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Artisan at cutting edge as he revives the centuries-old craft of marquetry

Race day finery is latest eye-catching design from The Veneerist founder Ciarán Mc Gill

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‘When I walk out the front door of my workshop, the Bluestack Mountains are right there. Though I get the feeling the Government would like people like us to be all operating from an industrial estate along the M50,’ says The Veneerist founder Ciaran Mc Gill. Photo: Declan O’Doherty

‘When I walk out the front door of my workshop, the Bluestack Mountains are right there. Though I get the feeling the Government would like people like us to be all operating from an industrial estate along the M50,’ says The Veneerist founder Ciaran Mc Gill. Photo: Declan O’Doherty

‘When I walk out the front door of my workshop, the Bluestack Mountains are right there. Though I get the feeling the Government would like people like us to be all operating from an industrial estate along the M50,’ says The Veneerist founder Ciaran Mc Gill. Photo: Declan O’Doherty

In modern popular culture, veneers are best known as the preserve of celebrities - or Love Island contestants - with incredulously perfect white smiles. But at Ladies' Day during the Galway Races, two attendees were wearing veneers of a different kind: wooden veneers on their fascinators. The man behind the designs was Ciarán Mc Gill, who, as an expert in marquetry, is more accustomed to his creations being worn by inanimate objects like high-end furniture.

Ciarán, the entrepreneur behind a fledgling business called The Veneerist, had grabbed the chance to make wooden fascinators for his girlfriend and her friend for the racing festival.

"It was a good chance to try new techniques," the 27-year-old says. "The ladies are open to expressive and flamboyant hats and are not afraid to try something different."

Marquetry is the art and craft of applying pieces of veneer to a structure to form decorative patterns, designs or images.

While examples of furniture inlaid with precious woods have been recovered from the first-century sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Dutch are credited with popularising the use of marquetry in the 16th century. The craft was imported to France in the mid-17th century to create luxurious furniture for Versailles and the other royal residences of Louis XIV.

Marquetry skills likely came to Ireland via Huguenot settlers. But because marquetry was so labour intensive, it eventually faded from the Irish furniture scene. However, it is now poised for a renaissance, thanks to technology, demand from the wealthy, and craftsmen such as Ciarán.

Instead of hand-cutting veneers, laser technology enables a sketch to be engineered into an AutoCad file.

Each veneer is then laser-cut separately and the pieces are hand-assembled - like a jigsaw puzzle - and pressed. The work is sanded and flattened until smoothed, and then a finish is applied. Veneers can be inlaid to anything from table-tops and chessboards to cabinet doors and large wall panels.

"It wouldn't be feasible to cut all of it by hand and marquetry was really a dying art 20 or 30 years ago, until laser technology came in," Ciarán says. "Now, depending on the intricacy of a design, a piece could take anything from a few days to three weeks."

Ciarán seemed destined to work with wood. Growing up in London, he would accompany his father, a plasterer from Donegal, to construction sites, make wooden objects with his toolset, and was always drawing.

When Ciarán was 10, the Mc Gill family moved back to Donegal, and Ciarán took woodwork classes at secondary school. The course piqued his interest so much that the only college course he applied for was one in furniture design and manufacturing at GMIT's campus in the Connemara village of Letterfrack.

"In my first year at Letterfrack, one of my initial projects was a small marquetry panel," he says. "It was something I could relate to and I enjoyed that element, so throughout my time at Letterfrack, I was bringing marquetry into my designs and my furniture."

During the four-year course, Ciarán did a work placement in the UK for Silverlining, a maker of bespoke furniture for yachts, homes and private jets owned by the super-rich. It counts David Bowie and Kevin Costner among its previous clients.

When he graduated from Letterfrack in 2012, Ireland was still in recession, so he and a college friend moved to the UK. There, Ciarán pursued a year-long master's degree in furniture design at London Metropolitan University, subsiding his studies with part-time bar work.

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He then spent a year as a joiner in London, making doors and windows. But Ciarán "found it hard to relate to that type of work", so successfully set his sights on working for Ace Marquetry.

The Wiltshire-based company has worked with furniture makers and designers such as David Linley, the professional name for David Armstrong-Jones, nephew of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, and the son of the late Princess Margaret.

In late 2015, after a year at Ace Marquetry, Ciarán felt confident enough to start his own business back in Ireland.

"It was a bit daunting at first," he says. "The main idea in the first year or two was to gain a small client base and build up working relationships with them. When I came back from England, I had just one month's salary and no savings. But I did have a business plan and my qualifications, so I went with them to the bank.

"I did my research and found the companies working in the industry. I made up a few samples and began knocking on doors and workshops to get talking to them. Sometimes people underestimate old-fashioned door-to-door sales and meeting face-to-face, especially when they need to touch a product."

The Veneerist was set up in a converted farm building near his father's house in Fintown, a village in the Donegal Gaeltacht, near the Bluestack Mountains. "I picked up that idea from Ace, which is in Wiltshire and where we rarely met the makers because we sent everything by courier," Ciarán says. "With a courier service, you can have next-day delivery from anywhere in rural Ireland. It's also good to be based in Donegal because it has a certain narrative that's necessary in the design and craft industry.

"When I walk out the front door of my workshop, the Bluestack Mountains are right there. Though I get the feeling the Government would like people like us to be all operating from an industrial estate along the M50."

About three-quarters of The Veneerist's business derives from subcontracting work for high-end furniture makers in Ireland and the UK, interior designers and architects. "I would describe myself as part of the whole process," Ciarán says. "If they are designing a piece like a table or cabinet, I would do detailed work on the table-top or doors."

Commissions account for the remaining quarter of Ciarán's revenues, but he intends to expand that strand of the business. "The plan is to develop my workshop and then in my spare time do my own designs and move on to my own private commissions.

"The main demand is from the London market, where marquetry is very big, but it's slowly coming into Ireland. We're talking about work for high-end clients' private residents and for corporate office buildings. I've done jewellery, artworks, and a world map for private clients."

In 2016, Ciarán created an art piece called 'Ladies of the Revolution' to help promote the often-overlooked role played by women during the War of Independence.

The artwork is his interpretation of a photo of three women, May Burke, Eithné Ni Chumhaill and Linda Kearns, that was taken shortly after their escape from prison in 1921.

His focus for next year will be to reinvent the grandfather clock by creating a modern take on the classic timepiece. "Grandfather clocks have been forgotten," Ciarán says. "But there's definitely demand in the market for high-end, exclusive grandfather clocks with contemporary lines, but keeping the chimes and faces."

theveneerist.com


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