Artistic smiths are nothing new; in France, the architect-engineer Jean Prouve was making avant-garde metal chairs in the Thirties. But in recent years a whole generation of twentysomething art college graduates has been taking to the hammer and blow- torch with the enthusiasm of religious converts.
The problem facing designer-makers such as Caroline and her colleagues at Ore Studios, who expressly want to be commercial in their approach to their work, is how to dream up and produce home decor in metal that is affordable and liked by a wide public, while at the same time keeping one creative step ahead of dinky decor and gift shops.
In every British high street with cultural pretensions, you will find a shop peddling contemporary decorative arts, which, for the most part, means roughly gilded wooden stars and moons, curly- whirly metal tables, triffid-like iron candelabra and sun-blistered bric-a-brac from Mexico, Bali and Santa Fe.
'We can always win on cost,' says Caroline, 'because we sell our work direct from the arches. The mark-up on anything we make is up to 130 per cent if bought in the shops; come down here, and we can sell you decorative metal mirrors for as little as pounds 5.'
Ore Studios sells its work for as little as pounds 2, which is sensible retailing as virtually anyone can make a purchase without breaking the bank. Who knows, a fledgling spender of pounds 2 might return some day and buy Jamie's glorious Hammer House of Horror wine rack for pounds 3,000. This contraption - and a voluminous bed, fronted and backed in a spaghetti of forged iron, also by Jamie - dominates the subterranean world of Ore Studios. At least 8ft tall and resembling a medieval instrument of torture, the wine rack incorporates fiendish wheels that creak delightfully as they turn the bottles to prevent sediment settling.
Ore Studios is crowded with candlesticks and candelabra, sconces and console tables, clocks and mirrors at bargain prices. There seem to be a few too many rusting hearts and gilded stars, but Caroline says that these sell well and enable Ore Studios to make adventurous one-offs that may or may not find ready buyers.
'We're not arty Trustafarians dabbling in a bit of creativity,' she says, 'so we need to bring in as much cash as possible to keep the workshop and our homes going. This means that we do make things that sometimes we get bored with. I suppose factories that churn out the same angle-lamps every day must get pretty bored, too; but as long as people want them, why stop making them?'
The studios have just won a commission to make furniture and fittings for the Sun pub in Clapham. 'It's a hang- out for smart young things,' says Caroline. 'They were happy to let us make the pub sign, iron benches for the bars and even the 'Ladies' and 'Gents' signs on the lavatory doors. It's a move in the right direction for us, because it means that our work is part of everyday life rather than something precious.'
The team has also attracted the attention of the local police, although in a positive manner. 'We held a show of our work recently,' says Caroline, 'and a sergeant from Battersea police station came to look around. We assumed he must be thinking, 'What a bunch of arty-farty ponces,' but he came back and said that the station would like to commission a new clock. We made him one in the shape of a constable's helmet for pounds 50. It's nice to feel that we're becoming part of a community rather than simply being a trendy artistic outpost.'
Ore Studios is a little hard to find and lacks the calculated finesse of self-consciously artistic interior-design shops; but its openness and the willingness of the team to take on commissions - to make any old iron object you want as well as to offer you designs, such as Jamie's wine rack - will take you by surprise . . . which is very much a part of its charm.
Ore Studios, 274 Queenstown Road, London SW8 4LP (071-498 5700).
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