Richard La Trobe-Bateman

From the Right Angle, Fred Baier,

Catalogue entry. 201. Craft Study Centre & Ruthin CC

To help myself see FB's work I separate out three layers:

the arena:

His exuberant mastery of form and structure combined with his virtuosity in making and finishing, clears a space for action.

the performance:

He fills the space with common recognisable shapes, anti-‘serious’ and popular imagery, geometry and illusion, the edgy shapes of modern physics. sometimes making usable objects, sometimes unusable , mixing it up, keeping us on our toes.

the message:

These elements add up to a challenge which is along the lines of: ‘there is something that needs questioning about where the field of ‘high-end’ fashion furniture has got itself.’ (I should emphasise that this is my own personal interpretation; it carries no endorsement or otherwise on his part).

I will deal with each of these separately but, of course, they overlap.

the arena

He has won this space because his work stands out particularly against the two main groups in the field. The first is a (relatively small) group: people who do clever things to show each other how clever they are. They can be found in, or were at, places like the RCA and are often from overseas (we Brits don’t get it). This is a narcissistic world that makes things ordinary people don’t really understand or, at least, don’t understand what the fuss is about His work does not speak their language: it speaks in a more everyday language.

The second group are the ‘woodies’ (his expression). They love making things, particularly out of wood (some of them are highly skilful) but they are not really interested in, or have much aptitude for, handling form and structure. They operate in a field of ‘low-grade-visual-thinking’ (an expression I first heard from FB, maybe 30 years ago).

the performance

His virtuosity has cleared this space and you sense he could fill it with almost anything, so what he chooses to put there has added significance (as opposed to those of us who try to make the best out of the few things we can do). Whatever objects he comes up with, you sense a generous love of the world of shapes and contemporary visual culture. Right from the start he adopted the role of ‘jester’. As I understand it, the jester is there to point up the vanity of the court and, with a bit of humour, possibly hint at lurking naked emperors. So he chooses imagery that is deliberately non-serious, immediately recognisable, drawn from popular culture; elements that are deliberately ‘inappropriate’ to the language that ‘serious’ design adopts.

There is another different strand to his work: his interest in geometry. He uses the shapes generated by the maths of physics which have a simple severity, an almost frightening coldness, free of sentiment - the torus, event horizons, singularities. He also uses the common platonic solids and voids. But it doesn’t stop there, the clarity of his shapes and their visual precision mean that he can explore what happens when one shape runs into another both in the positive and the negative For instance, when a rod or hollow tube runs obliquely through a solid flat surface it produces an ellipse (which you sense is one of his favourite shapes) He does something else as well. When an object has components coming together at compound angles most designers will opt for ways to avoid geometrical complexity at the junction, but his work sometimes positively seeks it out to gain greater clarity. This fascination with 3D geometry is enhanced further by the high finish on the work because it enables him to exploit reflection and so get into illusion. Objects appear to be there that are not, and vice-versa (which has a kind of magic to it). So we are led into a world of the pure enjoyment of form and space.

The work also deals with another aspect of geometry: the interplay of two dimensions and three dimensions. A 2D drawing of the projection of a 3D object onto another 3D object (simpler to see in reality than understand in words, but quite subtle if you think about it). The series of wedge chairs illustrate another aspect of his work; in the nineteen eighties when the potential of computer-controlled form (both concept and fabrication) became apparent, he worked with Paul McManus to develop a program that gave him the means of making, in a practical way, objects that had compound angle junctions on every face (and, believe me, any maker reading this will know what a leap forward that was). This was way ahead of what other people in the field were doing at the time, but, of course, when commercial programs became available, hitherto unachievable shapes became commonplace (alas!) and the freshness has been lost.

These chairs also raise very clearly what is, to me, an important question at the heart of much decorative art. Some images and forms seem to need to be part of another object to operate satisfactorily. These stacked, interpenetrating wedges have more interest to them when they are used to make a chair than they are likely have as a sculpture. Whether there is some general principle operating here or this issue can only be dealt with on a case-by-case basis: I’m not sure, but it’s one that most commentary on the crafts has rather avoided. FB’s work negotiates this tricky territory in a sure-footed way: indeed, now I have started writing this down, it is dawning on me that this is one of the key issues his work is dealing with. So i will pursue it further. When these abstract wedge shapes are perceived to be adding up to a chair, questions of what they might be about are answered.

‘It’s a chair.’ We automatically, and fairly quickly, assess to what extent it will be usable in the practical sense (even though you can sit on it) and once that issue is resolved in our minds, we can just enjoy (I nearly said sit back and enjoy but that’s exactly what you can’t do) the pure visual satisfaction of the shapes, their colours, their materials, their internal reflections and all of their interactions. These visual sensations, removed from the worlds of ‘meaning’ or ‘purpose’, can be experienced just for themselves in the same way that we experience abstract music. And yet it’s a chair: curious.

the message

This is what gives his work its edge. It is an indirect comment on the narcissistic world of ‘high-end’ design. the joyless, self-serious stance (unwittingly emphasised in recent years by ‘wit’ and even fairytales, in the belief that this is irony). He makes the point by sheer joy and virtuosity.

Imagine how dreary the field would be without his work. Thanks Fred.