Sunday 22 July 2018

Sitting pretty: Irish designers wow London with high-quality bespoke furniture

Irish designers wow London with their high-quality bespoke furniture

Notion and Mourne Textiles Frame Chair and Hang Table, Derek Wilson Ceramics bowl, Mourne Textiles Milano Rug
Notion and Mourne Textiles Frame Chair and Hang Table, Derek Wilson Ceramics bowl, Mourne Textiles Milano Rug
Donna Bates 'Ringhaddy' armchair upholstered in Bute tweed
Steven McNamara
Superfolk folding table
Superfolk Creepie Stool

WHEN trying on clothes, I sometimes find a garment that fits so comfortably I don't want to take it off. Even though it doesn't belong to me, the item will instantly have that easy familiarity of a garment I've worn for years.

That's how I feel about the Aran chair. After a few minutes sitting in it I realise I'm not going to be standing up any time soon. The first problem is I'm not meant to be sitting in the chair at all. I'm at the London Design Festival and it's part of Aodh furniture's carefully curated display.

The second problem, the chair (it now feels like my chair) costs around €849. And that's for a plain wooded carver type. You'd probably want at least four of them. It was designed by Garrett O'Hagan of Aodh in collaboration with the Italian designer Alex Gufler and Knut Klimmek, who makes the furniture in his Dublin workshop.

"Creating things that have value and longevity takes time," says O'Hagan. "It took me three years to work out the relationship between the seat and the backrest of the chair."

His pieces are visually simple but refined. "They have that attention to detail that makes you still love them years later. That's the difference between a luxury item with a fashion sensibility and an object that is so obsessively made that every surface is considered and you can see the craftsmanship in the joints."

High prices, he feels, only become a problem when people buy into a brand name and then wonder what they are getting in return.

"Furniture is not fashion. People expect a chair to be the same price as a pair of Nike runners and the only way to achieve that is mass production outside Ireland. I don't want to do that. I love Ireland and I want to make things here, but a small business like ours will never be able to compete with regard to volume and price."

Aodh furniture made a solo appearance at London's Design Junction, but was also part of a wider display by the Design and Craft Council of Ireland (DCCOI) at the trendy trade show known as Tent London, which ran as part of the London Design Festival in late September.

The exhibition 'Ó' took its title from the Irish world meaning 'from' and was part of the year of Irish design known as ID2015. The selection ranged from Aodh's high-end furniture to a playful creepie stool (€22) that you self-assemble with a mallet. It's designed by Benny Mcgennis of Whackpack furniture in Monaghan.

What they have in common is an emphasis on natural materials and handmade pieces with a strong sense of narrative. "I don't think there's an Irish aesthetic or a national style, but all the pieces have a good story behind them," says Alex Milton of ID2015.

"We're trying to build a reputation for Ireland as a place where we care about design, and materials, and making, and we don't see them as separate entities," says Brian McGee of the DCCOI.

On one hand, this can result in a rather crafty-looking display. On the other, it shows continuity with folk tradition that can work well.

The Westport-based company Superfolk has introduced a range of furniture inspired by camping. It includes a folding stool (€240) that is tall and solid enough to use at a dining table.

They also have an oak folding table with a table top that rolls up like a sushi roller when you need to move it. "It's made in a way that feels nice in your hand and will age well," says Gearóid Muldowney of Superfolk.

Steven McNamara, who curated Tent London, describes the excitement of discovering Mullan Lighting, which was established in the border town of Mullan in 2008. "I drove up there and I was pretty sure I was lost, until I found the factory," he says.

"They've pretty much rejuvenated the whole town and they're a breath of fresh air. They're remote, but they're not doing the stereotypical Irish thing and they're selling all over the world."

Other businesses are reinventing themselves from old roots. "Out of the past flows the future - that's what my grandmother use to say, but I didn't really understand that in practice until I started to remake her designs," says Mario Sierra of Mourne Textiles.

His grandmother was the Norwegian textile designer, Gerd Hay-Edie, who moved to Ireland in 1947. Famously, she designed woven textiles for the fashion designer Sybil Connolly in 1956 and upholstery fabric for the celebrated British designer Robin Day around 1952.

Sierra is now working with these designs to create contemporary textiles for the home. "We do adjust the designs, sometimes we make them a little more graphic and contemporary, but that's what my grandmother used to do too. Looking at the archives, we can see the way she used to revisit designs, slightly arranging the yarns and the colours," he says.

The Northern Irish designer Donna Bates has used tweed from Mourne Textiles to upholster her Ringhaddy chair (€1,786). The chair was made in Newry by Orior by Design, and it's a good example of the prevalent direction of Irish design - a bit of tradition, a bit of hand-making, natural materials and clean contemporary lines.

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