Interiors: Scene changes

Applied artist Julienne Dolphin Wilding has always been reluctant to put down roots. And, as Lucy Perceval discovers, her home reflects her nomadic tendencies

Lucy Perceval
Saturday 04 September 1999 23:02

FIVE YEARS AGO, when Julienne Dolphin Wilding first visited the early 19th-century converted bakehouse which was to become her home, she could write her name on its smoke-glazed walls. The culprit, a temperamental wood-burning stove, had already been removed but the place was still incredibly grimy. Julienne was undeterred: "I remember going into this smelly shed and having this tragic fantasy that I could achieve the impossible and convert it into something that functioned for me."

As a maker of highly imaginative furniture, and with a background in theatre set design, Julienne is used to spotting potential in the most unlikely material. A glance around the bakehouse is enough to gauge her eclectic approach; she has used wire-wool scourers (surprisingly soft to the touch) and bright purple rope to upholster a metal-framed chair; miniature aluminium buckets stand in as lampshades, and two chairs made of yew dwarf the map table at which she eats.

The bakehouse is tacked on to a Tudor manor house in Hertfordshire, which is owned by Juliet Bingley, a counsellor. It is tiny, only three metres by six, and Julienne has to stoop to enter. The outside is clad in oak boards, blackened from many thick applications of tar, its doors and window frames picked out in pale-blue paint. But the inside is unexpectedly airy; the stone walls are coated with a powdery whitewash and the wooden beams and walls are highlighted in reflective white gloss.

Such an ancient and characterful building is an odd setting for someone who thinks of herself as a nomad, and claims to be wary of permanence and nostalgia. Julienne seems rather surprised to find herself settled there: "It was a bit of a shock when I made the decision to take on a solid house," she says. Before she moved in, she was leading a peripatetic existence, commuting between Barcelona, where she shared a workshop with a friend, and a hangar-like studio in Hertfordshire. "I went to sulk in Spain during the recession," she says. As the economy improved and her stack of commissions grew, she found herself spending more and more time in England, and decided she needed a base here again, as well as a studio.

At first she considered building herself a treehouse in one of the ancient beeches near her studio, but then she was introduced to Juliet, who offered to rent her the bakehouse. Initially she only spent five months of each year there, but she decided to move in permanently last October. As well as being a home, the bakehouse is also the place where Julienne stores materials that she is reluctant to leave at her studio: coils of coloured rope hang from nails, a majestic pair of carved lion's feet from a Turin flea-market poke out from beneath a radiator, waiting to be incorporated into some future piece of work.

A dangerously steep staircase leads to the bakehouse's sleeping quarters, situated above the scullery of the main house. The vivid lime-green walls are one of Julienne's few concessions to colour, as is the rich-blue Spanish throw on the wooden-framed sofa downstairs. Julienne made a lampshade from an upturned sieve lined with a blue glass bowl to coax what she considers a satisfactory blue from the throw.

One of Julienne's preoccupations is her abiding sense that colour loses its lustre in this country. "The sunlight in England is so washed-out," she says. "I'll do anything to get light in." Hence the emphasis on polished metal, with its reflective qualities. There are gleaming antique fishermen's buoys, and a ship's brass cabin-lamp dangles from a beam. But by far the most striking feature is the floor; a bright expanse of aluminium tiles rescued from a scrap- metal yard. "At first it was like a mirror - a bit much," says Julienne. "I'm glad it's scuffed-up."

The concrete floor underneath has been through several incarnations during her residence: painted doorstep red, then white, then hidden by astroturf, which Julienne found impossible to clean. "I am a bit fetishistic when it comes to floors - they have to be pristine," she says. The tiles are simply jammed into place, and they rattle when they are walked on. She decided against laying a wooden floor: "I can take this floor up," she says: "a wooden floor is too much of a structural permanence. I like the idea of being able to move things in and out. Maybe next year I'll find some offcuts of copper and lay them down, then when I'm bored I can get out the aluminium tiles again."

Julienne diplomatically refers to the bakehouse as a "recycling chamber" for the main house. Various odds and ends of furniture that her landlady was reluctant to discard have found their way into the bakehouse, to be customised by Julienne. She added an aluminium work surface to the free- standing kitchen cupboard beneath the window, and replaced its handles with galvanised screws.

Her signature lofty wooden chairs, sculptural and sky-scraping, are assembled from unwieldly pieces of timber. She makes no attempt to disguise the wood's origins. "I leave each piece whole for its function," she says. "Every time you chop something, you diminish its beauty." There are four variations on these chairs in the bakehouse, each about two metres in height. Julienne's experience in the theatre is a strong influence on her work - she is not intimidated by large furniture, having learnt how to move large props. She is also interested in working with the areas of space above shoulder-height that are often ignored, and these towering chairs serve to draw the eye upwards. "There used to be much more activity going on at ceiling level - picture rails, ceiling roses, and so on - I'm just continuing that tradition," she says.

The wood she uses for her furniture pieces ranges from structural timber to fallen trees, and sometimes even Thames driftwood, petrified with black silt and punctured with ancient nails. "The Thames is amazing at low water; the whole history of the city is lying there in the mud. But it's quite hard to find Elizabethan driftwood now that they're cleaning up the river." She often incorporates fittings sourced from chandleries, such as cleats and rope. "I love the height in ships' masts, and the fact that the boat's functions all depend on this perpendicular strength." She shuts the door to reveal a mast-like hatstand, made by adding baling hooks to a telegraph pole.

One functional part of the bakehouse which remains untouched is the jam oven, with its cast-iron grate and giant copper bowl. Julienne has found that the bowl makes a perfect receptacle for the wood dust and filth from her work clothes, which she leaves in it at the end of a day in the studio. All that's left of the original bread oven is a teetering chimney that provides a structural focal point for the room. A couple of years ago, a black, streaky stain appeared on the whitewashed beam that supports the chimney. "I was convinced it was haunted because ghosts make their presence known by water or temperature," says Julienne solemnly. She was later disappointed to find that the chimney was still open to the elements, and the "spectral" streaks were a mundane combination of soot and rain.

There are few ornaments: Julienne has strong views on the subject. "A knick-knack freeze-frames an event. I'm a bit suspicious of those snares. Spontaneity doesn't flow," she argues. On a mahogany chest of drawers inherited from Juliet, though, is a small clutch of objects, all gifts. There is a lamb's tail, a couple of ammonites, some detailed miniature metal heads modelled for a nativity crib by the Spanish artist Josep Bofil, and a rosewood clarinet. "I try not to collect too many things. This is 20 years' worth. I don't want to spend a whole life looking back. Sentimentality makes me ill," she says.

Julienne's dislike of sentimental clutter, and her impermanent decorating scheme (removable floor tiles, borrowed and constantly changing furniture) leave you with a sense of how easily she could just pack up and leave. And that is just how she likes it. "It's good to have a turnover of events and homes," she says. "If I lived in London again I would have four bedsits as opposed to one big flat. It's the closest I'd get to being a gypsy in the city."

To contact Julienne Dolphin Wilding phone 0171 380 0950

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