Step into the House of Dreams
It’s wonderful, it’s overwhelming but in the best way,” we heard a woman say.
We were inside 45 Melbourne Grove in East Dulwich, a neighborhood in southeast London. It’s the home of artist Stephen Wright, former textile designer and art director. He calls it the House of Dreams.
It’s a house unlike any house we’ve ever seen before. Dolls, tops, gems, buttons, bottle caps, bottles, detergent boxes, hair rollers, Chiclet boxes, combs are embedded on walls in beautiful patterns. We spot Smurfs, Mr. Greedy, R2D2. Pikachu, Ronald McDonald and He-Man. There are sculptures, vinyl records, photographs, false teeth, wigs, tinsel, ceramics, watering cans, weird and wonderful treasures.
It’s an explosion of colors, it’s a carnival for your eyes, it’s visual overload. “Please note, I decided to go for the minimal look,” a sign reads, making us chuckle.
Outside, in the gardens, doll arms, beads, bottles and frisbees hang from trees. Mannequin heads stand guard. Dolls, dinosaurs, teapots and mugs form an archway. The walls and the floors are tiled, mosaicked in a kaleidoscope of hues.
All over the house are Stephen’s thoughts written in black and white. Some of them come from his notebooks. He calls them his memory boards.
“The house is a diary of my life, really,” Stephen said.
Stephen, who had been living in the house since 1982, began the project in 1998 with his partner Donald Jones after being inspired by a BBC2 show that featured outsider artists. They started with the mosaic that can be seen in the house’s front garden.
The project came to a halt when, in 2004, after a long illness, Donald died. “The house was sort of our baby,” Stephen said, saying he was unsure if he wanted to continue working on it. Then his parents died the following year. “I lost a family in 18 months. It was very difficult to deal with.”
And then one day, it hit Stephen: “I need to do the museum for me.”
It was because of his losses that dolls became a recurring theme in the house. Stephen said. “I wanted to start to make a new family in a way. Nearly all or 98 percent of the dolls have a disability, their arms don’t work, their legs have dropped off, they have no hair, they’re not perfect. Most of the dolls are from Paris and Budapest. They have something wrong with them, nobody wants them. I do want them and I want to look after them. It’s about that nurturing thing.”
But Stephen has also found a family in his partner Michael Vaughan, who he met two years after Donald died. He said he never felt at home in the house until Michael.
Upstairs, we watched a 13-minute documentary on the house by Vince Rogers. In it, we see a woman visiting Stephen to bring over a lot of eyeglasses left behind by a loved one who had passed away. She wanted them to find a home in the House of Dreams.
She’s not alone in her desire. “People want to leave something behind. They bring offerings here sometimes—hair and teeth and we have someone’s ashes here which is extraordinary. Somebody brought his wife’s ashes here.”
But Stephen can’t accept everything—after all, the house is made up of treasures he collects himself. He calls it hunting. “I need to hunt fairly often. We’ve only just come back from Paris and I can’t wait to go back again. I only collect things from places that I emotionally connect with. Mexico, Haiti, India. I look to other cultures that use color. Color is always the inspiration and that comes through the people. It’s in their heart and soul. I feel at home in those cultures.”
“It’s powerful, his work,” said Joanna West, Stephen’s friend who ran the screening.
It really is. The house felt alive. “It’s living and breathing,” Stephen said. And there is so much to see that one visit doesn’t feel enough. Every time you crane your neck there’s something new to see.
The house affects the people in different ways. On the afternoon of our visit, we saw a woman crying and two men giddy and giggling as they went through the rooms. The tears and laughter are normal, Stephen said. “It happens. It’s a joyful house. It isn’t about misery, it’s about life. All of the ups and downs of life that one has to deal with. There’s lots of joy in this house. People respond in various ways.”
And many of them feel compelled to open up to Stephen. “People bring their stories here. I feel sometimes like a therapist. I listen to all sorts of things that I would never ever believe I would be listening to. I don’t mind… I do hear some very personal things.”
He thinks it’s his honesty that compels people to share. “Maybe because that’s what I’m doing. Everything in this house is true. All of the writing is true. It comes from the heart. I suppose people respond in the same way. They want to respond from the heart in some way.”
Last year, 2,000 people from all over the world visited The House of Dreams. The house opens only one day each month, sometimes not at all. “The rest of the time I need to make work. I’m an artist. I could be open every day. But I’m not prepared to do that. It would just turn into a business and the House of Dreams is not a business.”
People visit the house for different reasons. “Sometimes people come because they’re curious. Sometimes they come here because they want permission to do something in their own lives and I say to them you don’t need anyone’s permission, only your own. Just give yourself permission to do whatever you need to do. That’s all you need. That’s the message from this house. Just get on with it and do it.”
In multiple places in the house, these words appear in Stephen’s distinct handwriting: “When I was a child, I knew I had something to say.” And what he wants to say is this: “The message is you only have one life and you have to pursue what you want to do within that life. The House of Dreams is a journey of self-discovery about who I am during my lifetime. It’s important to do that. There’s a lot of external pressure to fit in, to be in a box, to be this, to be this, to be this. The House of Dreams says that you can follow your dream and be a free spirit and that’s really important.”
The House of Dreams was borne out of Stephen’s desire to make something “valid, substantial and lasting.” “That is what this house is all about—leaving a trace.”
The house will be his legacy. “Yes, the National Trust is going to take the property. It’s been left to them. When I go, it will be up to them to do what they want to because I won’t be here then. At the moment we run it on our own, we do everything ourselves. I do it the way I want to do it.”
He will keep working on the House of Dreams. “The house will never be finished. I’ve been working on the front garden mosaic this year and the wall outside. But there’s also the front of the house to mosaic, which is at least five years’ work. It’s quite a demanding house. I have to tell the house off sometimes for being too demanding. It always wants more done to it. You can never do enough.”
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