Bespoke sofa companies sitting pretty
Furniture factories are tapping into the demand for quality tailoring and a contemporary take on traditional fabrics
'Have you seen the wall of foam?" asks Martin Nolan, foreman at the Finline Furniture Factory. The wall of foam is a loft space, lined from floor to ceiling with different densities of... yes... foam. "There is absolutely no point having the same type of foam on an ottoman as you would on the seat of a chair," he explains. Then he shows me a skeletal sofa frame in solid beech, with a layer of dense foam applied to the arm under a further layer of softer foam. "If you don't have the firmer foam underneath, you'll feel the wood."
The Finline Furniture Factory was established in Emo, Co Laois, by Kieran Finane in 1979 and is now run by his two sons, Killian and Ciarán. It's a proper factory and specialises in making sofas and chairs. The timber frames are fashioned locally, and fabric cutters, sewers and upholsters make the furniture on site. Some of the work is automated - a computerised device impressively cuts fabric on the bias under the instruction of a CAD programme - but much of it still involves skilled craftsmanship.
In the modern age, an Irish furniture factory has become something of a rarity.
Nolan shows me a button-back sofa, prior to the attachment of buttons, with deep holes cut in the foam. Each button must fit in place with the fabric folded around it in such a way that it is no different to any of the other buttons. It's a difficult thing to achieve and has to be done by hand.
"Do you want to try our recliner?," Nolan asks, wiring up a recently finished armchair. Once I've worked out what button to press, the chair reclines like a pro. "The seat is slightly higher than usual. That's what our client wanted, so we adjusted the design." This is the advantage of buying something made in an Irish factory. If you can't find exactly what you want, you can ask them to make it.
Then, there's the tailoring. This year, the best-dressed sofas are wearing tweed and the new collection, Foxford by Finline, is upholstered in a choice of 10 fabrics from Foxford Woollen Mills (prices range from €375 for a stool to €1,875 for a large sofa).
The collection is designed in collaboration with Foxford and Helen McAlinden and it's a glorious combination of traditional and current. The furniture is simple in form, modern but not aggressively so, and the fabrics take the clichés of tweed, like herringbone and glen check, and reinterpret them in a contemporary way.
The herringbone, for example, is super-subtle and comes in colours including white sage, camisole pink, and ducky blue. There's also a sea-green version that has a richness you'd expect from velvet but that is rarely found in tweed. McAlinden has a background in fashion design, and the colours and patterns are comfortable in one another's company. She has also designed a set of co-ordinating cushions and throws in Foxford fabrics (a herringbone cushion in merino wool costs €65).
The collection is a response to the vogue for natural wool fabrics and patterns that connect us to our heritage. It also represents the coming together of two Irish factories. Foxford Woollen Mills was established on the River Moy, Co Mayo, in 1882 by Mother Agnes Morrogh-Bernard of the Sisters of Charity, with the assistance of the Congested Districts Board. The mill brought employment to a part of Ireland devastated by famine, was destroyed by fire in 1908, rose heroically from the ashes and enjoyed many years of successful manufacture until it was scuppered by the 1980s recession.
The mill was saved in 1987 by a group of local professionals who nursed the business back to health and carefully steered it through the most recent downturn. Obviously, there's compromise involved. Foxford's bedlinen, also designed by McAlinden, is made in Europe and sold under the Irish brand, but their tweeds and woollens are woven in Mayo.
If you're passing by Foxford, you can call ahead and book a factory tour that shows the transition from the historical mill to the one that's there today. This is by no means folksy handcraft - it is a modern factory process - but given that so much Irish manufacture was wiped out by one recession or another, the survivors deserve a round of applause.
One of the advantages of the Foxford by Finline collection is that the choices are not exhaustive. There are 12 fabrics in the collection, which should make it simple enough. But if choice is what you want, any of these can be used to upholster any Finline sofa and these can also be customised.
Over the water in England, the sofa brand DFS has discovered what paint companies have been telling us for years: many people like to have their choices narrowed down. The DFS So Simple range, designed for smaller spaces, is based on eight contemporary styles, with five size options and four fabrics (wool look, linen look, leather look or velvet). Each fabric is available in seven colours. This really is colour-by-numbers for sofa design and great fun to play with online.
Here's how it works. First you choose your style of sofa. I select Tom (all the styles have three-letter names and Tom is described as "a retro classic" with "clean industrial lines".) I opted for a three-seater.
Then I dressed him in a linen-look fabric in peacock teal. This version of Tom costs €779. DFS was established in 1969, and its sofas are made in workshops in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. If you're concerned about the environment, the sofas have travelled, but not across the world.
It's always worth thinking about where furniture is made. Michael Murphy Home Furnishing, for example, is an Irish retail brand but not a manufacturer. The first shop opened in Newbridge, Co Kildare, in 1974. Two years later, in 1976, a second shop opened in New Ross, Co Wexford. In 2003, the company expanded and - crucially - survived the recession. The furniture they sell is not necessarily made in Ireland; some of it is, but it's not their selling point. What's interesting about the company is that it's stayed in business all these years. You have to respect longevity.
Foxford by Finline is available at Finline stores in Emo, Co Laois; Longmile Rd, Dublin; Tuam Rd, Galway; and Douglas, Co Cork (see finlinefurniture.ie). See also foxfordwoollenmills.com; dfs.ie; and michaelmurphy.ie