Through the shattered glass

Ancient Rome comes to terraced London, via the warmly-hued haciendas of South America. It's easy with mosaics, a Latin temperament and an exotic vision, says Cayte Williams

Cayte Williams
Saturday 04 April 1998 23:02

CLAPHAM is hardly the place you'd find a slice of California, but furniture and interiors designer Alex Shaftel has managed it. Stepping into her flat, which is in a very English, Georgian building, is like stepping into a West Coast home. We're not talking Pammy Anderson's beach house or Liberace's boudoir, but a tasteful Los Angeles-style apartment with gorgeous textures, Spanish-influenced design and the occasional nod to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.

Alex has an enviably glamorous background. She was born in Los Angeles to a Mexican actress and a Russian film director who decided to move to London in the 1960s. After a spell in LA and San Fransisco, Alex decided to settle in London. She started her own business in 1994 producing mosaic furniture, and went on to create furniture, floors and walls for private customers. She recently held a successful exhibition of modernist tables finished in Marmorino (a coloured marble-dust plaster which has a suede- like appearance). "I love anything ancient Roman,' she explains. "I loved frescoes at art college and that grew into mosaics, but now I want to pare down and really concentrate on materials."

Her home is a mixture of classical influences and Hispanic mosaics. "The last thing I wanted was to feel like I was living in London," she says. "It's very quiet in this flat, and when I moved back to London I brought that whole Hispanic, Latin thing with me. The mosaics have a Gaudi, recycled funky look and the ceramic influence is from living in LA."

Mixed in with the classical and the Hispanic is a French antiquated feel. "The bed in the guest room is a French bateau-lis, or boat-style bed and the doors into the kitchen are Belgian," she explains. "They were saloon doors from a restaurant that I picked up in a local warehouse. In fact, we designed the flat around them."

These beautiful pale blue doors with engraved glass panels fold back so that the kitchen is in full view from the living room. "We opened up this whole flat," Alex explains. "It was originally two flats, a poky little place with a thin corridor with lots of little rooms going off it. I used to rent one side and the other side was left derelict by the landlord." Eventually Alex took over both flats, pulled the corridor down and turned them into a spacious two-bedroomed appartment.

Alex has made the most of the light and space in her flat. "What I love is views into rooms," she explains. Not only are the kitchen doors flung wide open, but the double doors into the guest room are folded back to create more space. One side of the living-room wall is given over to nine small recesses which house pre-Columbian figures, a Thai bronze and Alex's own stone painting. "I'm a bit of a display nutcase," she laughs. "I've got junk from all my travels to create some drama, and this display constantly changes. They're windows of what's going on in my life."

Even the lampshades get special treament, she's glued dried rose petals on to them to give out a soft glow at night. She made the cream window blinds herself out of plain canvas and huge gold tassles. "I don't really like curtains, so I stick to blinds. I like the light to come streaming in."

The living room is dominated by a huge white sofa buried in cushions, especially Samson Soboye lambswool ones she bought from the west London shop, Bowwow. The two mosaic table - a Spanish-style table and a wall table fringed with raffia- she made herself. "This flat is a a mosaic hospital," she says wryly. "These are the prototypes that didn't quite kick," which makes you wonder what the good stuff must look like.

Alex has used her favourite medium: ceramic and antique tiles. "Mosaic is great fun to tart things up with, to give life to some knackered piece of furniture," she says of the Spanish table. "This used to be my poker table until two hulking six-foot men dropped it!"

The mosaic theme carries on to the kitchen, with a table that would look at home in a Versace mansion. "I love Versace because he supported mosaics," she says. "They were all over his villas in Miami and Italy." The kitchen is the hub of the flat. "It's where the life is. I love cooking and dinner parties, and it's where people hang out. This kitchen was put together for an absolute song. I got all the fixtures from a photographer who was buying a really expensive new kitchen."

The guest room is in a classical-Roman style, with a cameo-style figurehead above the bed. "This is more of a masculine room. I bought the corona above the bed from a shop down the road, got some really cheap muslin from Peter Jones, the trimming from V V Rouleaux and a girlfriend sewed it all up for me."

The bathroom carries on the theme of double entrance doors, and against one wall stands an impressive glass-fronted cabinet. Alex fixed this up after she found it in an "absolute state on the Portobello Road". She decorated the shelves with fish, algae and seaweed mosaics and crackle- glazed the back, making her jewellery and perfume bottles look like deep- sea treasures. The finishing touch is a pair of blue glass handles from Rajasthan.

You'd have thought a mosaicist would have had a field day with the bathroom tiling, but Alex has collected loose tiles and ceramic pieces and placed them on the surrounds. "I visited a Hacienda," she says, "and it had loose tiles around the bath and I really loved that. It's just a collage of different colours and it doesn't really matter if they go together."

A church-like arch and curved wooden door lead into the bedroom which is home to a large, wooden four-poster bed. "The bed changes all the time," explains Alex. "I put bright-coloured saris over it when I came back from India." Now, however, it's covered in a cloud of white: layers of pillows, antique lace cushions and an appliqued bedspread from India. Either side is a matching pair of bedside tables which Alex had made and then covered in mosaics.

One whole wall is taken up with a huge fresco which she painted herself. "It was a non-stop frenzy. A friend helped me for a while, and we didn't eat, we didn't stop, because all the paints have to be mixed from pigments and you have to work while the plaster wall is wet. I tried to get the effect of the Spanish missions you find in Santa Barbara." Again, there are no curtains, not even blinds. "I like the light too much," she says. Even if it is English light.

Alex's tables are on sale at Carden Cunietti, 83 Westbourne Park Rd, London W2, tel: 0171 229 8559. Alex also works to private commission in mosaic and Marmorino, call 0171 720 6822 for details.

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