Bowen to be Wilde
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen is a man of distinctive style who will never, but never, be found guilty of being ‘lost in the Woldiness’
Utter the name ‘Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’ and a torrent of lazy preconceptions come to the fore. We’re all guilty of it: to us he’s the effete designer with the overly-long sleeves; the possessor of the luscious, dark Byronesque mane; the dandy who’s quite handy with a paintbrush… Well, shame on us all! This man is a damn fine artist who studied at one of our most respected art colleges and who is never without his sketchbook; he’s an astute businessman who has tight control of every aspect of the LLB brand (under the gently guiding hand of wife, Jackie); an accomplished broadcaster and author; a cultivated art historian; a hardworking charity supporter… and possessor of the kind of cheeky Wildean wit that had me in stitches for the hour-and-a-half I spent chatting with him.
I’m here at his Cirencester offices and studio to talk to him about the biennial Cotswold Open Studios which he’s taking part in this month, and while the adventures – and misadventures – of the Llewelyn-Bowens are certainly no secret to the nation, there’s so much that wasn’t revealed during filming.
The family (Jackie, Laurence and daughters Hermione and Cecile) moved from London to the village of Siddington in the Cotswolds six years ago, with their highs and lows, their rural idyll ecstasies and their gin-soaked despairs documented in a fly-on-the-wall TV series, To the Manor Bowen. Since then they have thrown themselves into village life wholeheartedly, and relocated the business to offices in Cirencester. So, have the Cotswolds been an inspiration to this once London-based sophisticate?
“It’s funny, I was thinking about this yesterday and whether or not to lie to you and I decided not to. No, it hasn’t. I don’t think being surrounded by the Cotswolds has had any kind of strong influence on me at all. But I think that’s to be expected; I don’t use ruralism as a strong influence in my design at the moment. Never say never, though; I may have a beige patch coming up…”
Really? I’m pretty sure we have enough designers out there doing the beige thing, so I do hope not, I say.
“Actually, the Cotswolds has always been a real springboard for many creative people. Obviously William Morris is always cited, but there’s also CR Ashbee, the Guild of Handicrafts and many others. And, although Morris is a huge influence on me, he wasn’t always about rusticity either; there’s a richness to his pattern-making that I’ve always been extremely drawn to. I find the politics all a bit irritating, and I don’t think things need to be beautiful and useful; I think they should just be beautiful. In fact, the more useless they are the better as it’s showing Mankind’s ability to appreciate something on its aesthetics alone.”
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The Muse in his life – wife Jackie – is well known to us all: she’s a constant driving force in the business as well as being a tireless charity worker, but just how much creative input does she have?
“Jackie is incredibly creative and obviously the queen of my heaven. Her background is very much in organising events, particularly parties, and I think we work quite well as a business: she has a very creative view on running a business, and I always strive for my design work to be commercial. There’s not that kind of dichotomy between suits and non-suits; it’s all much more creative.”
Many would envy the success of their relationship; it just works. And the pair – together with the hardworking Team-LLB – are constantly finding new ways to expand the business and bring inspirational style to our homes. So, what ideas are currently emerging from the Market Place offices?
“One of the big things that we’re doing this year is launching my own collections internationally: The House of Laurence, which is being marketed in areas such as Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Dubai, Qatar and Saudi. Having the very close existing relationship with Littlewoods that I have, which is just for the UK, we’re now working on parallel collections for the international markets.”
How will it differ from the UK design work?
“It’s narrower; all the furniture is slightly smaller… bizarrely. International apartments tend to be smaller than in the UK. I don’t like particularly excessive sofa scales; they take up far too much space with big, fat curled arms, so I try to get rid of those. But actually, the market really likes it over here, with very excessively upholstered and voluptuous furniture. But that just doesn’t cut the mustard in somewhere like Hong Kong. It’s quite an interesting discipline. The House of Laurence will probably be two seasons behind in colour terms, but having said that I don’t really do colour forecasts and trends; I think it’s very important to just get on and do your thing. People don’t tend to follow fashion slavishly; they’re looking for something much more emphatic, something that’s a statement in its own right. And if that statement happens to be in lilac,” he stresses, prodding the table for effect, “then for God’s sake it can be in lilac!”
Speaking of colour, what ‘works’ consistently, I wonder.
“The one that we sell an enormous amount of and always will do is black. It’s the underpinning of everything as you can put so many colours with it. It didn’t really exist until the ’80s,” he says in that fabulously ‘Laurence’ way of making a sweeping statement and you not doubting it for a moment. “There was that massive black revolution. Black was something very strange and edgy and gothic. Chanel repioneered black in the 1920s, but black as in the thing that everyone was going to wear only came in in the ’80s.”
I suddenly feel very ‘80s’, aware of my head-to-toe non-colour outfit – with matching toenail varnish – and think, in my defence, it makes perfect sense. It is, after all, the lazy-person-who-doesn’t-do-mornings wardrobe essential – nothing, but nothing, clashes in my wardrobe.
“One of the big things about all of the collections is the amount of art pieces that we’re doing. One of the things I like about all of that is that it gives me the chance to paint, draw and raid the back catalogue. We have moments when we sit down and think about things that might be missing from the collection.” Laurence picks up a print-out from his desk of a stylised peacock. “I’ve just had this come through from Littlewoods saying that they need some kind of peacock artwork included, so this afternoon I’m going to work on something but it will have my own stamp on it. There is a lot of snobbishness, though. One of the big clichés over the past few years has been the big red rose; you’ll see it everywhere. But it’s something that’s very emotive and romantic for people, so I just sat down and did my own big red roses and they’ve been very, very successful.”
Yes, roses… you certainly do see them everywhere, and often combined with skulls I suggest (again, thinking of several items of clothing tucked away in my wardrobe and the seductively enduring appeal of sex and death).
“That’s one thing I won’t do, actually; I won’t do skulls. I’m normally completely emblazoned with skulls – there’s usually skulls all over me – but I see those as the province of Alexander McQueen so they should stay there. I also think that there are other ways of telling that particular story; I like to find the language behind very commercial elements, fishing around in that particular pool and finding something else.”
At this point I really do feel something of a walking cliché, dressed head-to-toe in ’80s-none-more-goff black complete with plastic skull bracelet which I try to surreptitiously sneak beneath my sleeve. I fear, he’s already clocked it, but is too much of a gentleman to say anything.
“There’s a lot of William Morris stuff around at the moment; many people use a digitised version of the Morris archive which is a real shame as you should be able to understand that pattern-making language and come up with something of your own. Particularly if you drink enough gin.”
One of the most disarmingly attractive things about Laurence’s designs is – quite aside from their decadent beauty – the fabulous names he comes up with which are a great indicator of his cheeky and oh-so-British sense of humour (I lose track of the number of times I giggle like a schoolgirl during our chat). The gorgeously Morris-esque but slightly subversive-in-a-way-you-can’t-quite-but-your-finger-on ‘Public Anemone’ design is presented to me…
“Oh, they’re always the most appalling puns. But that I think is part of the relationship with the customer… you go into a shop and ask for a litre of ‘Clooney’ and it’s a particularly ‘silver-fox’ grey. You can all have a titter about it.”
So I do.
“That’s ‘Gloria Estefancia’,” he says, flicking through his pattern book. “It’s 1980s Miami meets the Roman Empire. As you can see, there’s not a lot of the Cotswolds in there, but I think that’s entirely a credit to the Cotswolds. When we moved here we were always very keen to point out that we weren’t trying to escape the urban way of life; we just wanted to do what we’d always done but with a bit more space and some nice neighbours. This is one of the new ways of looking at moving to the country; it’s not about being Tom and Barbara, you can be Jerry and Margot if you want.”
When imagining his designs, Laurence starts with a recipe of elements to include. “One of the things I always do with patterns is think of them as repeats rather than as single motifs, even though that’s what they always start off as.” He’s often out of the country so always takes a sketch book with him and electronically sends photos of new designs back to the Cirencester office where they then create repeat patterns. In fact, when I meet up with him, he’s the kind of deep bronze you imagine the romantic lead is in DH Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, but this is no working-man’s soot-streaked East Midlands tan, of course. ‘Exotic’ is Laurence’s middle name.
There surely can’t be time for him to get to see local artists’ work…
“I was very impressed with the Celia Lendis Gallery [based in Moreton-in-Marsh], but I have an innate problem with my house in that I don’t have enough surfaces on which to hang things. The thing that separates Jackie and myself is that I spend so long deciding whether to buy art – it has to be exactly the right size, shape, colour and everything – whereas Jackie just buys it instinctively because she has fallen in love with it.”
This month we will all get a chance to look behind the doors of some of our finest Cotswold-based artists, designers and makers as the wonderful Cotswold Open Studios event returns. Showcasing artists working in all media, within a 10-mile radius of Cirencester, visitors will be able to chat to and see the work of our creative talents – including, of course, Laurence – as well as having the opportunity to invest in something beautiful to take home.
“One of the big things about the Cotswolds is not just the art tradition here, but it’s also the craft tradition which is incredibly strong. And events like this are very important for getting people to understand how much is going on here. The Cotswolds is such a brand that it carries with it an association of Middle England and respectability; when you go to an exhibition in somewhere like Birmingham you expect something much edgier, but actually the Cotswolds can be edgy, and should be edgy. On saying that, though, I think there should always be a sense of where it comes from and where it is, even if it’s just down to the motifs used… although you won’t get any Wolds out of me. I’m Wold-free. Lost in the Woldiness.” Pure poetry.
I suggest that he does have – and needs to have – a very strong vision, regardless of where he is. “Yes, I’m unusual in all of this; I have to deal with an international market, although the fact that I live in the Cotswolds is of great appeal to my customers in Japan. They’re not necessarily looking for a rush-seat chair with a mouse climbing up the back of it, though, and want Britishness with a Punk edge to it.”
At one point, Laurence was toying with the idea of housing his open studio this month in a marquee in his garden, but there are already several charity galas going on there that week and Gardeners’ World are turning up at the end of the week. “Goodness knows what the lawn’s going to look like when they get there… I might have to put some Astroturf down!” he laughs.
So, the Cirencester offices are the obvious choice, as they’re centrally placed and have a lot of space – images from many years ago will be displayed alongside more modern pieces, utilising all spaces, including the stairwell.
“I had such an old-school art training [at Camberwell] – weeks and weeks of analytical life drawing, perspectives and such – which has stood me in good stead. In many ways I think I’m quite capricious and wasteful with my artistic ability as I do things such as the Blackpool Illuminations which I absolutely love, but the idea of an arts exhibition scares the pants off me as it always seems so grown up.
“Having dissed William Morris I do think there is an element of wanting to be democratic. It’s not about the couture statement; I want as many people as possible to own my work. Design and art is all about communication, and knowing that people ‘get’ what you’re doing is very gratifying.”
• Cotswold Open Studios ‘Hidden Treasures’ – is on Saturday, June 29 to Sunday, June 30, from 9.30am-5.30pm each day. A full list of artists taking part, including Sophie Ryder, Adam Binder, Richard Kenton Webb and John Lendis, can be found at www.creativesintobusiness.com or call Tessa Webb on 01285 651790.
• A vintage bus tour of the venues on ‘Old Babs’ is running on each day, costing £16 for the guided tour.
• An exhibition showcasing the artists is running in conjunction with COS at The Corinium Museum from June 22 to July 20, coriniummuseum.org