Thirty-something interior designer David O’Brien has a delightful home in Cork. It’s a contemporary house that’s furnished in an eclectic style honed over three decades and was a finalist in last year’s Home of the Year
Cork people love Cork. Arguably more than people from any other county love their home place, Cork people are just fiercely proud of Cork.
Interior designer David O’Brien is no different.
He worked in exciting cities such as London and Toronto and has travelled extensively but is thrilled to be back living in Cork, back actually in the very area — Ballygarvan — where he grew up.
He has a beautiful new home there and he loves the fact that while it’s in the countryside, it’s only 12 minutes from the city centre, three minutes from the airport and 20 minutes from the sea. In fact, when pushed, he can only think of one negative thing to say about Cork and that’s the fact that it doesn’t have an Ikea.
He quickly adds that it has lots of interiors stores including HomeSense and, as it turns out, David, who is an interior designer, doesn’t have much need for Ikea anyway. In fact, in his own home there is only one small lamp from the Swedish giant; almost everything is vintage or antique.
He has a brilliant eye and trawls all the online sites — Adverts, DoneDeal, Facebook Marketplace — and finds pieces like his stunning leather chesterfield couch, his 400-year-old coffer chests, his mid-century-modern dining table and chairs.
“I look at all the websites once a week at least, it is really addictive, I love the thrill of the find,” he says, adding with a laugh, “I’m a treasure hunter.” He adds that he prefers to restore rather than upcycle his treasures. This often means sanding and French polishing and lots of elbow grease, but it’s worth it for the result.
He’s been interested in antiques, art and old things in general since he was a child and even started buying pieces he liked back then. “Growing up, I was a little bit odd, in ways. When I was a teenager, I had a job in a petrol station and I saved the money and bought my first piece of art then,” David says, pointing out the painting of cows by Ardmore artist Brigid Shelly that hangs in his open-plan living dining room — “She was very encouraging, and gave me a great discount”.
His family were all aware of his boyhood interest and another piece in the house is a Victorian settle, gifted to him by his eldest brother, Aiden, for his 15th birthday. For his 17th birthday, the same brother gave David two original second-class menus from the Titanic; there’s a 15 -year gap between the two but they share a love of antiques and Aiden runs a café/antique shop called The Workshop.
“I went to my first antique auction with Aiden when I was seven and I became hooked then. I loved the history of the pieces; as a child, I loved to imagine the story behind a piece and if I didn’t know it, I made one up. Like the Irish settle, I’d wonder what sort of family had it, and how many children slept on it.”
David is the youngest of a family of five — “I’d say I was a mistake, there’s five years between me and my next brother,” he jokes. His late father, who, as it happens, was also interested in antiques, had a building company, RJ O’Brien Building Contractors, working mainly in the commercial sector. Initially David had no thought of going into the family business; instead, he went to university and did a master’s in medieval and Renaissance literature.
“I’d love to have been a carpenter but at school there was a real push to go on to third level. I’ve no regrets, it was a great education and I learned a lot of great life lessons but there wasn’t the respect there should have been for the trades.”
After university, he travelled for two-and-a-half years before coming back to Ballygarvan in 2013 and, with brother Aiden, he set up a business selling antiques. “We set up The Workshop in my father’s old workshop, a tea room/coffee shop with antiques for sale. Every piece of furniture in the coffee shop was for sale, down to the seat you’d be sitting in.”
However, while he loved the antiques side of The Workshop, he realised that his real passion was interior design, so he went back and did a course in the subject. As luck would have it, his brother John, an engineer, who is now the MD of RJ O’Brien, had started to diversify into more residential work and he asked David to join him in 2019.
While Aiden still runs The Workshop, David is now the interior designer/project manager in the family firm. “John wanted to create what you might call a one-stop-shop to take the stress out of renovating or extending a home for the home owner — they’d come to us for the initial design, we’d build it and do the interior design as well. We do a lot of small extensions and home renovations.
“I love doing projects with clients, starting with a concept and selling that idea to the client. I like them to create a mood board of what they like and then I come up with a cohesive design, a sense of continuity throughout. I really enjoy it; I think I’ve found my thing,” he says, adding that he has no problem working with family. “It’s interesting I went from one family business to the other; we’re all very close.”
He doesn’t work exclusively with RJ O’Brien; he can be outsourced by the company to other businesses, including to architects. “I work with a lot of architects, I try to consider all elements — how I can bring in the wow factor and yet take care of the practicalities,” he says, adding that the pandemic led to a lot of Zoom work and while he loves to meet clients in person, Zoom means he can work with clients and architects all over the country. “And on Zoom you can really concentrate on the plans you’re showing them and get their feedback.”
He worked with an architect on his own home, too; the plot was part of a parcel of seven acres of land which had been bequeathed to his mother, Teresa; his three other siblings — John, Declan and Caitriona — also built on the land, while Aiden chose to live by the sea. David got planning permission in 2016 and the build took two years; he moved in in 2019.
“It was a slow build, mainly because of budget,” he notes, adding that he had to get stuck in and do a lot of the work himself.
He employed CEA Architects in Midleton and, to start with, brought a mood board of what he liked to them. “Looking back, there was a real Scandinavian/Icelandic/New Zealand vibe to the mood board. In Iceland, a lot of houses are made of corrugated steel, as mine is. And all the houses on my board were black. I think, as a colour, it sits well in the landscape. I wanted a vernacular feel to the exterior as well, for it to look like a barn. Or even an air hangar because of the link to the airport.”
The sun and light were key elements of the design and it’s positioned in such a way that it gets the morning sun in the kitchen and the sun travels around to the side, ending in the dining area, which opens on to his courtyard. Adding to the light are the many skylights, windows and glass doors — there are three sets of glass doors in the open-plan kitchen/living /dining room. “It’s quite beautiful the way the sunlight can land on different pieces and bring them to life.”
There are also different heights within this open-plan area — a vaulted ceiling in the kitchen/living area, while the dining area has a lower ceiling with a large skylight. “One of the things I love about this space is there are lots of conversation areas, it’s great for entertaining.” There are also three bedrooms, an office and three bathrooms
Another important element is the polished-concrete flooring, which lies over underfloor heating and which is beautifully softened by his furnishings, including many pieces made of warm woods, such as walnut. “I have mainly white walls and concrete flooring and it should be cold, but I think old woods add huge warmth.”
One of the most remarkable pieces is the grand piano, which David uses as the kitchen island — people may remember it from TV show Home of the Year last year, when David’s house was one of the finalists.
“I got it at auction. I thought it was so beautiful yet no one else was bidding and I got it for €500. I loved the craftsmanship and the wood — rosewood — and I wondered how could I repurpose it for a modern home, rather than it sitting in a corner.
“So I got toughened glass put on top and turned it into the island. I also got it restored, the piano company said there was very little wrong with it and it can still hold a tune, so it’s great for a party.”
Making it further earn its space, David got the piano wired and put LED lighting under its base so it also acts as a lamp. “Often, it’s the only light I turn on.”
The kitchen itself is quite basic but one hardly notices the units painted in Railings by Farrow & Ball — there are so many interesting pieces there on which to focus. “I think kitchens should blend into the background and shouldn’t be in focus when not in use. I think the things there should be beautiful and have sentimentality.
“When you’re doing the dishes or the mundane things in your day, you should have things that bring you back to your past or your travels.
A huge part of the atmosphere in the house is provided by the plants. “In large places like this, with hard surfaces like polished concrete, you can have an echo, so they are great sound absorbers.”
However, David says there are many other advantages to a collection of plants. “They are living pieces of art, and so cheap. If you were to buy a sculpture the size of some of my plants, they could cost thousands of euro whereas a nice fern can be €50 to €100 and they’re ever-changing, always moving and rustling.”
His first plant — a papyrus — was free on DoneDeal, and from there he branched out into other varieties. “I love ferns; they are my absolute favourite. I’d say I have 120 plants in total at this stage. You have to look after them, so there’s an element where you become proud of them and they can be addictive. I set my alarm, every Thursday evening at 7pm, to water them. It only takes 30 minutes. It’s very good for mental health.”
David goes on to talk about biophilic design — the connection between nature, the outdoors and the indoors — and recently he has started looking after his own outdoors, bringing his unique perspective to the courtyard. He has used organ pipes bought on DoneDeal to create a screen and furnished the space with pieces from HomeSense, part of the TK Maxx family, which he says is terrific for homewares.
In the house, between the various woods and the plants, there is plenty of warmth, while pops of colour are added with rugs and art, much of which David does himself — he paints landscapes and abstract art.
Above all, there is an organic, unenforced quality about his interior, everything is there because he loves it and everything has a story; it’s an unusual mix of vintage, antique and contemporary.
A bit like Cork itself.