On Soho’s Lexington Street, you cannot fail to notice a fluorescent green doorway at number 51. Push it gently open and you enter a dark, cool corridor at the end of which is a courtyard cluttered with metal sheeting, a workbench and scattered tools. Turn left down a steep wooden stairway and you are confronted with what looks like a tropical jungle filled with extraordinary metal objects: two small rooms crammed with countless chandeliers,lamp bases, plaques, tiles, goblets and costume jewellery, all designed and made by Bela Pasztor, ‘art metal worker.’ ‘Anything that is metal’ he assures me, ‘I can fix or copy’.
Bela, who is nearly 80, has been based at this same workshop since 1960. He escaped to Britain during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He was 19. Bela had intended to get as far as America, where both his uncle and godfather lived. ‘It took me a year to get the money and documents together to travel to America’, he says, ‘but then my godfather wrote to me enclosing a photograph of a woman in Los Angeles and said this nice girl was waiting to marry me so I could get U.S. citizenship, and I thought, hang on a minute, I’m not going there to have people telling me what to do, so I decided to stay in London’.
In Hungary he had been trained as a tool maker, but his hobby was making more decorative work. His chandeliers and lamps are adorned with classical female nudes,floral motifs and delicate filigree. ‘I did try to apply to the Royal Academy Schools once. I got down to the last of three interviews and then they asked me which university I had attended. I never went to university, so I didn’t get a place.’
His work has been much in demand. He made three giant chandeliers for St Paul’s Cathedral, several of his pieces are in Buckingham Palace, as well as some of Soho’s trendier restaurants. Fifty five years ago, when he first started working in Soho, the area was filled with independent craftsmen: there was a gunsmith around the corner which is now a gallery, a gold and silver lace makers’ workshop on Lexington Street which made gold lace embroidery for the military such as epaulettes,badges and sword sheaths, dozens of tailor shops and small foundries nearby in Covent Garden and Fitzrovia. ‘Everyone knew each other’, he says. ‘Most of the workshops have closed, now it’s just a lot of expensive restaurants’. Bela is worried about how Soho is changing. He used to live in a flat on Beak Street but he says no ordinary person can afford the rents. ‘There are too many fancy flats being built. The developers are knocking out all the class of Soho. It’s become a playground for property tycoons’, he says. ‘On Broadwick Street they pulled down Trenchard House which used to be a police station and accommodation for the police. They say it’s going to be new flats, so I thought, OK, maybe I can buy one. I phoned the agent to ask how much they would be and he told me they start at £2 million. I said, ok, I’ll take a dozen and put the ‘phone down!’
Will he ever retire? ‘How can I stop?’ he says, ‘What’s the point, I’ll just get bored. When you are working it keeps you young.’ And should he retire, what of the metal jungle in his Lexington Street basement? ‘It’ll all be up for sale’ he says.