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Hanging the lizards on the washing line: Julie Aschkenasy meets Richard Pell, whose skill at turning cold metal into dinosaurs, dragons or daffodils is earning him a large following - and amusing the neighbours

WHEN the Hilton Hotel wanted a new fitness centre it demanded more than just a place to work out. So it approached a designer who knew nothing about gyms. Richard Pell's specification was to create something interesting and adventurous. Working in conjunction with Phil Hogan, proprietor of the Hilton's gym, who does know a lot about the subject, he found his lack of knowledge was an advantage. 'I wanted to bring the place alive and feel a sense of movement.'

Out went straight ballet bars, in came highly-polished ones with big curves at different heights to allow different sorts of exercises and a range of stretches. Out went boring lockers, in came curved ones with 'dancing vents'. Everything is metal, shiny and erratic - very different from the style of his own home.

At the back of his darkly cluttered south London flat is a bleak garage, housing Pell's metal workshop. If that sounds depressing, it isn't. An amazing variety of weird and wonderful sculptures stretch from wall to wall to lift this home-cum-workspace from drabness. A dentist's drill is awaiting possible metamorphosis into a lamp; the back end of a Ford Popular is to become a juke box.

The garden provides a good example of Pell's intermingled home and work life: 'I hang (metal) lizards and fish on the washing line to dry - it looks as if I have been hunting. It's not unusual to see 30 of them hanging there.' The neighbours regard his activities as a local attraction, and even bring friends round for a look.

Richard Pell is a fine art graduate, who in his normal working life designs and makes metal sculptures, shop fittings and interiors, all with a very individual feel. 'I like to make metal look like other things, very organic, such as plants and animals. Not at all like heavy industry metalwork.'

The art is one thing, but his bread and butter is a large range of decorative iron-work crafts. These include comic-book dachshund candle-holders, gothic bat and lizard wall sconces, new age clocks and wall decorations. 'I was very nave when I left college. I thought I could make sculptures and sell them, but it doesn't work like that. I started by making leather goods for the fashion industry, which was horrible. When I had enough money I started this business.'

With the help of three workers, he supplies gift shops around the country with his range: dinosaurs, cacti, dragonfly, octopus and sunflowers. They often sport spots and stripes achieved by 'blueing' the metal. 'I get my ideas anywhere, even Coronation Street. Seeing their flying ducks made me decide to make flying fish. We all sit down and have drawing sessions and create all sorts of creatures.'

Things have been going well since the launch about five years ago. So much so that he intends to set up a bigger workshop to cope with his 'standard range' and spend more time on interiors and one-offs.

Nicholas Hall is Pell's biggest fan. About a year ago he was buyer for a shop on the King's Road in London when Pell walked in. 'I immediately saw the potential and told my boss we should get in lots of stuff. It became our best seller.' But then the shop's director decided a 6ft fish mirror was too ugly and should come out of the window; when she also suggested he order less, Mr Hall promptly resigned and set up his own shop, Amadeus.

Eighty per cent of his stock comes from Pell: 'It is my wages, my life] The King's Road is a funny area, sometimes we sell nothing much for days. Then the other day a man came in and put his Gold Card on the counter and said: 'I'm going to go mad]' and has now decorated his whole living room with Richard's stuff.'

Richard Pell (081-693 5740).

London Stockists: Amadeus, 309a King's Road, London SW3 (071-376 4435); D'Arcy, 12 Nelson Road, Greenwich, London SE10 (081-293 9992); Nice Irma, Goodge Street, London W1 (071-580 6921); Nakedly Nothing, 230 Portabello Road, London (071-221 2910); Liberty, Regent Street, W1 (071-734 1234).

Outside London: Mortons, 79 High Street, Poole, Dorset. (0202 669563); Abode, The Shrieves House, 40 Sheep Street, Stratford- upon-Avon (0789 268755); Forsyths, 7 Market Place, St Albans (0727 839702); Earth Walk, 28 Guildhall Road, Northampton (0604 602101); But Is It Art, 56 The Broad Street Mall, Reading (0734 581088).

Prices start from about pounds 10 for wall fish decorations to more than pounds 500 for an enormous fish mirror.

(Photograph omitted)