Monday 17 December 2018

Craftsman stayed afloat in recession thanks to his boat-builder's chairs

A chair based on an ancient Irish design has enabled its maker to dive deeper into his craft

Brendan Lawless sells his hand-crafted chairs in the USA, Canada, Europe and the UK as well as Ireland. Photo: Tony Gavin
Brendan Lawless sells his hand-crafted chairs in the USA, Canada, Europe and the UK as well as Ireland. Photo: Tony Gavin

John Cradden

What do you do if you've been working for over 25 years as a skilled and experienced furniture maker but then the work suddenly dries up? That was the situation facing Wicklow man Brendan Lawless when the last recession hit.

Others in the same situation may have opted to skill up in another trade, change career completely or scrape a living doing odd-jobs, but Brendan's response was to start building and selling chairs.

Not just any old chair, of course, but one based on an ancient Irish design dating back to 1830 and with a fascinating back story.

A couple of years previously he had bought an original version of the chair off a man at a furniture show in the RDS in Dublin, who had referred to it as the 'Famine Chair'.

"What caught my eye was the curves, the arms on it," says Lawless. "It was on this gentleman's stand, and it was covered with old blankets and cushions and stuff. It was just its simplicity; I thought it was just very attractive, and the construction of it is quite simple. They are all traditional woodworking joints and there are no metal fixings."

He bought it with the intention of making a version of it for his wife as an anniversary present. He did some research on it, and discovered it had originated on the southern shores of Lough Neagh and had evolved from an earlier boat-builder's chair, similar in size and design. Critically, the design involves steam bending, a technique still used by boat builders to create strength.

Lawless had learnt his craft some 30 years ago as a cabinet-maker before becoming self-employed and dabbling in different areas of the furniture-making industry, most notably in producing high-end cosmetic retail display units for the likes of L'Oreal, Clarins, and Elizabeth Arden.

"I always had work. I never advertised. I was just a small operative, with one other part-time girl I had working with me at the time. And when the recession came I just ... I had no work. For the first time in the 26, 27 years I had nothing to do. It took about two years for it really to hit me."

But rather than change tack, the recession prompted him to go deeper into furniture-making, "but with a more hands-on approach and at a slower pace". So he took out his boat-builder's chair and decided to have a go at making a few reproductions of it.

He had some experience of steam-bending as he had done some work in furniture restoration in the past, but had to re-acquaint himself with the technique, as well as in wood-turning, in order to perfect the production process.

Lawless offers the chair in a number of different finishes with names from Achill to Inis Oirr, and includes the Baidin, which is two chairs that interlock together to make a platform for a Moses basket.

Then he went to a few shows and farmers' markets and has now built up the brand as a side-business to his day-to-day work in custom-built furniture, such as built-in units.

With the help of the Wicklow Enterprise Board and the Crafts Council of Ireland, he sells direct from his website and has sold chairs to the USA, Canada, Europe and the UK, as well as local shows and markets. He also sells them to the Irish Design Gallery in Dun Laoghaire and a number of other craft shops.

"So normally what I do is, I do my day-to-day stuff, and every so often I will take a week off work, and I just focus on the chairs. I will make a batch of chairs and bring them to a certain level and then I will kind of assemble them as I need them."

He acknowledges, however, that like most furniture, you are unlikely to buy one unless you've had the chance to sample it.

"You need to sit in it. It's very tactile. Like people can't walk past the chair without feeling the ribs, the curved ribs on the chair. And they are kind of in disbelief because it's so fine. They think it's metal." As a result, he is finding that he is selling to locals a lot mainly because they can get the opportunity easily to see and sit in the item before buying.

It's popular as a wedding or birthday present, and Lawless has noticed a distinct trend in buyers looking for something a bit special and willing to pay more for it, even if it means waiting for a couple of months to get the funds together (the standard chair sells for €295).

"Like, last weekend, there was a lady bought one, she came from Monaghan and she had sat on the chair in the RDS at a show three years ago. And her husband just fell in love with it. I think if somebody has a kind of a nautical background, or their grandfather was a sailor or a shipwright, or if there's a connection to the sea, they will buy them."

Given what he acknowledges as the need to sample the product, what about using in resellers in other countries? He did try one in Germany for a while, but "it didn't work".

"Any chairs that I have sold abroad, it's because of the Irish connection. So they have either emigrated or their parents emigrated previously, and it's just that little bit of home. They just want a bit of Ireland, like an Irish chair, made by an Irish person."

But he is planning to wind down his day-to-day work to devote more time to the Boat Builder Chair business, including travelling to more shows and exhibitions around the country and selling overseas. He has recently added to his product range an American-styled patio chair called the Adirondack, which in turn has already helped to generate sales of the Boat Builder's chair. He is also hoping to turn out an earlier version of the Boat Builder's chair with two rather than three curved ribs.

That said, while he hopes to go full-time with the chairs, he has no plans to scale up production or hire an apprentice. "I can manage. I don't want to kind of create a monster as we say." He believes 10-15 chairs a month is the natural limit given the hands-on and intensive nature of the building process. Each chair takes between two and three days to build. "When I'm working on the chairs I kind of feel like I'm cheating. It doesn't feel like work to me."

But the business has also allowed him to combine his craft with a people focus.

"I just love meeting the people and just talking about the chair. A day at a market is like another day off for me, you know. I mightn't have sold a chair on the day but I might have met two customers that I have worked for in the past and all of a sudden you are getting a phone call looking for a bit of work that needs doing. So it has generated work for me during the recession."

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