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Love of wood at heart of great design

True crafts people are born, not made, and this shines through in their work, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

FOUR walls may well make a house but it is the furnishings and interiors that make it a home. Over the years there have been legendary furniture makers from Thomas Chippendale in the 18th century, whose mid- Georgian, English Rococo and Neoclassical work adorns many stately and upper middle class homes, to William Morris, the iconic 19th century furniture maker and designer who developed the Arts and Crafts movement.

Indeed, designing and working with wood and metal is a natural ability, which is nurtured and crafted from one generation to the next. True craftsmen love the feel and working with different types of wood. It is in the genes and sometimes it is in the genes of the unlikeliest of people. Indeed, in the early Eighties, when royal protocol was still fairly stiff, Princess Margaret's son, David Linley, raised a few eyebrows when he trained as a cabinet maker. Linley went on to create and launch his own furniture and accessories range. His father, the creative photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones, (Lord Snowdon), was the nephew of interior and theatrical set designer Oliver Messel, who also created the celebrated Baroque and Rococo suites in London's Dorchester Hotel in the Fifties. These suites were restored in 1980 by Lord Snowdon using some of the original craftsmen. So, three generations of craftsmen.

Whilst interest in furniture and design pieces has been huge in the past few years, many have looked at 'cutting edge' geometric chrome and tubular tables and chairs without realising that the originals of these statement pieces, the chubby leather 'Michelin Tyre man'-style Bibendum chair and E-1027 suspension side table, were designed by a woman born just outside Enniscorthy in 1878. Eileen Gray, an extraordinary woman from a wealthy family, is now regarded as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the 20th century. She was influenced early on by her father, a talented artist who took the young Gray on painting tours of Italy and Switzerland, exposing her to eclectic influences.

She subsequently studied the art of lacquer work in London with a Japanese craftsman called Sugawara. Gray and Sugawara went to Paris at the end of the First World War where she was commissioned to decorate an apartment on Rue de Lota. This was such a success she then went on to open her own space on Rue du Fauborg Saint Honore. Eileen Gray died in 1976 at the age of 98, and there is a permanent exhibition of her work on display at the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks. www.museum.ie

We have wonderful crafts people and furniture makers in Ireland today and, although pieces may seem expensive, it is important to remember that they are crafted painstakingly by hand and will last through the generations.

Cillian O'Sulllivan set up his eponymous bespoke furniture label a few months ago, operating out of a workshop at Tomduff, outside Borris in Co Carlow. "It is a lovely spot, up the side of Mount Leinster," the 35-year-old designer says. Originally from Blackrock in Co Dublin, O'Sullivan studied mechanical engineering at Trinity College Dublin.

"After college I travelled a bit and, when I came back, I decided I wanted to work with wood so, at the age of 30, I started an apprenticeship studying with David Woods in Dublin, and then the amazing Stephen O'Briain in Co Carlow. O'Briain has created works for Government Buildings, the Irish Embassy in Tel Aviv and many other prestigious places including boardroom tables for the Bank of Ireland. I am still based in his workshop, which is why I am still down here, I work with him," he explained.

To launch his new business, and showing his work for the first time, O'Sullivan has created a chair -- the Debutante -- made from French ash with dark wenge wood feet. The Debutante is an amazing statement piece for any space and bound to attract galleries, interior designers and architects.

"It is about getting recognised, and people seeing a piece and saying I know whose work that is. I am trying to build a style, trying to build a name and recognition. A lot of my design is influenced by my engineering background. It is very mathematical the way I put things together, geometric in the shapes I use. Essentially I started with a couple of triangles, intersected them, took a bit away, and fiddled with it," he says simply -- which I am sure it is not.

The Debutante chair sells for €2,000 and is undoubtedly a work of art. Another interesting little table called Guna has a skirt-like shape and was a finalist in the RDS crafts competition two years ago. It was also in the Hunt Museum. Guna is made using 39 pieces of wood incorporating wenge coupled with Irish oak from Borris, in Co Carlow.

"We have a good grouping of furniture makers in the country. We have a lot of quality people that I would like to be associated with -- Stephen O'Briain, Joseph Walsh, John Lee, Nest Design, these types of people. There is a great history and a lot of very progressive design in Ireland's furniture." O'Sullivan's furniture respects the traditions of his craft yet remains rooted in contemporary design.

Even though some may not yet have been able to buy their own home over the past couple of years, it is still possible to purchase special pieces that they can enjoy now and take with them when that day comes. So think before you lash out on that flatpack -- will you still love it in the years to come, will your friends oooh and aaah when they see and will it still hold its value?


Sunday Independent