Saturday 24 March 2018

Meet the Makers - five cutting edge furniture designers

Our reporter talks to five of the cutting-edge crop of designers creating investment furniture pieces

Furniture maker Cillian O'Suilleabhain pictured in his workshop in Blackrock. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Furniture maker Cillian O'Suilleabhain pictured in his workshop in Blackrock. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Alan Meredith in his studio. Photo: Alf Harvey.
Pemara design
Ciaran McGill, furniture maker. Photo: Declan O'Doherty
Ciaran McGill, furniture maker. Photo: Declan O'Doherty
Cillian OSuilleabhain, COS Furniture. Photo Sylvain Delue
Alan Meredith work. Photo by Roland Paschhoff
Furniture maker Cillian O'Suilleabhain pictured in his workshop in Blackrock. Photo: Gerry Mooney
A piece by lamp Maker Eoin Shanley. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Lamp Maker Eoin Shanley who runs the Copper Fish Studio in Delgany. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Eoin Shanley's work. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Alan Meredith's work in Newpark Comprehensive School. Photo:
Furniture Designer Per Ploug from Pemara Design at his showroom in Churchtown. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Claire O'Mahony

We might be the Ikea generation but in our hearts, we yearn for the bespoke and the beautiful. No matter how accessible and affordable flatpack furniture is - and even taking into account the introduction of jigsaw-like pieces instead of fiddly screws - it can never compete with something underpinned by craftsmanship, skill and tradition.

In fact, interiors experts advise renters to invest in at least one good piece of furniture that will move with you (without falling apart) and bring an instant injection of your own style. Furniture making in Ireland enjoys a long lineage, and makers such as Eileen Gray and Joseph Walsh have been instrumental in raising our global profile. Right now, makers in Ireland are enjoying an increased appreciation of their skills and their creative vision. Irish Design 2015, which showcased over 2,000 designers at home and abroad to more than 1.4million people, through 600 projects, was a definite boost. This summer, House 2017, which takes place in the RDS from May 26-28 (, provides another platform for some 180 visionaries and experts to showcase the lively Irish design and contemporary arts scene. We spoke to five makers participating in the event about their craft and their work processes. 

Cos Furniture

IW GM Furn 9.jpg
Furniture maker Cillian O'Suilleabhain pictured in his workshop in Blackrock. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Engineering graduate Cillian Ó Súilleabháin began his career in design with a two-year apprenticeship as a cabinet maker with Spencer & Woods in Dublin, followed by two years with furniture maker Stephen O'Briain in Carlow. He set up COS Furniture in 2011 and his minimal, geometric designs have been featured in galleries and shows in the UK and Ireland. In 2015, he was named the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland's Future Maker of the Year.

"I had nearly a decade of waywardness, working in restaurants and bookshops and travelling abroad, when I decided to do an apprenticeship. I think there was probably a drive to do something creative, which goes against my background. Engineering was a safe choice. Starting an apprenticeship in cabinet making aged 29 wasn't really.

"My style is minimal, contemporary and pared back, with a lot of geometry. It's very much fuelled by my engineering background and my appreciation of mathematics and physics. From the get-go when I started designing, there wasn't any natural curve; I wasn't going out into the countryside to inspire myself. I think I would certainly design differently if I were taught to be a designer instead of it being tacit learning, in that kind of organic way: of feeling the wood and getting the sense of form in making rather than being told, 'This is good, this is bad, this is what this is.' If I drew something and it fell into a certain style, I didn't know it did, so I had a freedom there. By the same token, I have always enjoyed something like the Bauhaus movement and that quite minimal style where function is one of the core purposes of what they're doing.

"I started out with no name and no brand recognition, so getting into Wallpaper* magazine was huge, as well as ELLE Decoration, who said I was one to watch. Basically, if people weren't going to buy the stuff yet, it was about staying afloat and entering competitions to get grants, just to keep money coming in and taking jobs where I could get them. With the Future Makers programme, not only do you get an award and some money, you also get put into a gallery show every year.

"A huge amount of people appreciate my work but only a small proportion would want it in their house. It's a very particular thing. It's about hitting the right person who really likes it and can afford to buy it - not that it's wildly expensive, but it's thousands rather than hundreds of euro for a piece. I'm always happy to have a chat with someone and there's absolutely no commitment if it doesn't work out. I think a lot of people are scared to make the approach because they think it's going to be outlandishly expensive, but they'll find we're just as competitive as the shops."

Alan Meredith Studio

iwAlan Mer (2).jpg
Alan Meredith in his studio. Photo: Alf Harvey.

Alan Meredith, who is based in Laois, graduated with a master's in architecture in 2015 and opened his workshop and studio in Mountmellick that year. Working mainly with locally sourced oak, his output ranges from small sculptural wood-turned vessels to larger outdoor sculptures and seating. Recent projects include a wooden pergola structure for the gold-winning UCD garden Evolution of Land Plants at Bloom 2016. Last year he was the overall winner of Laois Best Young Entrepreneur, as well as winning in the category of Best Start-Up Business.

"From a young age, I've been making furniture and woodturning. Living on a farm, I took an interest in making things around and that just developed.

"There are challenges working between different disciplines - wood-turning, furniture making and then the installation work, which is on a larger scale and more architectural - but really it's about how I can express the same thing through the different disciplines.

"I mainly work with Irish oak, which is good for using outside because it's very durable. I can make also very fine vessels with it, so it lends itself to that too. I'm using natural chemical reactions to get the colours that I want instead of using dyes - fuming uses ammonia gas that reacts with the oak and turns it a rich, dark brown colour, while ebonising is an iron oxide solution that is applied to the oak and turns the wood black.

iw Newpark Sch.jpg
Alan Meredith's work in Newpark Comprehensive School. Photo:

"My clients are people who are looking for a special piece for their homes or someone who has a particular design challenge and need a solution that's out of the ordinary. One of my projects was in Newpark Comprehensive School in Dublin (above), where there was a lack of seating in the school and they also wanted a piece of public art. I was able to create a public space, which combines, as one, the sculpture, the seating and the landscaping outside the school and design, which is between the realm of what the sculptor might typically do and what the architect would do. It's a space between two disciplines.

"All the briefs I'm working towards have a functional aspect - it's a seat or it's a table - and they're also quite sculptural, so it's about merging those two things together. The functional aspect of a brief tends to be the way into the project and the final outcome is a sculptural representation of that function."

Copper Fish Studio

IW COPPER (15).jpg
Lamp Maker Eoin Shanley who runs the Copper Fish Studio in Delgany. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Having previously worked in the fishing industry - as well as being a professional actor and musician - Eoin Shanley set up Copper Fish Studio in Delgany, Co Wicklow, in 2015. He uses salvaged timber, driftwood, found objects and copper pipes in his lamps and lighting. He also creates bespoke work.

"Fishing is my great passion but I was always involved in the arts as a sideline and I was also always making things. My wife and I restored an 18th-century thatched cottage in Leitrim. I have a great belief in life - there are plenty of things that I can't do but there are very few things I won't try, so when we couldn't find any lights that suited the cottage, I began making them. People started asking, 'Where did you get the lights - can you make me one?' and it took off pretty quickly.

IW COPPER (10).jpg
A piece by lamp Maker Eoin Shanley. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"Some 95pc of the material is salvaged; I use a lot of door frames, fence posts and gates, as well as railway sleepers. I use naked bulbs and I put a huge amount of work into them. Although some are fairly standard Edison bulbs, I work with some very unusual ones too. I call what I do 'synthetic candlelight' - if you had the door to the room open, with the light on, you would think it was candlelight in that room. They are all very low-lumen - you won't be doing open-heart surgery under any of my lights. It's really warm, orange light, and I think it's beautiful. Although people look at my lamps and think they're quite masculine, 90pc of my clients are actually women.

"I'm creating all the time. I'm working with a couple of restaurants at the moment as well as on a copper-pipe chandelier, which, if it's anything like it is in my head, will be incredible. I'm also working with cob, which we used when we restored the cottage in Leitrim, and I'm trying to incorporate that into my work. Cob is straw, lime and sand mixed together, and it's what the pillars in Greece would have been made of. I've also got a bulb being made that's bigger than a soccer ball and I think that will be fairly impressive.

"Often I'll be given some lumps of wood and they're all over the house. There's no real method and this is why no two designs are exactly the same, ever. There's a lot of work involved in it - but it's nice work."

Pemara Design

Furniture Designer Per Ploug from Pemara Design at his showroom in Churchtown. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Originally from Aarhus in Denmark, Per Ploug moved to Ireland in the 1990s and has been working in the furniture industry for over 20 years; his company Danish Kitchen Design creates and installs bespoke kitchens. In 2012, he started Pemara Design, combining his engineering skills and knowledge of interior design to create tables and chairs.

"I came to Ireland in 1991 as an exchange student, doing engineering in DIT Bolton Street, and fell in the love with the country. Shortly after that, I fell in love with a girl [the mosaic artist Laura O'Hagan], married, moved over permanently and started my kitchen business, Danish Kitchen Design. I set up the showroom in 1996, and we have our 21st anniversary this year in the kitchen business.

iw Veizla (2).jpg
Pemara design

"Pemara Design came about when, during 2012, I was sitting and reflecting on clients I'd been dealing with over the years. One thing that struck me was that I might have designed a kitchen and used quite Scandinavian elements with wood incorporated, and people would say, 'Can you recommend where we can find a dining table that would go well with it?' I thought, 'Maybe I can design a nice table.' I doodled on my drawing board and came up with the Veizla table (above), went out to the workshop and made it myself. I thought there might be something here, as a separate entity to the kitchen company.

"We can make the products with any wood available and that's the beauty of the way I've designed it. With Danish furniture design, the lines are very soft and clean; there's a tactility about it and it's quite understated in many ways. Arne Jacobsen [the famous Danish designer and architect] had three words that he would always base his designs: comfort, function and ambience.

"I absolutely love the sitting down and doodling and working on a design. That's exciting. I'm a little bit more product design-orientated in my approach, rather than creating a master craftsman piece. I'm thinking more about creating a line of products, so that there's a coherence and a continuation between the pieces, and you can mix and match them.

I'd like to slowly but surely grow Pemara Design - and maybe one day I'm secretly hoping it will outgrow the kitchen business."

The Veneerist

iw DSCF4575.jpg
Ciaran McGill, furniture maker. Photo: Declan O'Doherty

Ciaran McGill first encountered marquetry - the intricate cutting and assembling of wood veneer into art pieces and decorative panels - at GMIT Letterfrack. It became his passion and, after graduation, he completed a master's in the UK, where he worked for several years. He started his company, The Veneerist, in late 2015 in Co Donegal, and works with high-end makers here and in the UK, creating cabinet doors, wall panels, table tops and corporate gifts.

"In college, one of my first projects was a small marquetry panel, and I found myself amazed by how you could change something so ordinary into something extra-special.

"There's so much potential with it. No two pieces are the same and there's a certain warmth about wood - people relate to it. What I can offer is versatile: it can be anything from a chessboard right up to massive wall panels and internal doors. Some people opt for jewellery.

"The pieces would all have been cut by hand originally and it wasn't until a couple of years ago, when I was over in the UK, that I saw the laser technology, and the new kind of depth and detail it brought to marquetry. People say that laser technology has taken a lot of work out of marquetry, but it's the opposite. Because you can be so accurate with laser, and in such fine detail, you're trying to get the most out of the machine, so at times you're piecing together tiny pieces of veneer, using the tip of a scalpel to pick them up. It's a really intricate art form and it's all down to labour and hours.

"I did an art piece last year, Ladies of the Revolution, inspired by the role that women played in the struggle for Irish freedom, and it took three weeks of programming alone before cutting, assembly and finishing.

"For the House 2017 event, one of my projects is a series of jewellery boxes based on the Russian doll theme, so that they slot inside each other, but it will be my own take on it with a modern twist. I'm also working on a fashion project; a fascinator. That's very exciting because it's an opportunity to do something outside of the box.

"My main plans at the moment are to keep developing the company and, right now, that's through subcontract work for designers and other furniture makers. I want to develop my own name and to get people excited again about marquetry and the extraordinary options that are out there. At the moment, there's nobody really in Ireland competing with what I do.

"A hundred years ago, marquetry was a lot more popular. It kind of went away because it was labour-intensive - but it's making a re-emergence again."

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life