An eye on the future - peek inside this architect's elegant apartment
'There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in," author Graham Greene once wrote.
In architect Clodagh Nolan's case, that moment seems to have been when she was 12, and her family moved to an unusual house in south Co Dublin. "I think I started thinking about architecture at the age of 12," she says. "It was around the time we moved to a very inspiring house."
Clodagh says it was "a very modernist house, quite ahead of its time, designed by the late Brendan O'Connor. I think the house inspired me subconsciously, though I didn't appreciate it until later".
However, the talented Dubliner did appreciate it in time to study architecture in college, and she went on to make it her profession.
"I went to Bolton Street. In those days, it was great fun; it enjoyed a great reputation. It was the place to go," she recalls.
After completing her five-year course, as it was then, she did a summer in an architecture firm in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington DC, and then came home and worked in an Irish firm.
When her two sons - now in their 30s - came along, she took a career break for about five years, and after a brief period with her former employer, she then set up on her own.
That was over 25 years ago, and since that time, this enterprising registered architect has made a big name for herself designing highly acclaimed projects, always specialising in domestic refurbishments.
"I'm good at refurbishments. I have a lot of experience of doing up my own homes. I had quite a few of those over the years," Clodagh explains with a laugh, adding that marriage, births, death and other personal circumstances change your needs. She also has had several country homes over the years - in Kilkenny - and she has owned apartments in France and Italy, all of which needed refurbishment.
She has built up a strong reputation for her work, which has all been through word of mouth.
"A lot of architects don't want to do domestic work, it can be quite fraught, and they used to send clients to me," Clodagh says. "Although that has changed since the crash - there's more competition now. It's good to have a wide talent pool doing domestic work. With lots of young talented architects, the standard has greatly improved."
In the early days, her work was mainly in period properties, but these days, she's doing more 20th-Century houses and, she says, they're full of potential.
"As the stock of unrenovated 18th and 19th Century homes has dried up, I've been asked to do more 20th-Century houses, and they're good, too," she says. "They don't have the structural problems of the older houses, so you can concentrate on layout and design."
Clodagh is so experienced at refurbishments, and so passionate about interior planning, that she can spot the best way of refurbishing a home the minute she walks into it. "I can't walk into anyone's house without mentally redesigning it," muses Clodagh.
Needless to mention, she has developed a few bugbears over the years - her chief source of irritation being the overuse of the big extension, usually when people add on a big kitchen to the back of a house.
"I think the greatest mistake people make is extending a house that doesn't need an extension; a house that would benefit much more from reorganisation of the existing space," she says, adding, "These large extensions often result in the creation of an unusable dark space, unless it's done very cleverly. Whereas with careful thought, and clever reorganisation, you can achieve what you want without extending, or by adding a smaller extension than you think you need."
Though she's often suggesting a less radical approach than the owners originally envisaged, she can find it hard to convince them. "People, particularly if they are already living in the house they want renovated, can have a very blinkered way of thinking and seeing. Through habit and custom, they get used to a certain way of living, and can't visualise a different way. I come in with a fresh eye and a blank sheet, and I can see how the spaces should be used. I'm known for changing things quite a lot. I can be quite radical in my reorganisation," the blonde says, adding, with a touch of modesty, "but people are usually pleased."
Clodagh, of course, has reorganised the space in all her own different homes, not least the elegant apartment in which she currently lives, and which she shares with her gorgeous greyhound, Lunasa. One of her two sons, Ralph, is also living with her while he's between apartments.
Ralph runs tours of Dublin for visitors to the city. His company is called Ralph Smyth tours. "Ralph judges the state of the economy by counting footfall; I look at the number of cranes," the arty 50-something says with a laugh.
Clodagh bought the Dublin 4 apartment 10 years ago when she was living in Kilkenny, and in the early days she used it as a pied-a-terre. It's one of two apartments, which were created out of the 19th-Century former carriage house attached to a local castle.
Her apartment is on the upper floor. "It had been divided into two apartments in the 1980s. When I looked at it, it was uninteresting and shabby, but I liked three things - the location, the light, and the ceiling height," she says.
Clodagh completely remodelled it, and created a highly efficient working kitchen, as well as an elegant living room. She added bathrooms and an office. The apartment is spacious, and Clodagh has put in many clever devices, including sliding doors between different rooms, adding to the sense of space.
Then, four years ago, she moved back to the city, and moved in full-time. Sometime later, in keeping with her own philosophy, she added a tiny extension to the kitchen, making it a dining area, and off that, is a compact terrace.
She was able to do this by building over the small extension on the apartment below, with the cooperation of its owner. "When I bought it initially, I was only spending two days a week here, and I didn't need a dining area at that time," she says. "In other houses, I'd always had a bit of greenery, and I didn't know I missed it until I added the terrace."
There are bifold doors from the dining area to the terrace. Glass bricks preserve the light and, at the same time, give Clodagh privacy.
She used to have a dining table in the kitchen, but added an island when she got her new dining area, doubling both the storage and the prep space.
The house throughout is furnished in a subtle, classic style, with a mix of designer pieces, while her colour palette is various shades of white and grey. "I don't do vogue. I keep the palette simple and restful, and I like to mix it with materials like stone and wood. I like various shades of white and grey," Clodagh says. She adds with a laugh, "I had 50 shades of grey long before it was even thought of."
She's also had a particular dining table with matching chairs for a very long time. They're by Danish designer Finn Juhl, and they came from that inspirational house of her teens.
Clodagh is moving on - she's found another project, and she's sold her apartment, but that furniture will be moving with her - continuing the link with the inspirational house, and no doubt carrying with it its spirit, continuing to inspire her work.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine