In “Designing Ireland” – a four-part television documentary broadcast on RTÉ last winter – architect Angela Brady and design writer Sandra O’Connell took viewers on a visually rich journey through Ireland’s vibrant design culture. They discovered some of Ireland’s most talented architects and craft makers as well as up-and-coming designers. For house+design magazine, they have made a selection of some of the most beautiful craft and design objects they have found on their journey.
By Angela Brady and Sandra O’Connell
Designing Ireland was produced for RTÉ One by Newgrange Pictures.
Supported by BAI, RIAI, RTÉ, ID2015 and the Deptarment of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht
Design affects every part of our lives – from the clothes we wear to the objects we use, to the spaces we inhabit and to the built environment that surrounds us. In order to explore our core question – Is there such a thing as an Irish design style? – we had to delve into our past. Long before words like ‘design’ or ‘brand’ became popular terms in Ireland, we had our own unique way of doing and making things – traditional crafts and distinctive buildings told a uniquely Irish story.
Our Earliest Designs
One of the earliest and most iconic forms of Irish design is the dry-stone wall, which has become synonymous with the West of Ireland. The Aran Islands feature some of Ireland’s most impressive prehistoric stone forts – such as Dún Aonghasa on the largest island, Inis Mór and Dún Chonchúr on Inis Meáin. Today, we may think of dry-stone walls as part of the ‘scenery’, however, they were one of our earliest design responses to organised design and entirely man-made to clear land for farming, create field boundaries and road systems, and act as wind-breakers.
Irish architects continue to take inspiration from the dry-stone wall such as renowned practice de Blacam and Meagher, who designed the stunning Inis Meáin restaurant and suites – an award-winning retreat created by Marie-Thérèse and Ruairí de Blacam.
Contemporary Twist – Irish Wool
Ruairí’s parents, Tarlach de Blácam and Áine Ní Chonghaile founded in 1976 the Inis Meáin Knitting Company, finding inspiration in the unique spirit, environment and heritage of Inis Meáin. The couple continually re-invent the iconic Aran Sweater by delving deep into the rich knitting heritage of the island for inspiration. Reinterpreting traditional stitches and styles in the finest yarns, they create sophisticated pieces of knitwear that are sold in the best clothing stores world-wide and as far as Japan.
Back on the mainland in Galway city, the bustling capital of the West, Triona and Aoibheann have created The Tweed Project. Both are passionate about traditional Irish fabrics such as tweed and linen but present them in a fresh and contemporary way. Their collection includes linen shirts and trousers as well as a fresh modern take on the traditional tweed shawl. The shawl’s clever design allows it be worn in several styles to quickly change and up-date an outfit.Their new collection is called ‘tribal inis oirr’ and features a tasseled bed blanket worn around a white shirt. thetweedproject.com
Sheep’s wool as an abundant natural material has been knitted and woven in Ireland for centuries. In Graignamanagh, County Kilkenny, Philip Cushen spins, dyes and weaves wool on the same site as his ancestors – Flemish Huguenots who brought with them the tradition of woollen fabric manufacture in the 16th century. Cushendale combine traditional weaving skills with contemporary design, adding their passion for distinctive colours. cushendale.ie
(5)The Milano Rug by Mourne Textiles
Irish Craft Becomes Design –
Kilkenny Design Workshops
Philip learned the importance of design from the Kilkenny Design Workshops, which he attended as a young weaver in the 1960s and which he credits with the survival of his family business. Through their collaborative workshops, KDW introduced Philip to a new range of vibrant contemporary colours and to the concept of design innovation.
The Kilkenny Design Workshops were set up in 1963 by the Irish Government as the outcome of the well-known Scandinavian design report Design in Ireland, published in 1962. Realising that the fledging Irish craft industry was in need of outside help, William Walsh of Córas Tráchtála invited five Scandinavians to Ireland to research and write a report on what they thought of Irish Design. After the Second World War, Scandinavian countries had invested heavily into their design and quickly became a recognisable international ‘brand’ and were considered world leaders.
Although the five Scandinavian designers praised our traditional Irish skill sets, they were scathing on the makers’ design skills. Thus KDW brought makers and designer together which was the biggest intervention into Irish design in the 20th century, identifying new ways in which Irish design could be improved and harnessed to increase exports.
An earlier arrival from Scandinavia, was the Norwegian weaver Gerd Hay-Edie who founded Mourne Textiles in the Mourne Mountains in 1954. Gerd Hay-Edie was at the forefront of innovation, developing iconic tweeds for Irish fashion designer Sybil Connolly and upholstery fabrics for furniture designers Robin Day and Terence Conran. Mourne Textiles are currently reproducing one of Gerd’s classic designs – the Milano Rug first created to dress a room with Robin Day for the 1951’La Triennale di Milano’. mournetextiles.com (06)
(7) Frame Chair by NotionGrandson Mario Sierra learned the skill of weaving from Gerd Hay-Edie and his mother Karen Hay-Edie and continues the search for new innovations and collaborations. Recent projects for Mourne Textiles include the tweed upholstery for the FRAME Chair designed by Irish furniture designers Notion. The chair was exhibited internationally as part of the Year of Irish Design 2015 (ID2015) at the Milan furniture fair, the FuoriSalone, New York and Eindhoven, and back home in Dublin and Kilkenny. http://designbynotion.com (07) (8) Enignum Chair by Joseph Walsh
Furniture design has been an area of huge innovation in Ireland and one of our most celebrated makers is Joseph Walsh. Designing and making from a large workshop on his family farmland just outside Kinsale, Walsh’s works is both connected to the land, while his sinuous creations possess an almost ethereal quality. His fluid forms, like the Enignum Chair, evoke the twisted forms of wind-bent trees. Joseph Walsh’s work can be found in private collections and museums around the world. Ash is a favourite wood he uses but Walsh has recently added marble and resin to his material palette. josephwalshstudio.com (08)
(9) Greenwood Chair by Alison OspinaGreenwood chair maker Alison Ospina coppices hazel wood in a sustainable way to make incredible hand-made chairs from her studio in Skibbereen in West Cork – a place that has a long tradition of craftwork, which is kept alive by the potters, wood turners and carvers, metal workers and sculptors of the West Cork Guild. greenwoodchairs.com (09) West Cork sculptor Holger Lönze
One West Cork based sculptor is Holger Lönze who is fascinated by the Golden Age of Irish bronze and the amazing work produced by our ancestors. Among his own work are beautiful bronze bells, made using the same materials and techniques of the Bronze Age, in a time-consuming but rewarding process. His latest bronze bell will rise to 4.8m on its granite base. The bell will be installed in Bangor Co. Down in June 2016. holgerlonze.com (10)
Like the Bronze Age metal work, pottery has been around in Ireland since prehistoric times, when clay vessels were used to store food items. Based in Bennettsbridge, Co. Kilkenny – where his Quaker family operated a mill since 1840 – potter Nicolas Mosss has recently produced a special black basalt pottery range which evokes these ancient Irish vessels, yet is utterly contemporary. The basalt black range was designed by Mosse together with artist James Turrell. The studio also recently launched a new contemporary range called ‘Lawn’. nicholasmosse.com (11)
Belfast-based craftsman Derek Wilson follows a more contemporary style and is inspired by the city’s industrial past. His elegantly restrained range in pale glazes has been a huge hit with international markets, including Japan, France, Switzerland and the UK. derekwilsonceramics.com (12)
In Dublin, Arran Street East pottery draws inspiration from its location in the city’s busy Markets area. The Arran Street East studio designs and makes hand-thrown pottery homewares in clean geometric lines, built and tested to enhance the experiences of eating and drinking, and glazed in colours from the Dublin Fruit and Vegetable Market – cabbage, potato, parsnip, lemon, pomegranate and pink grapefruit. In May, the studio moved to a new location tucked away behind the Victorian Fruit and Vegetable Market Building – where everything is made from ‘Mud to Mug’. arranstreeteast.ie (13)
Masters of Glass
Glass is a material that has long associations with Irish craft. Dublin-born Harry Clarke was the best know Irish stained-glass designer of the 20th century. Although he died of TB in 1931 at the young age of 42, Clarke was highly prolific and his works can be found in 29 of the Irish counties. His use of vivid colour and depictions of beautiful elongated figures with expressive eyes made him one of the most celebrated masters of stained glass and created a distinctive Irish style. Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery features some of his most sumptuous pieces.
Harry Clarke continues as an influence on contemporary Irish glass makers. Glass craftsman Michael Ray is inspired by the rugged rock coastline of West Cork, where the sea meets the land along the beach. Made in his West Cork studio, his glass pieces depict the intricate forms of local marine life, and sand and rock patterns which he turns into magical and intriguing glass pieces. Michael Ray (14)
In a world of mass-produced and mass-marketed goods, people are increasingly looking for beautiful, authentic and well-made items. Designers and online retailers, Jonathan and Mark Legge of Makers & Brothers, have worked directly with makers to produce exciting new ranges to serve a global clientele – from Boston to Berlin – via their online store. Most recently they had a pop-up shop in ‘The Standard’ in New York’s East Village. To mark the arrival of ‘summer in the city’, the brothers launched in New York a playful Lemonade Glass designed by Max Lamb and produced exclusively for Makers and Brothers by Waterford-based The Irish Handmade Glass Company.
They also launched a new stool designed by Makers & Brothers in collaboration with Wicklow woodworker James Carroll. Made using local sourced fresh Walnut and Oak, the stool is exclusive to Makers & Brothers. makersandbrothers.com (15)
There will always be a desire for the hand-crafted object, sculpted from natural materials. It’s part of our instinct and our need to be in touch with our historic creativity linking back thousands of years to earliest crafted objects in stone, timber and metal. For example,
Basket making is another traditional Irish craft that has survived the threats to the Irish craft industry and is currently undergoing a renaissance. Working from a stunning location on Loch Na Fooey in Connemara, award-winning basket maker Joe Hogan grows his own willow and his designs range from the traditional Irish potato ‘Skib’ basket to more sculptural forms including hats designed for London Fashion Week. joehoganbaskets.com (16)
A New Generation
A new generation of designers is, however, embracing modern technology and 3D digital printing. Among them are Dublin-based designers Love and Robots. Described as a “design platform where you can tweak, personalise and re-design your own fashion accessories”, Love and Robots was founded in 2012 by three talented sisters Emer, Kate and Aoibheann O’Daly. The studio was recently named one of the Sunday Business Post’s Hot 100 Start-ups. loveandrobots.com (17)
It’s tempting to regard Irish design as just one story. In fact it’s many stories all told at once. Inextricably rooted in our landscape and culture, our designers continue to tell fascinating stories through the objects they are making. And this story is still only in the first few chapters…..