Cork Craft Month: Artists craft a better future
Since the 1960s, an eclectic range of artists have made their mark in Rebel County. Eleanor Flegg goes behind scenes at Cork Craft Month
Cork has been cool for craft since the 1960s. Fifty years ago, it was one of the highlights on the arts trail. If you were in search of a better way of life, west Cork had just what you were looking for – beautiful landscape and low property prices. People from England, Europe, and even Dublin flocked to the county, only to find that you can't eat the scenery. At the time, rural Ireland didn't offer much in the way of employment.
Luckily, these early settlers were crafty folk. Many of them were art-school graduates and quite a few of these set up craft studios, making genuine Irish souvenirs to sell to the tourists. Then they discovered that they had to deal with a genuine Irish gombeen man to sell them!
Faced with the difficulty of marketing their wares, the settlers joined forces with Irish makers to develop a network of craftspeople and craft shops. The crafts movement thrived. By the mid-1980s it was said that you could scarcely throw a stone in west Cork without hitting a potter.
The standard of work was mixed. But amid the wobbly pots and hairy wall-hangings, some very fine craft was produced. The settlers brought with them a wealth of skills and a knowledge of contemporary craft practices that was hugely influential in developing Co Cork as a place for design.
There was also a spirit of individuality about these pioneering makers that has lived on.
"The whole thing about coming to live in Cork was that you could be yourself and do whatever you want," says the ceramist Etain Hickey, who moved to Rossmore from Dublin in 1980. "It was also about being able to buy a house incredibly cheaply – all the craftspeople that moved in lived on half nothing."
Now, the Etain Hickey Gallery in Clonakilty is one of the highlights of Cork Craft Month (August 5 to September 5), a festival of exhibitions, craft trails and demos stretching across the county. The festival is organised by Cork Craft and Design and includes events when you can expect to pick up cool and unusual handmade items for the home.
But if you're expecting only macramé and knitted tea cosies you may be disappointed. Many of the members of Cork Craft and Design make savvy homeware that wouldn't look out of place at an international design festival. The clean contemporary lines of Horizon Furniture's chairs and tables don't look folksy. This is the new face of Cork craft. The spirit, however, remains in the Rebel County's fine tradition.
"Everything that we do is handmade in Cork by Cork people, so you know that it's going to have a bit of character," says Fergal O'Leary of Horizon Furniture. The self-confessed "cranky Corkman" came to furniture making from a background as a session musician. "I'm a bass player who makes furniture or a furniture maker who plays bass,' he says. "Initially, making furniture was an antidote to the more ethereal music stuff. You play a gig and it's gone. Furniture lasts longer."
After a brief stint in furniture college, O'Leary worked for a cabinet-maker where he learnt the basic skills of cabinet-making. "I did my 10,000 hours of teaching myself and I set up Horizon Furniture (www.horizonfurniture.ie) in 2008. I didn't realise that I would be able to design as well as I do. It just worked."
His first piece, the Jack table, was named after his son. The Maryjane chair is called after his daughter.
"I set myself the task of designing a stackable chair for €300," he explains. "Not everyone has the space for all the chairs that they need and I wanted a design that looked good when it was stacked. It's an efficient chair in terms of timber – one tree would give you the bones of 10 chairs; but the failing of it was that there was no way that we could make it for the price."
This, alas, is always the catch for handmade Irish design. It's very difficult for the maker to create an affordable item and pay themselves properly. That said, the Maryjane (€650), made in solid oak, is no more expensive than other well-designed high-end chairs. You get what you pay for. Mirrors from Horizon Furniture start at around €400 and their most expensive item is the Spectrum console table (€3,200 for a two-metre table), so called because it's made from sections of brightly coloured laminate.
"The colours depend on the mood that I'm in on the day that I'm making it," says O'Leary. "Sometimes it's black..."
Horizon Furniture will exhibit as part of the Locus Furniture Makers of Cork Exhibition, in Douglas Village Shopping Centre (September 5-25).
Elsewhere, The Motive Exhibition runs in the James O'Neill Building (formerly the Old Mill) in Kinsale from August 5 to 14, showing the work of well-established Cork-based craftmakers.
The same building will host an eclectic selection of work by the members of the Cork Craft & Design group (August 28-September 4). For a full schedule of Cork Craft Month, see www.corkcraftanddesign.com, or follow on Facebook or Twitter @corkcraftdesign.hitrail.