Second-generation artist-craftsmen are not common in the 21st century, but mosaic artist, Oliver Budd is just such a rarity, and although he fulfils commissions as far away as Oman, his extraordinary creations are designed and made from a quiet village in East Sussex.
Oliver's father Kenneth was a real-life "Mad Man"– the creative director of an advertising agency in the 1950s where he was responsible for such iconic branding as Bisto, Farley's Rusks, and Johnson's Baby Powder. "Dad had encountered mosaics when he was in Europe during the war and I think the image of them always stayed with him. His job in advertising was great and really glamorous, but I think he felt that there was something missing and so, he chucked it in and set up the company making mosaics. He was really keen on the idea of public art – something that could make a difference to ordinary people's lives." Recalls Oliver, "Years later, after art college, I joined him and we worked together until he died.
"Sadly, a lot of the mosaics that Dad created in the heyday of public art – the late 1950s and the 1960s have been lost. They tended to be in places where there had been a lot of post-war development. Concrete was the favoured building material, and it was pretty stark and uncompromising. It was the age of 'brutalist' architecture really, so lots of city councils and organisations invested in works of public art to brighten up these rather dour structures and give them a more local flavour. I'm actually working on the restoration of one of these projects at the moment. It's the JF Kennedy memorial mosaic that was in Birmingham. Commissioned by the city's Irish Catholic community some time after Kennedy's assassination in '63, Dad unveiled it in 1969. Birmingham always seems to be rebuilding and reinventing itself and so more recently, it became the victim of another new scheme. However, the City Council had forgotten that it was actually the Irish Catholics who had paid for it, so luckily they have had the good grace to stump up to replace it. It's huge – more than 13 metres long and when it's complete it will have a new home in Digbeth, Birmingham."
Oliver's studio is packed with both finished pieces and works in progress. There are at least a dozen barrels full of drawings and templates. "Every one that Dad and I ever produced is here," says Oliver pointing to hundreds of rolls of paper, "so I can use the original design for reference if things need to be repaired." There are also samples of glass, ceramics and marble mounted on the walls and towering units of drawers with every type of material carefully labelled. "People often think that artists are untidy, but we actually have to be really organised." Besides the large scale projects, Oliver also teaches classes in mosaic-making for adults and visits schools where he gets the children to create and make the designs. The children really love to get involved and come up with some great ideas. I just make sure that it all holds together and I neaten things up, but not too much, because it's important for them to feel ownership of what they do. I love doing small commissions for people's homes too. I make a lot of mosaics for floors and for Aga backs. They're really satisfying because I incorporate things that are important to the family. Motifs, names, that sort of thing, it's completely bespoke so people can have something in their house that is just personal to them."
Having visited the studio, it is striking that one of the few mosaics that can be seen at the couple's home is a tiny, flaming sun above the front door. "We don't have many here because I don't like to bring my work home," says Oliver, "but anyway," he adds, looking at his wife with a grin, "I don't think Fiona would put up with it."
The façade of the long white weatherboard cottage looks at first glance like a conventional country cottage, and the only hint of the riot of colour and texture inside, is the teal blue paint around the window frames. The visitor steps straight into the front parlour/dining room and is immediately greeted by a strong green-blue, sometimes known as arsenic green, but here, named 'Toy Shop'. A honey-coloured oak floor and bare wall and ceiling timbers provide a contrast that intensifies the effect, rather like the Impressionists' trick of using orange or yellow against blue to make each hue more vivid.
Oliver and Fiona sit at an oval table covered with a spotty green and white oilcloth and recall the house when they first saw it. "It was actually two cottages. One was literally a 'one-up one-down' without even a flight of stairs and just a ladder up to the bedroom," says Oliver. "I think they were labourer's cottages and on the old plans of the area from around 1750, it shows that these two houses along with one other were really all that was here for a long time, and that they occupied all the land here between them, so I presume they must have been smallholdings.
"We moved here from Southborough after my father died. We had been coming through Hawkhurst for years, on our way to Rye, and always liked it, then one day we found this place. It needed a lot of work, and for ages I carried on working at our studio in Westerham and after a full day there I would come back to work on the house until late at night. We did all the basic things and then slowly decorated and furnished it. Fiona teaches textile design so she has a great eye for colour, pattern and texture but we like different colours. "Mmm," agrees Fiona. "I really love cooler, watery greens and blues, whereas Oliver loves hot colours, so we argue a bit over those. Oliver got his way with the yellow in the sitting room, and I really wasn't sure about it, but actually, it sets off the paintings and the fabrics really well, so I think he was right about that one."
The parlour is simply furnished with an oak and pine dresser and a corner cabinet that supports a collection of Turkish ceramics. Above the fireplace, a long mirror with an inlaid wooden frame has been hung. "It's actually an old wardrobe door," says Oliver, "I found it in a junk shop and it just filled the space perfectly." Along the mantelpiece there are more ceramics: an Arts & Crafts Doulton jug that Oliver originally bought as a present, but with which he was unable to part, an olive green lidded pot brought back from a trip to France and a collection of painted wooden African animals and a pair of candlesticks painted in red, orange, green, and black – a present from friends who knew that the couple would appreciate the vibrant colours. At the other end of the space, the kitchen cupboards have been painted in a soft chalky blue and the walls have been tiled in blue, lilac and green. "We had to gut the kitchen completely, and even replace the foundation plates for the house," recalls Oliver. "We redid the roof, the windows, plumbing and all the electrics. Luckily, we found some really good tradesmen, especially Ian at ID Electrical Services, who is the neatest worker I've ever met!"
The sitting room is painted in 'Chiffon Yellow' which makes it sound a little insipid, but nothing could be further from the truth. The walls here are a warm ochre, the colour of a really rich egg yolk. There is a huge brick inglenook fireplace with a woodburning stove and a pile of logs, and a copper washtub on the hearth. "That ebony walking stick was a memorable purchase," recalls Oliver, pointing to a carved walking stick with an elephant's head. "Fiona and I had a little holiday in Ross-on-Wye when she was first pregnant. There was no way you could tell she was expecting. Anyway, we bought the stick in an antiques shop from a crusty old colonial type. As we left he said '…And I wish you well with the baby.' We were quite spooked!"
Three sofas upholstered in soft chenille fabric are arranged around a wood and iron coffee table from Bali. There are woven woollen throws and an assortment of cushions including some that are covered in a heavy cotton printed with a pomegranate motif. "I wanted a simple, block-print," explains Fiona, "and I found this fabric at Hoopers in Tunbridge Wells. I bought masses of it and used it for the cushions and the curtains. It's a bit like a Middle Eastern or Turkish design and the red and blue is given more impact by the yellow walls."
Oriental rugs also bought in Tunbridge Wells adorn the oak floor and echo the strong colours of the fabrics. Bookshelves are crammed with art and design books and clocks, though only one of them works, because the floor is too wonky for the rest. A dainty Queen Anne ladies' writing table stands against the wall, given to Oliver by his mother-in-law and loved too because he says the slender, curving legs are so long, they look as if they about to walk off. Above it hangs a Georgian style chinoiserie mirror. "My friend Nick Atkins makes this lacquered and painted furniture," says Oliver. "He has the studio above mine at Bodiam Business Park and he produces the most amazing looking things. There are so many layers of paint and he does such intricate brushwork, some of the pieces are huge – Georgian style tallboys and chests. He ships a lot of them to New York where they sell to people with huge loft apartments. It's quite strange to think that in the midst of that heaving metropolis there are handcrafted pieces of furniture from a little village in East Sussex!"
To the right of the mirror hangs a framed oil painting. It's a beach scene and the striped windbreaks and deckchairs confirm that it is an English one. The colours are so intense against the yellow wall that they almost hum. "That's by Mark Godwin – he works at Bodiam too, but his style has changed quite a lot. He paints a lot of abstracts – we have one in the study, but I especially love this one," says Oliver. Two more pictures are particularly striking. They are red chalk drawings of Oliver and Fiona's children when they were very little, observed with extraordinary sensitivity by their friend, Stephen Rose. The one of the couple's daughter is particularly striking as it was sketched as she slept in her cot and it conveys the deep, enviable peace of a baby's guilt-free slumber. Under the stairs there is a 1950s plan chest that was part of a suite of furniture given to Oliver's parents as a wedding present by Lucian Ercolani, the founder of Ercol furniture. "My father handled the Ercol account at the ad agency and Ercol were so pleased with his work that the owner of the company gave them a complete dining and sitting room suite of furniture. My mother still has it today, and of course now that style has come back into fashion."
The study is painted a zingy lime green and one wall is completely covered from floor to ceiling in book and CD shelves made by Nick Holt from The Bookcase Company. Oliver's music collection is phenomenal and must rival any radio station's. It's perfectly catalogued and arranged from A–Z too. Apparently though, this is 'just' the CD collection, and there is another massive collection of vinyl, but that is at the studio. It was noticeable that there was an acoustic guitar propped up in one corner in the sitting room and in here, there is an upright piano, complete with candle sconces. "I play by ear," says Oliver, "but the children have learned to read music. My daughter is particularly interested in music, while my son is studying architecture, so the creative genes are definitely still going."
On the wall at the top of the wooden staircase, there is a striking painting of the couple's son, by Stephen Rose. This one has been executed in oil and incorporates all the vivid hues of the family's sitting room. A chubby-faced toddler is shown in a Norwegian sweater clutching a toy Thomas the Tank Engine and staring ahead with great concentration. "We had to play 'Thomas' videos incessantly for about two hours at a time while Stephen painted him," recalls Oliver with a laugh. "My son was quite unaware because he was so absorbed in the stories. His tastes are a little more sophisticated now and he's presently on a study trip to Istanbul. I remember a few years ago, I went over to Chicago to lecture and I took him with me. Chicago is such an amazing city for architecture, he was just blown away and from then on he wanted to be an architect."
The budding Frank Lloyd Wright's room already shows all the telltale signs of the architectural student. Every item of furniture is placed at right angles to the watermelon red walls (architects never seem to place anything on the diagonal) and there is a striped chair in front of the window where curtains have been rejected in favour of simple wooden Venetian blinds. There are enormous A1 size portfolios and piles of sketchbooks, their spines straining to accommodate so many collected images, drawings and reference materials.
Two of the other bedrooms are painted in yellow, including the couple's teenage daughter's room, which is astonishingly neat. "She's very interested in Japanese ideas like Zen Buddhism and so everything has to be in its place," explains Oliver, grinning. "It's lucky that it happens to be a very tidy philosophy isn't it?" Set into one wall is a stained glass panel featuring a design based on a Samuel Palmer etching of a wheatfield. "One of my colleagues at Chelsea School of Art where I taught made it and I love it at night because the light shines through from the hallway," says Oliver. "If we arrive home when it's dark outside, it's like a glowing lantern welcoming us back."
Fiona obviously chose the colours of the main bedroom: a painterly mix of greens and blues. The bedlinen is printed in blocks of lime, chartreuse, navy and turquoise and there is a Mark Godwin oil painting of a foreign scene with a brooding lavender sky on the wall opposite. There is a scrubbed pine wardrobe and chest, on which stands a raffia shopping basket with brightly coloured spots like giant Smarties arranged over it. "I bought that for Fiona." says Oliver. "It's never actually been used for shopping, but the colours are just irresistible."