Sunday 18 March 2018

From crocheted doileys to lava lamps, furniture got a massive makeover

Anita Guidera

MENTION antimacassars today and you are likely to be met with looks of puzzlement, but there was a time when no self-respecting parlour would have been without them.

Micheal McDermott, whose family has been selling furniture for more than 50 years in Co Mayo, recalls how the crocheted lace doileys to protect the backs and arms of the newly purchased suites of furniture were the must-have item of the day.

"It wouldn't mean a thing to people now, but the antimacassar would have come with the slightly more stylish products, items like Parker Knoll recliners and sofas.

"These items of furniture were for life and for passing onto the next generation, so keeping them in mint condition was a priority.

"If they didn't come with the suite they were often bought separately or hand-made," he said.

Micheal's father, Michael, opened the family business on Spencer Road in Castlebar in the early 1960s, just as the traditional Irish home was undergoing a revolutionary makeover.

In place of the oil lamps, flagstone floors and settle beds that had typified the Irish home for decades before, came battleship linoleum, china cabinets and co-ordinated furniture.

Typifying the dawn of 1960s interior design were the bold flowery carpets, reserved for the front room, which was variously referred to as the living room, the sitting room or lounge.

"We were selling the Youghal, Kincora and Navan carpets, these traditional patterned carpets that lasted forever," recalled Micheal.

"They came in narrow rolls of either 27 or 36 inches wide. I remember the hand-sewing of them.

"We would come in after school and stitch them up when I was seven or eight years old. They would arrive to the house then in one piece, to be laid."

The more exclusive Donegal carpets, hand-knitted Turkish style, meanwhile, were finding their way to such illustrious destinations as Aras an Uachtarain, The White House, Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street.

As rural Ireland moved from the drab and dimly-lit parlours of the 1950s, people also had small amounts of disposable cash to spend for the first time.

Newly acquired treasures like sets of china and crystal found a new home in the china cabinet.

"It's something you wouldn't give away nowadays. It was normally a medium height glass cabinet, and the best stuff would have been stored in it and only used on special occasions," he said.

By the 1970s, Rossmore had become the big brand of Irish-made furniture, specialising in china cabinets, coffee tables and dining tables and chairs.

"The full living room would have had matching furniture, co-ordinated coffee table, lamp table and sideboard all to match that would probably all be Rossmore or Troscan, another popular furniture maker of the day.

"Couches were made of stripy fabrics or heavy tweeds. They were low-lying and very heavy on the eye and relatively heavy on the pocket."

The ultimate status symbol of the day was the dining set, a Priory or Old Charm-designed dark oak dining table and chairs, that would only be used at Christmas or when the house hosted the Stations.

But acquiring such must-have items was a painstaking process.

"In our shop, a big book was kept and people would pay for the furniture over two years.

"They would come in with their little jotter book and it would be filled out every week. In the 1970s and 1980s, when new houses were being built, people would do up a room at a time, as they could afford it," said Micheal.

In the more urban settings, Ireland was not immune from the psychedelic wave that was in vogue elsewhere in the 1960s, according to designer, Denise Walsh of

"For most people in 1960s Ireland, daily life offered little by way of frivolous comfort or luxury.

"But with the advent of popular music, film and television, people's world view and view of themselves began to slowly change.

"A greater sense of self and personal freedom began to emerge and, with a little more disposable income in their pockets, new influences fired their imaginations and aspirations.

"This greater sense of self could now be expressed through their clothes, hairstyles and their furnished surroundings," she said.

Influences from holiday destinations in the Mediterranean began to emerge.

"Patterned wallpapers with psychedelic intensity spewed colours like pea green and saffron into living rooms across the country, and faceted-coloured glass took on all shapes and sizes as ashtrays that could double as sizeable paper weights," she said.

But for most, the lasting image of a typical 1960s living room was an interior of clashing hues and mismatched patterns with a lava lamp thrown in for distraction, she added.

"Many of these popular looks didn't have the staying power, thankfully. Shag carpets, avocado kitchens and bathrooms were some of the worst offenders."

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