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Bravura + brilliance: Tommy Roberts, February 6 1941 – December 10 2012


//Tommy Roberts, 1987. Photo: Christopher Clunn//

Sad to note the anniversary today of the death of Tommy Roberts, flamboyant design entrepreneur and subject of my book Mr Freedom.


//Dedication (right) with (left on cover-flap) list of abiding interests (courtesy Eve Ferret + Mark Summerfield) and Brian Aris portrait//


//Roberts opened Kleptomania with Charlie Simpson in Kingly Street, central London, in 1966//


//Neon arch sales counter display designed by Jeffrey Pine for Mr Freedom, opened with partner Trevor Myles at 430 King’s Road in September 1969//

Here – with a selection of images from Mr Freedom – is an extract from an essay I have written about Roberts’ role in the development of design in Britain for Chris Breward and Ghislaine Wood’s book British Design: Tradition & Modernity, which will be published by Bloomsbury next year.

It is arguable that wider recognition for Tommy Roberts’ audacious innovations in the promotion of street style, furniture, gastronomy, home-wares, interiors and collectables was undercut by his refusal to observe the sensitivities of England’s post-war design world.

Roberts adopted an ebullient public persona to match his stout physique and broad Cockney accent. “I’m the most vulgar man in fashion, darlin’!” Roberts proclaimed to the no-less outrageous Sunday Times fashion editor Molly Parkin in the heyday of his Pop Art fashion and objects emporium Mr Freedom.


//Roberts with models in Mr Freedom designs in the German magazine Jasmin, 1971//


//Roberts’s pair of winged boots, the popular Mr Freedom design commissioned from Jim O’Connor in 1971//

Such impudence was combined with a lifelong enthusiasm for the role of the traditional but nevertheless adventurous independent shopkeeper. The beginning of Roberts’ career coincided with the great British boutique explosion centred on his home turf of London in the 60s, and he continued to champion the calling despite the depredations of the economic recessions of the 1970s – during which decade he was forced into bankruptcy – and the formalization and subsequent homogenization of the British retail landscape which occurred in the 80s and 90s and was all-but complete by the dawn of the 21st century.

A year before his own death in 2010, Malcolm McLaren – another unpindownable figure to whom Roberts may be compared – told an interviewer: “Tommy Roberts is a character out of an Ealing comedy, a jovial, lovable creature, a really brilliant icon of London.”


//Menu and wine labels for restaurant Mr Feed’Em designed by George Hardie, 1971//


//Roberts at Covent Garden “atelier” boutique City Lights Studio, 1972. Photo: Jeffrey Pine//


//With Willy Daly, Roberts managed Ian Dury’s Kilburn & The High Roads 1974-75. Promotional card courtesy of Paul Conroy//

That spirit is invoked at the outlet Roberts opened in partnership with his son Keith at the start of the 00s: Two Columbia Road remains an important British art and design outlet, drawing visitors and buyers in pursuit of excellence, quality and quirkiness as a testament to Roberts’ brilliance and bravura.


//Practical Styling carrier bag and cards from the early 80s given to Roberts for his archive by friend Ian Harris. Photo: Keith Roberts//


//Roberts at TomTom, the central London furniture, design and collectibles outlet he operated, 1995- 2000. Photo: Mark Summerfield//


//Roberts and son Keith opened design emporium Two Columbia Road in east London in 2001//


//Examples of the naive evocations of Swinging London’s boutique heyday executed by the one-time art student in his later years//

British Design: Tradition & Modernity Since 1948 is published in October 2014. Read about it here.

Copies of Mr Freedom: Tommy Roberts – British Design Hero are available here.

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One Response to “Bravura + brilliance: Tommy Roberts, February 6 1941 – December 10 2012”

  1. Ian Harris
    on Dec 10th, 2013
    @ 3:54 pm

    Thanks for posting that Paul. I really miss Tommy.

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