Off the wall: making a home with a giant ice cream and 20 fish

Ceramics, the seaside and sex all provide eye-catching displays in this artist’s home, says Kate Edgley

When artist and interior designer Ellie Howitt bought her flat in Forest Hill, southeast London, five years ago, she saw it as a blank canvas. “It’s ex-council, built in the 70s, and what strikes me about that era of social housing is the proportions of the spaces. They are very respectful. Once you get into the 80s, they get tiny and impractical again. There’s also a simplicity and flow to the space.”

The cats found me within a few weeks of each other. I adopted all seven in four trips to car boot sales She remembers the summer’s day when she was in a dilemma about whether to buy the flat or another property. “I just stood at the top of the street for about 20 minutes. It smelled like my gran’s street, of some tree or shrub that had been on her estate, too. I put an offer in then and there.”

She knocked down a few flimsy walls, turned all the “pus green” walls to white, fitted the cheapest white Ikea kitchen and a white bathroom suite from “some bargain place online” and replaced the dirty layers of carpet with bamboo flooring throughout. Ellie also turned a hallway cupboard into her studio, using money from her grandmother’s will to make the conversion. “It’s really appropriate that her money would source something creative for me. Gran was home, everything was very welcoming and embracing at her’s. I loved spending time there.”

When her blank canvas was ready, the fun began. She fitted thick white shelving to three walls in the kitchen/diner/sitting room, and began collecting chunky 60s and 70s ceramics from car boot sales and eBay. Now vast German vases stand tall on one shelf while seven sleek black cats sit on another alongside seals, deer and dolphins. “Once I’ve started a collection I think they home in on me rather than the other way round,” says Ellie. “The cats found me within a few weeks of each other. Two pairs were on different stalls in the same car boot. I adopted all seven in four trips.” Eleven fish, mouths open, line up on another shelf with a further nine, bigger still, on another. “They are called gluggle jugs,” explains Ellie, taking one from the shelf, filling it with water and then emptying it to demonstrate the gurgling noise they make.

The ornaments are purely “for delight, mine and other people’s”, says Ellie. She often moves the objects or changes her collections to “reinvigorate the space. It is a creative act to curate those shelves. Like the formal elements of painting, there’s a palette of shapes and colour and rhythm.” A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Ellie, who has worked as an assistant to various artists, including Damien Hirst and Keith Tyson, now helps individuals and families to “create personalised, art-driven transformations of home and work spaces”.

Back in her own home, a large teal chair is one of the few items that is not second hand. After fitting original 60s Scandinavian curtains across the patio doors, “everything had got a bit orange and brown, so it needed something to lift it,” she says. The chair came from and was over £350. I feel quite embarrassed about that. Nothing else cost that much.”

An item she is proud of is the guitar with her name on it hanging on the wall. It was made for her by Alan Miller who, with John Strutton, founded the Band of Nod, a collective of artists and musicians with whom Ellie sang and played the kazoo.

Ellie’s fascination with space and what to do with it means her flat is uncluttered. This is achieved partly, she explains, because she buys “unfussy” furniture with legs so the gap between it and the floor adds to the sense of spaciousness in the room.

It’s a creative act to curate those shelves. There’s a palette of shapes, colour and rhythm This expansiveness means the eye is drawn to, rather than overwhelmed by, the frivolous. Her “sex shelf”, a pale collection of wooden, pottery and plastic body parts on the kitchen windowsill is, she says, “about the relationships or flirtations between objects. This is a new penis, a gift from a dear friend,” she says, grinning as she picks up a pink phallus about half the size of a wooden one which dominates the display. A photo of Donald Trump with stick-on goggle eyes sits just above. “It’s a dick pointing at Mr Trump. Humour keeps our humanity towards him, otherwise we might be too scared to watch him on TV.”

The humour continues in the bathroom where a 4ft ice-cream cone is mounted on a pink wall, adjacent to the life-size and feminine-looking “Pedro the pony”. “I bought him in a junk shop in Whitstable eight years ago. He is identical to one I played on as a child, so if it wasn’t him then I rode one of his siblings,” she says, completely straight-faced. Eight plastic dolls, each a different bright colour, line up beneath the mirror. “They are a plastic version of dolls in South Africa that people carry in memory of a child who has died,” says Ellie, picking one up and squeezing it to make it squeak.

The child in Ellie is certainly alive, well and delighting in life, objects and space. She gives gaudy, plastic, recycled items “a stage”, playfully considering the relationship between them and allowing them to “point to their own beauty”. It is, she says, “an important thing in life to point out the beauty”.