Winter is a particularly wild time for Fearless Flotsam. Not only is it the season when Rob, 29, a trained cabinet maker, and Nicki, 31, an art school graduate and china restorer, think up new ideas and "play" - by which they mean going beachcombing on their local Cornish beaches - but it is the time when the seas churn up heavier, older pieces of wood. "Like this bit of oak," Rob says, pointing to the corner of their workshop in Polzeath and the gnarled-looking hull of a boat sculpture. "That was probably a rib from some fishing boat which had been trapped under a rock at the bottom of the sea for years. See how pebbles are still wedged in the knots. You can never duplicate that process. Nature has to do it."
Nature, too, transforms the lollysticks, peach stones, sunglasses, goggles and other specialities of summer beach combing. "The sea wears down the plastic and makes the colours look more muted," says Nicki. "Something that was man-made and ugly starts to look natural and beautiful."
An opinion obviously shared by the owner of the Copenhagen gallery who snapped up her fruit bowl made from plastic buoys, and by those who buy the candlesticks made from plastic bungs, bits of snorkel, Gillette razor handles, children's magnetic letters and fishing lures; clocks made from bits of driftwood and ships' copper tanks; peach stone and slate necklaces; driftwood mirrors and mobiles of shells, pebbles and crab claws that they can't make enough of.
Since Fearless Flotsam's conception two years ago business has "gone ballistic". Cornwall is full of people cooking up Poldark preserves and stringing pebbles together to make a living. But there is something about Fearless Flotsam's work that keeps the second-home-owning, Espace-driving breed of tourist queueing outside their workshop.
"It's about buying into a lifestyle," says Hazel Peiser, owner of Chiswick's Frivoli gallery. "Fearless Flotsam's work is particularly appealing because it is so natural and apparently simple to make. You look at the mobile and think, 'I could make that. I could get away from it all and live on the beach selling driftwood.' Of course, they are not easy to make at all and the last thing most of my customers actually want is to get cold, wet hands, wade in estuaries and have to pull nails out of rotting timbers. But it's a very romantic, appealing fantasy." Particularly for urbanites in the stress-ridden Nineties. According to Hazel, buying a bleached driftwood mirror simultaneously turns your bathroom into an Elle Decoration centrefold and hints of Cornish fishermen, woolly jumpers, easy parking and no worries. No wonder they sell well.
So, is the beach combing life really all rosy cheeks and heart-deep contentment?
"Making a living in Cornwall isn't easy," says Rob. "Apart from seasonal jobs in cafes, and factory work for poor wages, employment prospects are pretty dire." Rob is Cornish; Nicki a Brummie. They met in Port Isaac,where Nicki was living in her parents' holiday cottage. Aside from a brief flirtation with Australia, they have lived together in Port Isaac ever since. They settled on becoming professional beach combers "to bring the beer and rent money in," and because they both love Cornwall and rummaging through seaweed.
Although not completely living the self sufficiency dream (Rob is fond of surf boards and Nicki had just splurged on a pair of "ridiculously expensive" pounds 50 shoes) they are passionate about rubbish - as you would expect from a member of Surfers Against Sewage and the inhabitants of a village which swells by 10,000 tourists every summer.
"When the tourists arrive I think, here come the panty liners and condoms," Nicki says, "but I have nothing against tourists, it's South West Water I blame." Her war against waste is even directed at her mother-in-law, to whom Nicki recently gave a birthday card in a purposely unmarked, reusable envelope, only to see her toss it indifferently into the bin. "I made her get it out and flatten it between books," she says.
Nicki and Rob do, however, totally fulfil the wage slave's fantasy. They really do work to please themselves and nobody else. Not even the Chiswick Espace drivers. "No more driftwood mirrors," says Nicki adamantly. "They sold incredibly well, but it's got to the stage where I feel cross if I have to make another, so what's the point?"
Similarly, they haven't got round to listing Fearless Flotsam in Directory Enquiries; the Port Isaac telephone number is still under Nicki's maiden name and if it hadn't been for Nick, the landlord of the Carpenter's Arms in Polzeath, who acted as my messenger, I would still be trying to contact them. "I guess we could do more on the marketing side," Rob says, adding that they have had a catalogue of their work "in production" for a year now. "But we're in no hurry."
They have been quick, however, to wise up to the value of their work. Driftwood mirrors used to sell for pounds 45; in London they now fetch pounds 100 plus VAT. "It's absurd, but people pay it," says Rob. "Londoners earn loads and spend loads to try and get to a point which we have already reached - contentment, quality of life, being happy with who you are and where you are," Nicki elaborates. But for many, that wouldn't necessarily be flogging mobiles at Womad, the world music festival in Reading, surviving in little more than one pair of boots and buying a virtually derelict village hall to live in, even if it did cost only pounds 9,000.
Apart from finding a dead dolphin and their workshop springing a leak, their only other low point came this summer with the sinking off Padstow of the Maria Assumpta, the world's oldest working sailing boat.
"Knowing that people died, and knowing that they still haven't found two bodies made us feel very uneasy," said Nicki. "For the first time ever I felt like a vulture." They plan to make the wooden ribs they salvaged into a dining room table for their cottage. Is that because they would hate to make money out of such a terrible tragedy? "No," said Rob, "it's because we need a dining room table."
Fearless Flotsam can be reached on 01208 880768Reuse content