Monday 20 November 2017

Interiors: The personal touch of handmade items

It's the imperfections of handmade objects that make them perfect for the home
The Wicker Ceiling Light from HK Living is handmade in the Netherlands
The Wicker Ceiling Light from HK Living is handmade in the Netherlands
Aoife Mullane cushions
Ceramic bowl and a basket from Dunnes Stores' Considered range
Helen James
Wicker Chair from Debenhams

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything.

That's how the light gets in.

Those wise words come from the late great Leonard Cohen. The song was 'Anthem', from the 1992 album, The Future. Cohen was writing about life (rather than interiors), but his insight also applies to the objects we surround ourselves with.

Aoife Mullane cushions
Aoife Mullane cushions

Perfection has its place (there's nothing engaging about an imperfect toilet for example), but you don't want too much of it. A home that is entirely dominated by bright and shining surfaces won't feel friendly or comforting. It's crying out for a bit of texture.

Handmade things are full of texture. The weave of a hand-woven throw is never as regular as one that is machine-loomed. It's the almost imperceptible lumps and bumps that make it individual. Hold a mouth-blown wineglass up to the light and you'll see tiny bubbles within the glass. Even in a set of glasses where the shape is identical, the pattern of bubbles within each glass will always be different. Baskets, or anything that is similarly woven, are a wonderful source of texture and always handmade.

The disadvantage of handmade objects is that they tend to be expensive. Lately, some of the larger retailers have found a way of including elements of hand-making in their ranges. These aren't exactly cheap, but they're not wildly expensive either. The HK Living Wicker Ceiling Light, for example, is made by hand in the Netherlands and costs €160 from Cuckooland. It's woven, like a basket, but there's nothing folksy about the design.

"Texture is a way of adding interest to a room, especially if you have a very simple colour palette," says Helen James, designer of the Considered range for Dunnes. Her Arizona baskets (€20 to €40) are hand-woven in Vietnam from water hyacinth that has been dip-dyed before weaving.

"For me, it's the slight irregularity that makes them beautiful," she says. "I went out to Vietnam last June and I absolutely loved it! Their skills with wood and weaving are amazing."

The baskets have an artisanal quality, as has the Tribeca chair (€195), a Wegner-inspired kitchen chair with a woven seat, which is also made in Vietnam.

Ceramic bowl and a basket from Dunnes Stores' Considered range
Ceramic bowl and a basket from Dunnes Stores' Considered range

Because hand-making is more expensive than mass-production, designing the range was a matter of finding a balance between quality and cost.

"It's about finding that magic spot where you can get that handmade feel and still supply the number of stores that you need to supply," she says.

Hand-thrown ceramics, for example, would be expensive to make and it would be difficult to ensure an appropriate level of consistency. The ceramics in the Considered range are industrially slip-cast, which means that liquid clay is poured into a mould, but glazed by hand. This gives them an individuality that is absent from entirely machine-made pottery.

The forms are pretty much identical, but the surface qualities of every bowl and cup are different. Prices range from €8 for a mug to €45 for a serving bowl.

Another way of introducing texture is by using objects which, while not necessarily handmade, are made of natural materials. The Considered range includes marble-top side tables (€60 to €100) in which the metallic base contrasts with the organic surface of polished stone. "That's where the beauty is," says James. "Each piece has its own slightly different personality - that's what gives soul and life to a space. If everything is shiny and made of glass, it can be very bland."

Because of the cost of production, it's inevitable Irish-made stuff will be more expensive than imports. Of the Helen James Considered range, only the candles are made in Ireland. But if you don't mind paying a little more, there are huge advantages to buying Irish. For a start, there's the feel-good factor of supporting your own. This is not to be underestimated. Buy something in a way that you can believe in and that object will always have a positive association.

On a more pragmatic level, an Irish maker who is prepared to negotiate the design can give you exactly what you want.

Aoife Mullane is a Wicklow-based textile designer whose fabrics combine screen-printing and hand-dyeing with clever use of hand painting and metallics. In January, she was announced the winner of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland Craftsmanship Award at Showcase, a mammoth trade show in the RDS.

"I'm using very traditional textile techniques, but the metallic elements make the pieces look contemporary. They're Irish-made but really cool and different."

Her range includes cushions (€160 to €180), lampshades (€260), and upholstery fabrics (€220 per metre). Even the simplest of her cushions has layers of texture in the weave of the fabric, the organic patterning and the juxtaposition of rough and shiny surfaces.

Because her work isn't available in the shops, her customers get in touch via her website and have a chat about what they want and where they want to put it. "Each of my pieces is designed with a particular space in mind," she says. "You can't walk into a shop and see it there."

Most people place an order for several pieces, but she's also open to those in search of individual items. "If you can only afford one cushion, it's great to have a nice one!"

That's the kind of flexibility you'd expect from an Irish maker. In business, as in design, you need a few cracks to let the light get in.

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