It's Saturday afternoon at the Art4Fun café in Muswell Hill, London. Families and groups of friends huddle around chunky wooden tables drinking and talking while Badly Drawn Boy whines softly in the background. It would be easy to mistake this for just another chic urban coffee house.
But here the customers aren't just sipping from mugs, they're painting them. In fact, the café offers over 100 different objects to daub on, from practical pasta dishes to not so practical cherub statuettes. Visitors simply select what they want, sit down and decorate it - using stencils and sponges as well as brushes if they wish. Once finished, the piece is glazed and fired by café staff and handed back a few days later as a dishwasher-safe,microwave-proof memento. It's more productive than sitting in Starbucks wondering why you've just paid £3 for half a cup of frothy milk.
Art4Fun is far from a one-off oddity. Quickly, quietly, the paint-your-own pottery café has become an international phenomenon. Typically for a Western lifestyle fad, it began in America, the first outlets originating in California in the early 1990s. These inspired several British entrepreneurs to get in on the act, but as most were unimpressed with the pricey franchise deals offered by US companies, they set up their own interpretations. There are now several cafés and studios dotted around the UK, and business is booming. Serena Rogers, owner of DesignAway, a studio based in rural Oxfordshire, puts it simply: 'Painting pottery is addictive'. Andy Soning, manager of Colour Me Mine in Maida Vale, explains why: 'Painting is very interactive for family groups, any age group can join in. There's also a lot of interaction between customers: they all compare and exchange ideas. It's just a really good, friendly atmosphere.'
The relaxation angle is important. Most visitors describe the experience as 'therapeutic', and those familiar with art therapy will know how the tactile, sensory and expressive elements of painting can be very effective in treating everything from stress to autism. In today's supercharged office environments people rarely get two hours to concentrate on one task, let alone a creative task - visiting a PYO café is a method of slowing things down, of exploring latent creativity.
And, of course, at the end of this two-hour therapy session you get a nice plate, which is the key factor. 'People are really interested in interior design and want crockery that will match their houses,' says Rogers. So instead of joining the hoi polloi in Habitat, all scrabbling for the same mass-produced designer ware, true aficionados in search of the personal touch are creating their own exclusive ceramic ranges. Place this phenomenon in its cultural context and the timing begins to make sense. Paint-your-own pottery is the real-life love child of Changing Rooms and Watercolour Challenge, cleverly combining the fad for highly-personalised interiors engendered by the former with the 'everyone is an artist' ethos of the latter. The currently cool 'café culture' setting only adds to the mix.
Paint-your-own pottery is also coming into its own as a gift service. At DesignAway wedding guests sign a huge Italian pasta dish as a gift to the bride and groom; parents stamp prints of their baby's feet onto plates and mugs and present them to doting grandmas; one woman summons up the courage to make a print of 'an intimate part of her anatomy' for her husband's birthday. When painting pottery, customers are willing to experiment in a way they might not be with the more rigorous discipline of watercolour. Perhaps it's because they get a practical object at the end of the day - a mug or a plate - but it's certainly an excuse to let go.
Interestingly, after the families have gone home, the cafés don't close: paint-your-own pottery has a nightlife. Most studios are open until 8.00 pm and customers can order in pizza and bring wine. Some will also cater for parties, including hen nights ('these can get a little ... sordid,' admits Steve Jennings at the Paint It Yourself Pottery Company before mumbling something about ceramic tiles featuring various complicated sexual positions). No one has mentioned stag nights yet, but the prospect of a groom-to-be waking up with a tremendous hangover, wondering what happened last night, and then rolling over in bed to be confronted by a hand-painted flower fairy is delicious indeed.
It could happen. Art4Fun founder David Berger sees no reason why there shouldn't be a pottery café in every town in a few years time. 'When we first opened we had people visiting from all over the country, from Scotland too. We were packed out every day.' He has recently opened a branch in Bristol and is planning more. Colour Me Mine has a café in Manchester and is looking further north. DesignAway has Somerset and Gloucestershire sewn up now. All offer franchise opportunities. Keep watching your high street.