Profile – Lee Dalby

Basket-maker and one-time DJ Lee Dalby is dismissive of the crazier exponents of the craft, yet is not averse to using bits of copper pipe and rubber tubing in his latest show. Dominic Lutyens talks to him

Who’d have thought, ten years ago, that crafts would one day be considered more metropolitan glam than country-fair twee? Yet while they have been rehabilitated, thanks partly to popular annual events Collect at the Victoria & Albert Museum and Origin at Somerset House in London, in the crafts world there remains one bastion of fusty folksiness: basketry. This is despite such exhibitions showcasing experimental basketry as East Weaves West: Basketry from Britain and Japan, held in 2007.

One basketry designer challenging this preconception, however, is Lee Dalby. Dalby confounds any hippy associations basket-makers might have. In the acid-house era, he was a techno DJ, he tells me in his home in Woolwich, south London, which is eccentrically decorated with bamboo poles criss-crossing the ceiling, bamboo bows and arrows and tatami mats. (He is a big fan of Japanese culture, old and new, and practises the Japanese archery technique kyudo.) ‘I didn’t see a contradiction. I was basket-weaving by day, DJ-ing by night,’ explains Dalby.

Visitors to next month’s Crafts Council fair Origin are set to encounter his typically idiosyncratic take on basketry. Dalby, who has been pushing it into the arena of architecture for around ten years and combines it with such unexpected materials as copper pipes or rubber inner tubing from car tyres, is creating an arched, walk-through structure along the path leading to the entrance of the exhibition.

Dalby says that it is designed to ‘raise awareness of basket-making’, although, he might have added, not as we know it. It’s made of split-bamboo frame basketry (which means the bamboo has been split and flattened, thereby increasing its surface area), which is reinforced by tying rubber tubing around the bamboo canes wherever they intersect. Dalby is also known for what he calls ‘earthscaping’ – subtly incorporating basketry, chiefly in the form of seating encircling trees, into the landscape.

By contrast, he wants his project for Origin ‘to stand out from Somerset House’s faded Portland stonework’. To that end he is painting his bamboo structure white and hoping to illuminate it with ultraviolet lighting at night. Ask this iconoclastic basket-maker which cliched perception of basketry he is trying to avoid and he conjures up an image of a 1980s Sloaney countrywoman clad in Laura Ashley and a straw boater, a basket hooked over her wrist. Even so, Dalby, doesn’t dismiss traditional, utilitarian basketry. ‘My work is all about utility, about functional containers,’ he says. By the same token, he’s against the ‘crazier elements of contemporary basket-making’ with their pretensions to fine art. He mentions baskets ‘incorporating feathers, pine needles, the basket-maker’s hair… it’s not me’.

Dalby knows his craft. In 1986, he learned its basic building method of ‘stake and strand’ (staking horizontal willow ‘struts’ into a basket’s base, then bending them vertically and weaving the horizontal ‘strands’ into them) while working for Deptford-based basket-maker John Galloway. Two years later, Dalby was taught split-willow frame basketry by the maverick Breton gypsy basket-maker Jean-Paul Verombier, whose ability to create ‘crazy forms’ inspired his protege; to take a freer approach. By the early 1990s, Dalby was making his circle seats.

In 2001, a chance meeting with Kathryn Findlay, of Scottish-Japanese architect Ushida Findlay, while he was studying spatial design at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, led to him to collaborate on several projects with her, including a huge bamboo wall traversing three loft apartments knocked into one on London’s Hopton Street in 1999.

In Japan in 2003, he designed a cradle-like ‘kinetic’ bamboo tea-house with a floor which bounced gently as you walked on it, and in November he will create another walk-through structure for an exhibition at London’s Japanese Embassy.

Playing down the graft involved in basket-making, Dalby puts his success down to serendipity. ‘My life has also been about happy accidents, chance meetings,’ he says. But clearly keeping an open mind is the main reason for why he has got to this point in his career.

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