Mention the London Oxo Tower and people think of the rooftop restaurant and brasserie on the South Bank of the Thames. There is, however, more to the Oxo Tower Wharf than a gastronomic experience. The riverside landmark is now making its name as a centre for contemporary design. On the first and second floors of the nine-storey building are a series of small studio/shops housing a growing band of first-rate designers.

Their landlords are Coin Street Community Builders, a local residents' group who bought 13 acres around Oxo Tower Wharf in 1984 to save the area from a major office development. There are some 25 design units on site already. They cover a wide range of applied arts, including ceramics, textiles, fashion, furniture and jewellery. Incoming designers are rigorously vetted. This is no glorified craft market. You need talent to get a unit.

Ten of the designers won Sainsbury scholarships, which provided pounds 6,000 towards the cost of setting themselves up at Oxo. Although the studios are retail outlets with regular opening hours, there is some of the disarray of a workshop and designers are on hand to give advice or discuss commissions.

A tour of the workshops starts at Box Products, designers of the lighting at the chic L'Odeon restaurant in Regent Street. They also make furniture and interior accessories in bold designs, mainly in metal. The most striking was the "Vertebral" (pounds 215), which looked like an enormous section of backbone.

Philip Watts also works in metal, which he combines with wood for his elegant, streamlined furniture. His flowing "Wave" candlesticks in cast aluminium cost pounds 42.

He shares the studio with Richard Hinton, who makes "zebirdy" lamps consisting of fluorescent fluffy balls balanced on springs with a "bird's feet" base at pounds 37.50.

The Salt design company specialises in the manipulation of natural light. Here, I met June Swindell, who, with her partner Karina Holmes, designs gauze-like blinds of woven and knitted fabrics. The textiles control and play with the diffusion of light, letting in just the right amount to make attractive reflections and shadows.

The direction of light by laser beam preoccupies Martin Richardson at The Holographic Image Studio (THIS). When I visited, he had on display what was claimed to be the first full-colour hologram. It was of a half- naked man astride a motorbike. I found his 3D "photographic" images, particularly his portraits, quite unnerving - so convincing was the illusion of reality. They are the ultimate in photo portraiture. Sitters have included fashion model Sara Stockbridge, artist Peter Blake and film director Martin Scorsese

More lasers round the corner, where I found Janet Stoyel exploring the frontiers of garment design. She uses photon laser and ultrasonic technology to make her stunning creations. "I wanted to do work that was both very modern and environmentally sound, which cut out energy-hungry processes and produced clothes that could be recycled." The clothes are literally "seamed up with sound waves". Dresses (from pounds 28) in layers of gossamer fabric are adorned with delicate laser-cut patterns which "hang by a hinge". Her scarves in finest sheers are exquisite; some have hinged cut-outs, others have the design completely "vaporised out" to give a filmy, web- like effect. I couldn't believe it when she told me that her shimmering floaty tunic tops were made of recycled plastic bottles. She has done work for Donna Karan using sound waves to design leather and will introduce her own range of leatherwork to the shop in the spring.

No lasers next door, where Louise de Caires brews up natural dyes using seasonal sources (walnuts and cranberries this Christmas) to provide the background colour for her range of silk scarves. Impressed at finding another textile designer using environmentally sound methods, I was a bit disappointed to find this base colour was then painted with strong horizontal and vertical lines in "techno" (her term for synthetic colours).

It was back to a conventional approach at Pauline Burrow's studio. But that's not to detract from her range of shirts made from finest Italian cotton. They are minutely detailed and effortlessly simple, giving an elegant understated look.

If this is too minimalist for your taste, try Dolce Vita, where Yasmine Dal Lago's womenswear collection uses feathers, sparkling devore and lace in the hippest street-wise designs.

As a complement to all the clothes and accessories, there is plenty of jewellery design to choose from at Oxo. The most unusual work is at Studio Fusion, formed by a group of six award-winning designer enamellists. Here, Gudde Jane Skyrme explained the long history of the different enamelling techniques. They produce jewellery and tableware in precious metals, as well as larger items on copper and steel. The colours are wonderful.

And it was colours that drew me to Tracy Hillier's studio, where she produces bold, striking rugs and wall hangings. The abstract designs are often inspired by nature. Recent collections include, birds, fish and cacti. Most recently, she has been experimenting with modular designs and has started using inserts of brushed aluminium and copper.

There is so much to see at the Oxo studios, but you can take a breather in the new cafe/bar on the second floor, gaze over to St Paul's and watch the river flow by. It all adds up to an inspiring expedition. Fiona MacAulay

The studios are open 11am-6pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Details: South Bank Management Services 0171-401 2255.

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