Get­ting Dressed: The La Trobe-bate­mans

De­signer cou­ple on crafts­man clothes and Prince Wil­liam’s fur­ni­ture

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Brigid Keenan

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 ([email protected]­en­ 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).

De­signer dress­ing: the LTBS’ pared-down style

Six­ties chic: the La Trobes in 1969

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