The iron lady - from Benetton to blacksmith

Alison Culiford meets Suzanne Ruggles
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Anyone who complains that their creativity is stifled by the need to make a living should take a leaf out of Suzanne Ruggles's book. A businesswoman setting up franchises for Benetton in the late Eighties, she opened a magazine one day and saw a sofa constructed of steel. "It was total instinct. I knew, `This is what I want to do,' " she recalls. She apprenticed herself to a blacksmith and learnt how to bend, break and weld metal, then began designing.

"I faxed my scribbles to him and he said, `Great. We want to make them up,' and that was it. If people had said, `Don't give up the day job,' then I'd still be there now."

It is easy to see why her ideas were snapped up when you enter her shop, which opened in Chelsea's King's Road in July. Plate glass fronted - with a crude, industrial style mast in the window supporting a glass shelf on which a sculpture appears to float - it is part shop, part stage set, peopled with a constantly changing cast of imaginative furniture pieces, sculpture and art. Walking in, you are confronted by an extraordinary steel bodice with spiralled metal breasts mounted on a curving, linear base. Thoughts of Joan of Arc came straight to my mind, but the female warrior was in fact commissioned by Simpson's for a window display on the theme of "the spell of the Highlands". The theatricality spills into the furniture designs too - an enormous, billowing chaise longue is inviting despite its hard, cold material (of course there are ample cushions between you and the metal grid that is its frame). The Nautilus table, stone-topped with a Latin inscription about the sea, has polished steel legs like shells or a wave over-topping itself. There are smaller pieces, too: delicately balanced candlesticks and blackened bowls, all with a sculptural quality.

"I wanted to show that metal furniture doesn't have to be purely functional. It is such a versatile medium - it can be contemporary with clean lines or it can be elegant. I continue to experiment with new ways of adapting the metal, eroding it with chemicals, rusting it. But balance is everything."

The training she gave herself, while "bloody hard" because of the brute strength required, was vital in enabling her to design. Now she farms out the construction to a team of craftspeople who work from her drawings.

"Because making things out of metal is all to do with line, what you draw is what you get, as long as you understand the principles beforehand. People have asked me to work in wood and I found that difficult because I didn't understand how it works."

Quality of workmanship is a vital factor. "We don't buy in any motifs - everything is constructed from scratch." Rope designs, a recurring theme, are made from three metal rods, twisted and clamped. The legs of the Tripod tables are tied in the centre by a metal rope and look as if they would spring apart if it were removed, while the Neoclassical armchair has metal tassels that appear to dangle as if made of silk.

Ruggles sees the shop as a medium for the interchange of ideas. She undertakes large-scale commissions for restaurants, clubs or shop window displays and these often give rise to ideas that can be adapted for smaller pieces.

A table designed for the Friends of the V&A sparked off an idea for the Ad Vitam table, where the Latin phrase meaning "to eternal life" reads in a perpetual circle. She hopes that from these showpieces other commissions will evolve as people walk in off the street.

The shop is also something of a gallery, though one, she emphasises, that is not rarified or off-putting. She is planning an exhibition for later this month which will include Paul Margetts (whose Masai warriors and moving semi-abstract sculptures are currently on display), a Danish painter, Helene Thejll, another sculptor working in steel and a photographer. "I've given them a brief and will see what they come up with," she says. "I call my exhibitions celebrations -it will be about having fun."

This unpretentious attitude is refreshing in the world of contemporary design. While I was in the shop two workmen in paint-spattered jeans came in to examine the metalwork and were welcomed, not greeted with stony silence. "As long as I keep an open mind people will keep coming into the shop and back I come with new ideas," she says. That, too, seems to be the key to creativity.

Suzanne Ruggles, 436 King's Road (0171-351 6565)

Prices: from pounds 29.50 for rose bowls. Gilded frames from pounds 23.

Tripod tables from pounds 295

Ad Vitam table pounds 850.

Slipper sofa (what I called a chaise longue) pounds 1800. These she calls her "more sculptural pieces" and they are therefore more expensive. Neoclassical armchair with cushions pounds 495.

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