Life Home & Garden

Sunday 24 March 2019

How star TV architect Roisin keeps it real: Read her fail-safe design tips

In the boom years, Roisin Murphy was our first Irish TV architect. Now, she is back and balancing a home make-over show with being an architect and artist. So what does her own house look like? (Hint: not a glass box in sight.) Tanya Sweeney takes a look. Photos by Fergal Phillips

Artist and interior designer Roisin Murphy at home in Drumcondra
Artist and interior designer Roisin Murphy at home in Drumcondra
Artist and interior designer Roisin Murphy's home in Drumcondra

You need only take the briefest of glances around designer/architect/artist Roisin Murphy's Drumcondra home to find understated, yet authentic, flair.

The bright and airy downstairs is home not just to a number of eye-catching artworks, but a number of vintage furniture finds. It's the sort of artfully distressed chic that some people pay thousands for, yet never quite master.

Most of the look, Roisin says, derived from a time when money was in relatively scant supply.

"We did the house up ourselves [16 years ago], applying the rule of 'buy the worst house on a nice street'," she recalls. "It was an awful lot of work. At one point the neighbours came in and, because I was pregnant at the time, they said, 'I don't think this is such a good idea'.

A pared-back staircase and painted floorboards are typical of Roisin’s utilitarian approach.
A pared-back staircase and painted floorboards are typical of Roisin’s utilitarian approach.

"In Provence, me doing up the house would have been romantic. But we had no money - I couldn't even get a mortgage. We had sold a house to buy this one. I was a country girl so I bought a house [in Blackpitts] with my first wage. We moved because I wanted a garden to grow vegetables."

The Victorian terraced house retained many of its charming period features, among them fireplaces and cornice plasterwork. "But then we got the itch halfway through and I felt I couldn't live in a house that was regimented, so we did an intervention and made it more open plan," explains Roisin.

Several of the design accents are bang on the zeitgeist, yet have been in Roisin's possession for years. "I also have this thing about old china," she adds. "That's from my grand aunt - when she died I found her china in the old house and I felt I could never throw it out. So I kept it and found that one little plate was worth €300. I guess everything becomes fashionable and trendy at some point."

What's most striking about Roisin's home is that, despite being fashionable, it bears few of the ubiquitous hallmarks of modern architecture. There's nary a glass box, floor-to-ceiling window, nor kitchen island to be seen.

Roisin spent a fortune on a bespoke freestanding kitchen to fit into her first home, and managed to take that kitchen with her to Drumcondra when her buyers didn't want it. "We kept the kitchen small and that has kept me very edgy about space," admits Roisin. "I occasionally fantasise about a big kitchen, but I think everyone forgets about the cost of running a big house, and the cleaning involved."

Industrial chic may have reached the tipping point in design, but Roisin still loves it as a look.

Roisin Murphy's home
Roisin Murphy's home

"I don't care, I adore it because it's what I grew up with," she explains. "I grew up in a tin house on the edge of the Curragh, where everything was painted industrial grey.

"I think industrial chic is a utilitarian response," she adds. "It's like an artisanal response to a time when you couldn't employ an electrician or you couldn't damp-proof a house. It was also an aesthetic born as a reaction to consumerism. I remember going to Berlin and thinking the whole place looks like our house. Despite its popularity, I've not gone off it."

Suitably enough, Roisin has designed a showhouse for the Permanent TSB Ideal Homes Show in Dublin this month that's 'full of memories'. A nod to her childhood home, the house is made of corrugated tin. "It's not quite industrial, but I was very driven by the Irish aesthetic," she explains. "Into the house is going some mid-century Irish furniture that's very on trend. I have a friend who was an Irish furniture maker in the 1960s, and my godfather produced modern furniture along the quays. I wanted to show these sort of original Irish Mad Men [pieces]."

Many of the pieces from the showhouse are Crannac pieces (a 1960s furniture company from Co Meath), sourced by The Vintage Hub and re-covered in Donegal tweed.

"We're doing it in the Crombie colour [a black-and-white weave] so it is a little industrial," concedes Roisin. "This is a fabric that is more often than not exported to the House of Denmark and New York. These days, we don't manufacture enough of this kind of thing."

With a new series of RTE's Desperate Houses (now re-christened Home Rescue) poised to return to Irish screens, Roisin, as host, has been thinking a lot about space lately. In the home makeover show's previous series, she tackled storage and clutter challenges in many smaller living spaces.

The pared-back staircase and painted floorboards are typical of Roisin’s utilitarian approach.
The pared-back staircase and painted floorboards are typical of Roisin’s utilitarian approach.

"I don't think we have a space problem [in Ireland] yet, but we do have to build up, and build up correctly," Roisin says. "When you visit smaller spaces, I get quite cross that they don't have the same facilities as, say, New York apartments - we don't have communal laundries or communal gyms. We had a girl on the programme who had small children, but no area to hang out washing.

"The next series tackles some very up-to-the-minute, realistic housing dilemmas. Where the likes of Room to Improve or The Great House Revival are a dollop of aspirational, escapist property porn, this is very much a relateable show for the times we live in.

"We have a mother in Cork whose son and entire family are living in her house," she explains. "Another older man needed his house adapted as he gets older, and he is sharing accommodation with his carer in a mutually beneficial relationship.

"To me, this stuff is more interesting because design isn't just about really beautiful house design, it's about making small spaces work."

Roisin hasn't always been preoccupied with the limitations and potential of small spaces. Establishing a highly successful architecture practice in the 1990s after graduating from DIT Bolton Street, she worked in what she called the 'Fertile Crescent'.

During the zenith of the Celtic Tiger, she was the lead interior designer that fashioned and established Brown Thomas into its current location. Where many of her peers emigrated, Roisin stayed put and formulated many iconic spaces in the capital, among them Costume designer clothes shop and Reynard's nightclub.

Artist and interior designer Roisin Murphy's home in Drumcondra.
Artist and interior designer Roisin Murphy's home in Drumcondra.

"The Celtic Tiger was exhausting in terms of aesthetics," says Roisin. "It was hardcore for us as Irish people. I think we are cooler than that. It was a definite time of purchase power and that had an effect on everything we did and chose. Being careful with money was classed as drudgery in a way."

As the public's appetite for property shows grew, so too did Roisin's broadcasting career in tandem with her architecture practice.

Yet in the early noughties, after presenting House Hunters - an RTE show that advised homeowners about potential fixer-uppers - she hung up her professional boots.

"I'd had kids by then and it didn't motivate me any more," she admits. "It was a combination of exhaustion of babies and running your own business. On reflection it was the stupidest decision I made. And I made a few spectacularly stupid decisions in my career.

"We - my husband and I - did a few bits and pieces to keep the wolf from the door. I painted northside tenements for several years and tried to get attention for the dereliction of the old Georgian quarter on the northside, but then I came back into it through art. I started to paint for its own sake, and that developed its own energy," she adds. "For the first time ever, I started working with my hands and I loved it."

On the TV front, she handed the baton to a relative newcomer, Dermot Bannon, in 2004.

"He's a lovely man," Roisin enthuses. "When I decided I wouldn't work in television any more, he was very generous to me about it and referred to me a lot, never making it feel like, 'you're gone'. I think his niceness as an architect says a lot about our profession."

These days, Murphy oscillates between all three professional hats: next up, however is an art project collaboration with her second cousin and glass artist Róisín de Buitléar and women from the Traveller community in November.

Irish architecture and design, Roisin observes, is at a fascinating and critical juncture, and its potential has certainly re-ignited her passion.

"I think the new generation of Irish architects is shockingly good, although I think it has yet to disperse down to grassroots apartment living," she says.

"The Irish have loved building - that's why we built London. The national obsession with land and property is extremely important to us and I don't think that leaves our DNA. But in terms of design, we have things here going on that are so unique to us. I really feel it's finally our time in that respect."

  • The Permanent TSB Ideal Homes Show is on from October 26-29 at the RDS, Dublin. For more information see
  • 'Home Rescue' starts on RTÉ One on Tuesday, October 30, at 8.30pm


  • Clean up —  before you make any decision on your spaces. It needs to be as clean as possible so you can figure things out.
  • Work with scale, but don’t think of a small space as somewhere where you can’t have large furniture or paintings.
  • Keep all your furniture low to the ground, which gives an illusion of space. Likewise, hanging your curtains as high as you can will make a room feel bigger.
  • Invest heavily in a sofa, a dining table and a kitchen. Most people don’t think about spending a lot on a car, but you will have your sofa longer than you’ll ever have a car, and it takes much more of a battering. Do not be afraid to spend on these pieces as much as you would on an engagement ring.
  • A table is a much more important buy than the chairs that go around it. Get the table first, and do not match the chairs to it.
  • At the moment, dusky pink is the new Elephant’s Breath (grey). It’s huge, perhaps coming from the idea that feminists don’t wear pink. It’s a very feminist response to what’s going on in the world.
  • There’s a huge return to Hygge — that notion of cosiness — which is, in fact, a very Irish aesthetic.
  • Try to drink from a handmade cup or plate, where possible. There’s something about drinking and eating from a handmade thing that’s very Irish.
  • Invest heavily in bedding. Bed linen is a small thing you can take from house to house, which is important if you don’t own a home.
  • De-clutter your bedroom — psychologically, it’s really important for your head to have a completely clean bedroom.
  • Never buy a television unit — stick your TV on a nice table or a plank of wood. I cannot stand TV units — it’s an obsessional hate of mine.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life