Saturday 24 September 2016

Interiors: Tables for the price of a car

Our artisan furniture makers are enjoying a revival but their craft boasts a top-end price tag

Eleanor Flegg

Published 13/05/2016 | 02:30

A Pemara Design Viezla table and chairs.
A Pemara Design Viezla table and chairs.
A cabinet by Zelouf + Bell
A desk and chair by Zelouf and Bell
A chest of drawers by Dunleavy Bespoke
A table by Zelouf + Bell
Designers Susan Zelouf and Michael Bell

Are you a connoisseur of dovetail joints? Do you know your lacquer from your French polish? Are you moved by marquetry? If you've answered yes, then you are without doubt a fine furniture aficionado.

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Irish-made, top-end furniture making is going through a revival of sorts which will be in evidence among the exhibitors at the forthcoming House show event coming up in the RDS from May 20 to 22. Many of Ireland's finest craftsmen and women will have their work on show. If it was a motor show, these are the supercars. And some of the pieces which have taken months to make individually do cost the price of a good second-hand motor.

You can't beat the good stuff: velvety veneers, intricate inlays, and drawers where a skilled cabinetmaker paid just as much attention to the inside as the outside. You won't find me complaining about the prices either. Skilled cabinetmakers need to be paid properly. The world needs fine furniture and even better if it can be made in Ireland. I can't afford to buy, but I'm glad that some people can. They're keeping a wonderful tradition alive.

"We make luxe artisan pieces with a story and a tradition behind them," says Susan Zelouf. "Yes, they're extravagant, but we need extravagance in our lives. A woman must have bread, but she must have roses too!"

She's one half of Zelouf+Bell, designers and makers of furniture. All their pieces are created from start to finish in their County Laois workshop under the watchful eye of cabinetmaker Michael Bell (he's the other half).

Their furniture is exquisite, sassy, and incredibly skilled but this is high-craft, highly skilled work and the prices are well beyond the budget of most Irish households. Business relies on clients who are happy to think in four or five-figure sums. A pair of Monarch end tables from Zelouf+Bell costs €5,000; their Normandie bar cart costs €15,525; and the Cranes in a Row cabinet costs €11,570. And that's ex VAT.

"I know that everyone can't afford it," says Zelouf. "We're not snobby. I wish that we could make furniture for everyone, but this is just what it costs to make this kind of furniture in this country. The processes we use are so labour intensive that each piece takes between three and four months to make. Sometimes getting people to understand that is our biggest challenge."

Although their furniture can be seen in museums, Zelouf is keen to point out that it's intended to be lived with. "It has to be functional and beautiful. We want the pieces to be integrated into people's lives and with the other things that they live with."

The interior designer Mary Ryder has worked with Zelouf+Bell repeatedly and knows exactly how the furniture works in people's houses. "The beauty of it is that the clients become so involved in the commissioning process," she says. "It's an emotional thing."

In most cases, the furniture is designed for a specific place in the house. "Sometimes the piece takes inspiration from something that's already in the house and some of them fit so well that you can't imagine them anywhere else. That's the difference between commissioning a piece and buying something off the peg."

A site-specific piece of furniture, created for its surroundings, may not work so well in another context, but most of those who commission such a piece have no intention of moving. "They are in their permanent homes," says Ryder, "the ones that they'll be carried out of in a box." The type of piece we're talking about is the Zelouf+Bell Kimono cabinet of which just one example only exists.

One of the advantages of commissioning a piece of furniture is that nobody else will have one like it. "Most of our clients have been very successful in their careers and they want beautiful furniture that makes a personal statement," says Claire Dunleavy of Dunleavy Bespoke. "I usually ask them what their budget is and come back to them with a couple of design proposals within that range." All the work is individually priced, but expect to pay around €2,000 for a coffee table or €5,000 for a dining table. It's all designed and made by brothers Tim and Seán Dunleavy, along with a small but skilled team, in their County Kildare workshop.

It's important to note that the high cost of fine Irish-made furniture does not mean that the designers are raking in the money. Those companies clever enough to survive the recession have fought long and hard to do so. "We employ a total of five people, but I reckon that Tim and Seán should count for two people each because they work so hard!" says Claire Dunleavy.

Other designers, like Simon O'Driscoll, who also work to commission and design a range of off-the-peg items, outsource the manufacturing (where possible, the pieces are made in Ireland). An eight-seater dining table from his standard range costs €4,400 and dining chairs cost €350 each.

Unlike the highly expressive pieces of Zelouf+Bell and Dunleavy Bespoke, O'Driscoll's furniture is softly spoken. "It's not what other people are doing," he says. "It's made to last, it doesn't date, and will sit anywhere in an old house or a modern one."

In a recent project with interior designer Gregory Curran, he designed a solid oak table and sideboard, combining the understated table with eight chairs in different colours. "I don't like to kit out a space with just my own furniture," O'Driscoll says. "I think that you get a better balance when you combine it with 20th century pieces."

Fine furniture is never exactly cheap, but if you're on a limited budget you may find solace in the auction rooms. According to Rory Guthrie of de Vere's, Danish furniture of the 1960s offers the best of both worlds.

"The quality of the timber and the craftsmanship is very high, the designs are clean, and they're a great balance of form and function."

Expect to pay around €350 for a nest of tables and between €1,500 and €2,000 for a sideboard. "If the pieces are in good condition, and you look after them, then they'll hold their value," he says.

If you're interested in investing in, commissioning, or simply drooling over fine furniture, drop into the interior design event, House, in the RDS from May 20 to 22. Zelouf+Bell, Mary Ryder, Dunleavy Bespoke, Pemara Design, Simon O'Driscoll and the experts from de Vere's will be sitting targets at the show.

See also zeloufandbell.com, sodd.ie, dunleavybespoke.com, www.maryryderdesign.ie, gcurrandesign.com, pemaradesign.com, deveres.ie

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