East Dulwich is known for its dream homes, but it’s not until you step inside Stephen Wright’s House of Dreams that you truly realise you’re not in Kansas anymore.
Walking along the rows of monochromatic grey townhouses that line Melbourne Grove, Stephen’s mosaic palace is impossible to miss. As the azure blue gate swings open, you can’t help but feel like Dorothy when she emerges from her black and white cyclone-ravaged house into the Technicolor dream that is Oz. A multi-coloured mosaicked path leads into a rainbow splattered garden and a corridor so detailed in its colour palette it would send Alice running back the other way through the looking glass. A history of ceramics is literally set in stone with tiles from the Victorian period to modern day, while the rest of the pieces on show range from the random to the downright bizarre. Reading glasses, hair curlers, pencils, buttons and spoons are among just some of the items embedded in the walls. Dolls, children’s toys, old detergent bottles and posters line every bit of space that isn’t already covered; I get the impressions that if I stood still too long I too might be at risk of becoming part of the mosaic!
It’s not just a house either, it’s Steve’s home, where he lives upstairs. “No doubt I’ll eventually mosaic myself out of it,” he laughs. The project started about ten years ago, but the artist has been an East Dulwich local for over 30 years.
The museum project has been a personal journey for Stephen, who lost both parents and his partner in the space of one year and used his art as a creative outlet for grief; memories, poems and journal entries are scrawled across the walls. “It’s very personal, very honest and I think that’s what people like about it,” Stephen reflects. “It houses memories but it’s also ready for the future. There’s no big plan, it just ‘is’. It has its own energy, which comes and goes.”
Originally from Cheshire, Stephen studied fashion and textiles, completing a BA and a Masters in Manchester before moving to London and opening up his own studio. He began his career as a fabric and fashion designer before moving onto styling, knitwear design and stationary design. “I’ve always worked for myself. I couldn’t have it any other way,” he says. “In London I find everything is so in the box, and I’m not in any box, I’m in my own box.”
His stationary design business was Stephen’s most successful commercial venture, designing cards, giftwrap and notebooks, which were stocked in Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Liberty. “That’s a former life, I did it for twelve years but then it was time to sell the business and start again, reinvent,” he reflects. “I’d always designed for something that was fairly transient and disposable and I wanted to do something lasting. Now it feels like every day is a new day, I’ve got no history and I’m starting from scratch.”
Creating an ‘environment’ like the House of Dreams is popular in France and across Europe, where Stephen goes for inspiration. “You find people in France who have been making an environment for 60 years, but it’s not an English thing and that’s why I’m doing it,” he explains.
Hunting through market stalls is both a hobby and an occupational hazard for Stephen, who regularly travels to markets in Paris, Barcelona, Prague, Budapest and Brussels in search of hidden treasures. “Markets in London are generally too organised, too sanitised. I like Deptford market, it’s rough, dirty and a bit aggressive, which is why I like it. It’s not poncy.”
The artist admits he’s always done the opposite of what’s expected. “I’m just difficult,” he laughs, quick to add: “It’s so important to wave a banner for what this is about. You can follow a dream and do what you want but you have to be tenacious. It isn’t about money. It’s about the project and seeing something through.”
The House of Dreams had over 1000 visitors through its bejewelled doors last year and is gaining momentum with a new BBC film and a book. “It’s developing organically, and that’s enough for me right now,” Steve says.
The house is being left to the National Trust, to ensure it’s taken care of and potentially able to open more frequently in the future; it currently has about eight open days a year. “It’s important for me to know someone will protect the property, the work and the message. The National Trust will take it over after I’m not here anymore. It’s a gift.”
“It’s hard work but it’s rewarding. It’ll never be finished. It’ll never be enough, but I do the work for me, not for anyone else, as I always have done.”
The next open days for the House of Dreams Museum, 45 Melbourne Grove, SE22 8RG, are May 11, June 8, July 6, August 3, September 7 from 11am-4pm. Admission: Adults: £10 / students: £5 / children: free. Or visit by making an appointment. Phone: 0208 299 3164. http://www.stephenwrightartist.co.uk
Stephen’s book is available at the museum.