Ministry of fun shows its polish

STANDING amid the soft grey fabric-covered walls and the clean-lined Arts and Crafts-inspired furniture in English walnut, Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, seemed to feel a need to justify himself, writes Amanda Baillieu.

Moving offices, he explained, was 'an opportunity to engage in a mild exercise of patronage'.

Compared to the pounds 55.5m spent on the European Bank for Reconstruction and Redevelopment, or the pounds 14m spent by the Department of Education adapting the Sanctuary Building, Westminster, the DNH's pounds 3m refit of its new premises in Cockspur Street seems modest.

But Mr Brooke was determined to set a good example by commissioning 'contemporary furniture'. He invited the Crafts Council to suggest British designers to furnish the three principal suites of rooms. It has proved a costly business.

A pounds 3,000 bookcase, designed by one of the country's leading furniture-makers, Martin Grierson, takes pride of place in the Secretary of State's office. There is a walnut conference table (estimated price pounds 5,000- pounds 6,000) as well as 11 chairs (around pounds 800 each), a desk and three small tables, the work of Rodney Wales, whose chairs cost around pounds 550 each and desks start at pounds 1,700.

The offices of Mr Brooke's minister of state - until the re- shuffle Robert Key and now his successor, Iain Sproat - are equipped with serviceable English oak furniture designed by Luke Hughes. Mr Key said last week: 'The cost is justifiable because the furniture is a showpiece of British craftsmanship.'

The Department has also selected pictures from the Government Art Collection. Mr Brooke's choice is all works by 20th-century artists, including a Sickert and a 10-foot painting, by Harriet Hill, of a London street.

The Department is sensitive about the cost, saying that off-the-peg furniture is comparable in price but is unlikely to be British-made.

Outside in the corridor, where the furniture is standard Whitehall issue, a print by the artist R B Kitaj poses the poignant question: 'On which side are you, masters of culture?'

(Photograph omitted)