The modern bargain hunt: 'We raided skips and salvage yards to furnish our mid-century home'

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You could call it alternative shopping," muses Paul Hedge, sitting in a butter-coloured leather and rosewood Ico Parisi chair from the 1950s. "We never go out intending to buy anything. But we've had to get cabs home from the theatre, because we happened to see a chair just lying on the pavement on the way there, and we couldn't let it go." A lot of knowledge, it seems, is a risky thing, particularly if what you know about is mid-century modern furniture and you happen to be passing a well-stocked skip or the sort of charity shop that hasn't been subjected to an intervention by Mary Portas. "Once you know what something is, and you've recognised it, you can't just leave it behind."

Not that the living room at the heart of the house he shares with his partner, artist Jane Wilbraham, screams jumble sale. Far from it. Hedge is a director of the Hales Gallery, a successful east London art dealer. There is a Patrick Caulfield painting of a pipe in an ashtray above the fireplace and a dense hand-tufted red rug on the floor from the Swedish company Kasthall. And then there is the furniture, all from the 1950s and 1960s, gleaned maybe from scavenging or neighbours, or friends who are dealers, but all repaired to perfection. "When we go to the upholsterers – local geezers – we take photographs of the chairs in their original state and insist that even the piping is faithfully reproduced," Wilbraham says.

A cupboard (probably 1960s and manufactured by Robert Heritage) with doors decorated with distinctive David Gentleman drawings is filled with glassware by the British company Whitefriars and the Danish producer Holmegaard. A teak-framed Grete Jalk sofa for France and Sons has been re-clad in a heavy black and white wool; a classic 1967 William Plunkett "Reigate" rocking chair came in pieces from a neighbour's loft and had its aluminium struts recreated in a Bermondsey foundry. Above the BeoCenter 5000 hi-fi (snapped up for £2 from a charity shop) are shelves displaying an exhaustive collection of black and white ceramics by Richard and Susan Parkinson, which range from stylised birds and animals to a chessboard formed from rubber glove mould. Hedge first started buying pieces 15 years ago from Deptford market. They are now very highly sought-after: the Parkinsons' creative partnership was brief – from the late 1950s to the early 1960s – and dissolved with their divorce, when Susan broke all the moulds.

If Hedge and Wilbraham's taste for mid-century living sounds slavish, it's more dictated by the surroundings than their particular preference, and the fact that they arrived here 10 years ago with more art than furniture. "Mid-century isn't that interesting," Hedge says, "it's more about the house we're living in, and what's right for it." The house was built in 1959, on the Dulwich Estate in south-east London and, being a tall, thin vertical building over three floors, is as much Georgian town house as modernist miracle, its interior not grand but perfectly formed. Its large windows, though, fill the rooms with light and allow its occupants to enjoy the fastidious landscaping the estate prided itself on. At the back, the garden joins seamlessly with an acre of unspoilt woodland. At the front, a line of now-mature specimen trees include a white beam, a mountain ash, a copper beech and an ornamental cherry.

These surroundings feed directly into Wilbraham's work, which takes place in the ground-floor garage that she has converted into a studio. Her previous sculptures, from the Nineties to the mid-Noughties, used discarded cardboard fruit boxes, photographs, texts and wooden constructions to create intricate 3D sculptures, expressing a self-evolved value system. They proved popular among collectors, especially in the USA. She has kept only one, which is now in the study – a cardboard piece spelling out the prescient slogan "Buy Now Pay Later". Now Wilbraham is busy whittling away at green sycamore wood, creating small sculptures combining organic shapes, hands or tools, with chains of words spilling from them. It is as much about vernacular ways of working in wood as the connection between making and thinking. The resulting pieces, imbued with hours of creation, have the intensity of a devotional object. Alongside these are vivid watercolours of locally found things – hosta leaves and sticks, naturally whittled by nature, not by hand.

Wilbraham is, of course, represented by Hedge's gallery, where a regard for making runs strong, not for its own sake but as an expression of more conceptual ideas. "I have to be careful here – there's a lot of art-world snobbery about 'craft'. But let's say I'm interested in work that needs a skill." A pair of life-size hammers by the artist Richard Slee, in exquisitely glazed ceramic, that are lying on the France and Sons coffee table in the couple's living room, make the point. But for their beauty, they are redundant objects; they talk about the post-industrial world we live in. The Hales Gallery is now based in Shoreditch, an area whose desirability has grown up around it since it came here, in 2004, to the Tea Building, a massive warehouse now filled with media businesses. Before this, Hedge spent 12 years in a former undertaker's in Deptford, putting on groundbreaking exhibitions. A fine art graduate of Goldsmiths, he was the first to show Jake and Dinos Chapman's work, in 1992, and Mike Nelson's a few years later.

Hedge, like Wilbraham, believes in the long game. "I don't want to follow fashion," he says. "I enjoy spending time with my artists and developing their careers. In the 1990s, collectors were open to the idea of the immediate – something that knocked them for six straight away that they might not still like in six months. Now the impetus is different. People sometimes spend a day in the gallery. They take their time – there's something more spiritual about it."

The same long-term approach seems to inform their home life. They are not just gathering things around them, but learning more deeply what they mean. At night, he'll be reading a book about the 1951 Festival of Britain and she'll be dipping into something by the late 20th-century Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. It is perhaps an antidote to what that they call "the thrill of the chase" each time they light upon something new. And perhaps a rejoinder to acquaintances who, they say, "are appalled that we have knick-knacks". One friend, an upmarket interior type with grand tastes in textiles and antiques, was underwhelmed when he first visited. But then he sighed, says Wilbraham, and said regretfully: "I suppose the utility look will come back."

Adam Dant's Drawings about Drinking in Britain opens at Hales Gallery, Tea Building, 7 Bethnal Green Road, London, E1 6JJ on 25 November (www.halesgallery.com).

WHERE TO GET THE LOOK

Spitalfields market, Thursdays: Great for 20th-century furniture and accessories. "There is an Italian stallholder there at the moment whose parents were glove makers. He has lots of unworn vintage stock – beautiful pieces of work," says Hedge.

Woolley and Wallis, auctioneers, Salisbury: "I am addicted to their auctions at the moment," says Hedge. "The 20th-century design auctions feature excellent ceramics."

The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading: the collection includes exhibits from the pavilion of the Festival of Britain and the Oxfam bookshop is the place for Marxist literature. "Reading was clearly full of radicals in the 1960s," Wilbraham says.

Bromley, Kent: a town worth visiting. "It yields a lot," Wilbraham says. "I suppose people moved here in the 1950s and 1960s to start new suburban lives in new houses and furnished their homes with the current look from the local department store, Dunn's of Bromley was the local shop."

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