It’s creepy and it’s kooky, mysterious and spooky. It is, you might even go so far as to say, “altogether ooky” – the east London home of set designer Simon Costin. And, much like the Addams Family residence, the house has something of a museum-like quality. For here, behind a mass of vegetation on an otherwise innocuous Dalston street, are all manner of macabre curios, from stuffed animals to medical X-rays; even the table in the front room is a glass-lidded coffin containing a prop cadaver from Pinewood.

It is the home, you are probably thinking, of some kind of goth – a morbid (and morbidly obese) adolescent with a wardrobe of black velvet and silver buckles. In fact, the décor is more redolent of the impish aesthetic of Tim Burton or the aforementioned Charles Addams than the death fetish of a teenage bedroom. And Costin is no gloomy goth: he works in the world of high fashion, and is distinguished by his hairless head and an expressive face that flits between gleeful enthusiasm and solemn sincerity. Although he has collaborated extensively with such enfants terribles as Alexander McQueen and latterly Gareth Pugh, Costin doesn’t bring his work home with him. The artefacts positioned about the place are not props. Instead, they represent a curatorial spirit, an interest in objects with a tale to tell.

“I blame my parents,” says Costin, referring to their profession as antique dealers. He cites a formative childhood experience when he became transfixed by the patterns burnt into the varnish of an antique escritoire by centuries of candle flames. Clearly, it gave him a decorator’s eye for narrative – each storey of this Victorian townhouse tells a different, er, story. The basement kitchen has a carnivalesque quality, with fairground paintwork on the furniture and a collection of antique puppets. The ground floor is sepulchral and mischievous, a cabinet of curiosities inspired by the home of the notorious Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio; it is stuffed with antique taxidermy, including an almost extraterrestrial-seeming skinless squirrel acquired from a dealer named Cedric on the Portobello Road. (“I had a two-headed piglet from him, too,” adds Costin, “but I’ve no idea what happened to him.”) The bedroom is arboreal, with an intricate leafy chandelier and a photograph of a forest covering one wall. The attic studio, on the other hand, is gleaming white and bathed in natural light, although here too the natural world makes inroads – a fox prowls motionlessly towards the chaise-longue, while a bell jar houses an upright hare, holding a circular mirror in its front paws. Every year Costin props it in the studio window to catch the light of the May full moon, known in folklore as the “hare moon” because of the leporine silhouette visible in the lunar craters.

Many of the objects in this house relate to folklore: the activities and tales that endure long after their true origins have been forgotten. Costin has a scholar’s interest in the folk traditions of these islands – the volumes in his library are testament to that – and is bursting with information about the items in his collection. “Witches riding to the sabbat are always shown flying from right to left,” he says, pointing to a series of framed silhouettes hanging over the entrance to the conservatory (something to do with an occult inversion of normal practice, apparently). Nearby, a stuffed dog – with the slightly bemused expression common to the victims of taxidermy – stands upright on a miniature pyre, dressed in heretics’ robes, including a little mitre with demons drawn on it. This, it turns out, is Costin’s own conflation of two elements: the execution of heretics and another, more obscure, Medieval superstition. “If they found a stray dog,” he explains, “they would lead it through the village, and everyone would pat it to transfer their sins to the dog. Then they would burn it.”

Another strange hybrid stands in front of the fireplace. It is an antique mannequin of a child, onto which has been transplanted the head of a mustachioed man; this old-young chimera, known as Horace, is dressed in a cheap-looking Dalek costume from Argos. “He’s ever so proud of it and likes to think it makes him less scary,” says Costin. “I’m not so sure…” It’s a conversation piece, although one wonders what sort of conversations it inspires. There is also a full-size Dalek residing in the studio upstairs – a replica made by fans rather than a genuine BBC prop. “I get inside it sometimes and have a trundle around,” confides Costin. Malevolent cyborgs from Doctor Who don’t have much to do with folklore, you might think. But in a way, wandering around the playground with arms outstretched, chanting “Ex-ter-min-ate!”, is as much a modern folk tradition as ring-a-ring-o’-roses or dancing round a maypole.

That’s the point with folklore. It evolves. It’s a work in progress. So, too, is Costin’s latest project – when he’s not designing sets for the likes of Givenchy or Lanvin, he’s working to establish the first Museum of British Folklore. So far it doesn’t have a permanent home, but when it does it will be a celebration of such traditions as cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire, horn dances, the Antrobus Soulcakers, morris men, the mummers and the Pope-burners of Lewes. Costin is keen to dispel the widespread notion that these customs are all relics of pre-Christian Britain. “People say, ‘Oh, it’s pagan’,” he says tartly. “It’s not! The Jack-in-the-Green” – a rite of spring held in Hastings, which Costin often attends, his face painted green – “dates from the 18th century. It started because chimneysweeps had no work over the summer months.”

To promote his project, Costin has kitted out a 1976 Castleton caravan like a scaled-down version of the museum – with wooden cases and vitrines like a Joseph Cornell assemblage – and taken it on tour to various regional festivals. “I wanted to use my background as an artistic director to make it different to straightforward museums, by incorporating elements of contemporary art,” he says, singling out the video installations of Bill Viola as a direction he intends to explore. The Museum of British Folklore itself will, he intends, incorporate contributions from contemporary artists, as well as those who are active in the traditions themselves – he has invited people who practise the age-old custom of well-decorating, for example, to produce a more permanent version using artificial flowers. He has also sent out rag dolls to every troupe of Morris men in the country, so they can dress them in miniature versions of their costumes. “The amount of work they’ve put into it is just incredible,” he says, showing off the first two dolls to come back: a familiar bells-and-ribbons affair, and a more sinister, black-hooded costume from the Border tradition.

Costin has made many new friends and contacts as a result of his caravan tour, and is currently sizing up potential sites for the museum (“I’m determined that it shouldn’t be in London”). Wherever it ends up, the museum should help dispel the notion that these are just quaint customs, performed by real-ale bores for the benefit of American sightseers. “It’s a living tradition that means something to the people who take part in it,” says Costin. “As time passes, it changes, but it lives on.” 


First published in World of Interiors issue 330. Reproduced with permission.


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