Getting Dressed: The La Trobe-batemans
Designer couple on craftsman clothes and Prince William’s furniture
At the end of August this year, the world’s wackiest gathering, the Burning Man festival, takes place in the Nevada desert in the United States.
More than 70,000 people will assemble in the temporary Black Rock City ‘to explore various forms of artistic expression’ (as it says in the blurb). The climax of the event is a gigantic bonfire of a sculpture representing ‘man’ – and then it all disappears again. Money is banned (people barter or give) and ‘clothing is optional’.
British designer Richard La TrobeBateman (who is eighty this year) has been invited to exhibit at the festival, and I wondered if he would be opting for clothes? ‘Too right I will. It is at 5,000ft altitude and freezing at night.’
La Trobe-bateman has long been known as a furniture designer in Britain (one of his earliest commissions was a high chair for Prince William). But, in the past decade, he has turned his hand to designing bridges and it is in this capacity that he has been invited, along with one of his structures. He has already built six bridges in the US and twenty in Britain.
LTB, as I am going to call him, is, in fact, perfectly suited to the Burning Man festival. He has been a rebel since he bunked off a course in naval architecture at Newcastle (after fourteen long years at posh boarding schools) and became a pavement artist under Hungerford Bridge in London. For a time he went barefoot – until someone told him you could catch VD from escalator steps.
Then one day he plucked up courage and walked through the door of St Martin’s School of Art, asked for a place, and ended up as one of Anthony Caro’s students in the sculpture school – and felt he had come home. After St Martin’s, he emigrated to the US and worked as a designer in the car industry in Detroit until call-up papers for Vietnam started to be issued. At which point he quickly came home and went back to school – this time to the Royal College of Art where he studied furniture design. There, in the queue for supper one evening, he was spotted by fellow student Mary Jolly (studying interior design), who noticed him because he was having an argument (about a play he hadn’t seen), and decided he was the man for her. ‘I engineered an excuse to go to the furniture school,’ she says, ‘and he asked me out and we have been together ever since.’ That was more than fifty years ago. They first lived in a bedsit in Earl’s Court from where she worked for various distinguished designers and architects as well as teaching at Chelsea School of Art. He taught at St Martin’s and made furniture in his cellar workshop. ‘It was an exciting time – so much was happening in our field. The craft revival was beginning and suddenly, having been disapproved of by the Establishment, I was invited to join the Craft Council and became part of it,’ says LTB. He remembers Antony Gormley coming round to find out how to get into art school. ‘He showed us some of his drawings and we said you don’t need to go to art school – you are an artist.’ Eventually, in search of space, they moved
to the country where LTB continued to design furniture – a high table for Pembroke College, Oxford, was one of his most prestigious commissions – and teach; a visiting professorship took them to the US for a year.
When the children were older, Mary LTB ran the Contemporary Applied Arts gallery in London for eleven years. She still does exhibitions for the Ruthin Craft Centre in North Wales and others.
Then LTB was asked to design a bridge — and then bigger and bigger bridges. He is helped by their son, Will, who makes timber-framed buildings (firstname.lastname@example.org) and has the necessary computer skills to translate his father’s ideas into digitalised images.
As you might expect of designers, both LTBS have pared-down wardrobes. Richard’s first purchases were a duffle coat and a leather jacket to shock his parents’ friends: ‘It was very, very easy to shock people in the late 1950s.’ Now he likes to wear clean jeans (M&S), hardwearing, white cotton work shirts (Cotton Traders), and polished brown leather shoes (Clarks). He did own a dark suit – ‘Bought at a bad time; doublebreasted with ridiculously wide trousers’ – but it has moth holes.
Times were lean when they moved to the country and Mary LTB made their clothes. She is still thrifty and will only buy what she can’t resist. Favourite sources are Cos, Yaccomaricard, Uniqlo and Morgan, a treasure trove she came upon by chance in Bangor (they also have branches in Cardiff and Chester).