Thursday 19 April 2018

Red dog days: look inside design entrepreneur Mary Doherty's house

Mary Doherty's plan was to become a painter, but in college, she realised she was no good. Happily, her change of direction led to a successful business and an enduring romance. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Paul McCarthy

Design entrepreneur Mary Doherty in her doubleheight kitchen. The white units with their quartz worktops are from Lomi in Baldoyle. The large image is by Gary Coyle, who used to specialise in water photography. Photo: Paul McCarthy
Design entrepreneur Mary Doherty in her doubleheight kitchen. The white units with their quartz worktops are from Lomi in Baldoyle. The large image is by Gary Coyle, who used to specialise in water photography. Photo: Paul McCarthy
The hall is home to the Roy Lichtensteinstyle painting that Sean gave Mary, bearing the question, 'Tell me you left the key under the pot . . .'. Photo: Paul Mccarthy
Mary wanted a big bathroom, so she turned the original bathroom into a laundry room and converted one of the bedrooms into this bathroom
Mary and Sean kept as many original features as possible, including the coving and mantlepieces in the reception rooms. They added colour with their artworks, mainly relating to graphic design. Photo: Paul Mccarthy
The dining area is part of the extension. 'Our brief to the architect was to keep it simple, with as much glass as possible,' Mary notes. Photo: Paul Doherty

Mary Doherty's home is full of interesting artefacts, but two in particular stand out. These are big, bold artworks in the style of Roy Lichtenstein, the American Pop artist who, in his work, employed bright graphics and words and lots of exclamation marks. It transpires that one of the artworks was secretly commissioned by Mary, and the other, from the same artist, by her husband Sean. Both presented them as Christmas gifts the same year.

Fortunately, both Mary and Sean were thrilled, but then they would be; both are involved in the world of visual communication and enjoy not just pure art, but visual jokes and unusual ways of communicating. Sean is a partner in Power Design, while Mary's company, Red Dog, specialises in helping companies to develop a brand identity.

A bubbly blonde from Inishowen, Co Donegal, Mary says she has no artistic heritage to speak of, but she feels she got her business acumen from her mother, a grounded individual who has always kept the family show on the road; and her creative flair from her father, whose career was that of golf professional, and yet who has always been interested in the arts. "He became a golf pro at 16 and that was his job, but he's very cultured, and always encouraged us to do something a little bit different," Mary recalls. "He was delighted that I wanted to go to art college."

Mary thought at first she wanted to be a painter, and did a foundation course in Belfast. "I realised I was no good at the painting; who was I kidding? So I switched to design and I fell in love with graphic design. I love the fact you can take these different elements and put them together and make something beautiful, but also something that has a job," Mary enthuses, adding that to complete her education, she moved to Dublin and NCAD, where she did a degree in visual communication.

The move south was good for Mary in another way; it was where she met Sean, who hails from Ferbane, Co Offaly. "He was in the same class - both of us went into NCAD in third year," Mary says, adding with a laugh, "It was chemistry; love over the drawing boards."

Mary graduated in 1993 and started her design company, Red Dog. The name is great and it sounds as if there's a story behind it. "There's no story. I don't even have a dog," Mary says with a laugh, adding that she and her then business partner wanted something arresting. "We wanted something without the word design in the title; red is positive and energetic, and 'red dog' sounded good. We started it the day after graduation - mad, isn't it? I've never had 'a job' in my life," she notes.

Instead, she's always been an employer and currently has a staff of 15. "We're one of the biggest design companies. It's mainly branding and design; we work with companies on their brand strategy, and help them build their brand through visual and verbal communication. I'm at the front end, I work with companies on what needs fixing, and then the studio takes over. We have very talented designers, and they design an identity," Mary explains.

Clients include elite businesses like the Davy Group, KBC Bank, and DCU. "One of the interesting things for me is getting under the bonnet of these places and seeing some of the amazing work they do," Mary marvels, adding that the role of the designer is becoming more and more important to big companies. "Design is integral to everything we do now. A lot of companies in the States have a head of design on their staff. They're not design companies - it's because they want designers to be part of the thinking," she muses.

Another big project this year is her participation in the IDI Awards, which take place in the Marker on November 26; she's chairperson, and her role includes putting a top-class jury together. "Designers from all disciplines have entered, and it was important to get a good jury. Designers like to be judged by their peers, who are actually practicing designers," Mary explains, adding that a lifetime-achievement award will be posthumously bestowed on Eileen Gray, so it promises to be a very prestigious occasion. "There are not that many Irish women designers we can look up to, and it's good to acknowledge people who are brilliant," Mary says.

Life is pretty hectic for Mary. As well as the awards and the company, she and Sean have two sons, Sam (12) and six-year-old Oisin. "Sam was born at 26 weeks; he was in Holles Street for five months. It was tough, but I kept going by continuing to work, which is near Holles Street. Yeah, it was hard," she says, adding with a laugh, "That put us off having any more for a while. When Oisin came along, he was only four weeks early; that was nothing."

The family first lived in Drumcondra, which they loved, but the couple's respective offices are on the southside, and it made sense to move nearer work when the kids arrived. In 2006, they found a gorgeous Edwardian red-brick house with four bedrooms in Dublin 6. It had lots of period details, including nice coving in the ceilings and its original mantlepieces, but it required work.

"It had a good roof, but a lot needed to be done. It had no heating, there were PVC windows everywhere, which all had to be replaced, the bathroom was awful - things like that," Mary explains, adding that while they were at it, they renovated the whole house, though they kept every original thing they could, such as the internal doors and floors.

Their architect, Derry man Kevin Doherty (no relation), did the renovations and also designed a new double-height kitchen, a new bathroom and an attic conversion. "We like an industrial, minimalist look with lots of light," Mary notes. "The brief was to keep it very simple, clean lines, with as much glass as possible. We wanted a shell that we could put our own stamp on."

While the kitchen is minimalist and white, the furnishing in the rest of the house is more eclectic and colourful; Mary would like white sofas and a more pristine house, but realises that with a husband who cycles a lot - "I'm married to a Mamil [middle-aged man in Lycra]" she notes - and with two boys, there's no point. "The important thing is a happy house," she says, adding that she keeps changing things, "I move furniture all the time. And I'm impulsive. If I see something, 30 seconds later, I'll have it. I'm dangerous," she says with a laugh, "and I like things to mean something."

That's the reason they have a lot of graphic artworks, including the two that she and Sean commissioned. "When Sam was three, he was mad into Star Wars, so I asked the artist to do a Star Wars-style piece for Sean. At the same time, Sean had him doing a thing for me." The Star Wars picture is at the top of the stairs, while the picture Sean commissioned for Mary is in the hall, and bears the line, "Tell me you left the key under the pot . . ."

Obviously Mary is a brilliant designer, entrepreneur and mother, but sometimes, something has to give. Usually, it's the key.

Institute of Designers in Ireland (IDI), see idi-design.ie

Red Dog, see reddog.ie

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