hat Gallery; ceramics by Karen Bunting, Dimitra Grivellis, Sue Whimster and Penny Fowler, amongst others, at Broadway Ceramics; plus Christmas decorations, photographs, sculptures, mirrors and furniture.

Several studios in the vicinity are also open for the occasion, including that of textile designer Cressida Bell, author of The Decorative Painter (Conran Octopus, pounds 17.99) and granddaughter of the Bloomsbury's Vanessa Bell. In her top-floor studio, she makes hand-printed silk and velvet scarves, ties, cushions and lamp-shades. "I used to have a shop in Holborn, but people missed coming to the studio," she explains. "It's great for me, too, because I can see people's reaction to different lines before I put them into production."

This is only one possible route: others could take you via Hoxton Square, Clerkenwell or Brick Lane. There is a lot to choose from - plus the bonus of knowing you'll have a good tale to tell about where you got your pressies from.

Most studios are open 28 & 29 Nov and 4, 5, 6, 12 &13 Dec. For further details and a Hidden Art map, call 0171-729 3301, or contact the website: www.hiddenart. co.uk

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