Tuesday 25 June 2019

The art of design: Artist John Graham's newly renovated home

Artist John Graham counts some of Irelands most high-profile architects among his fans, so of course he hired architects when he wanted to renovate his home. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Artist John Graham in the eating area of his extension. The walls are concrete, as is the floor. The chairs are by Arne Jacobsen. Frankie the whippet is his daughter Rachel’s dog, but John is a big fan
Artist John Graham in the eating area of his extension. The walls are concrete, as is the floor. The chairs are by Arne Jacobsen. Frankie the whippet is his daughter Rachel’s dog, but John is a big fan
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Mary O'Sullivan

Over the years these pages have featured a wide variety of houses, including restored buildings that started life as stables, barns or even cow sheds, and were transformed into comfortable, often elegant homes. This week, however, is something of a first, where the home owners actually wanted to incorporate into an extension a particular element, and it turned out this element was sourced from manufacturers of farm buildings, specifically pig sheds.

The extension was designed by architect Dominic Stevens, but it was always a collaborative process between him and the home owners, artist John Graham and his wife Yvonne, a university administrator. "One of the first things we identified was a fondness for concrete. Yvonne mentioned she like the concrete fence posts that you see all over Ireland, she was trying to convey that she liked things that looked utilitarian, and the moulded-concrete fence post was a symbol of that", John explains.

"The walls of this extension were based specifically on the idea of the concrete fence post," he adds, "and were made by a company who made floors for pig sheds, because pig sheds have concrete slatted floors, so that company made these to our specifications."

Of course, there isn't a hint of a pig shed about the extension, which is beautifully designed and tastefully decorated. It's low key and mimimalist, which is their style, as can seen from the rest of the house. It's comfortably furnished but there's little ornamentation, save for stunning examples of John's work, which is mainly monochrome. "I'm afraid I've been accused of not understanding colour," he says with a laugh, modestly omitting to mention that his work is highly prized.

From Finglas originally, John says he came late to art. After taking night classes in his mid 20s, he realised he wanted to pursue it as a profession and enrolled in NCAD. "I did fine art and realized that print-making gripped my imagination and I focused on it. I graduated at the age of 31. Two weeks before graduation, our daughter Rachel was born. While my peers were doing residencies abroad I was dealing with the responsibilities of having a new child," John notes with a laugh.

The writer Cyril Connolly may have said that there is no greater enemy of creativity than the pram in the hall, but it didn't have an adverse effect on John's work. Soon after graduation, Jerome O'Driscoll of the Green on Red Gallery identified him as one to watch, and starting with an exhibition in 1995, John and he have had a professional relationship ever since. John also joined the Graphic Studio Dublin.

"It was the only place graphic artists could go to make print works. I worked there consistently for 10 years. When I'm making prints I work in the Black Church Print studios now, but the Graphic Studio enabled me to develop as an artist," he recalls with gratitude.

He also has strong links with important Japanese galleries going back almost 20 years. "In 1995, a Japanese gallerist, Yanagisawa Toshiaki, came to Dublin and saw my work and that turned out to be the start of another long-term relationship. I had my first exhibition there in '97 and I've been back many times since," he notes. Over the years John forged links with another Japanese gallerist, Kawaguchi Yoshinori, and also with Maesaki Taesaki, a calligraphy master. John's work is quite calligraphic, and he and Maesaki San became friends and exhibited together in Fukuoka. "It was in the Across museum, and it was a big deal," John says. "Yvonne and Rachel really love Japan. We all went last year, stayed in a Buddhist monastery, and visited a lot of temples" he enthuses.

Their whippet Frankie remained at home, but was missed. "The charm and the mystery of a dog cannot be resisted," John notes eloquently, adding that "if you have an animal in your household you become closer to that mystery."

John also lectures in print-making in Sligo IT, which he enjoys, but, of course, what he enjoys most of all is creating his own work. Over the years he has counted high-profile architects among his clients; these include Ronnie Tallon of Scott Tallon Walker and also O'Donnell + Tuomey Architects, who've just won the 2015 Royal Gold Medal. "There's a big synergy between artists and architects" John notes, and in turn, when it came to making changes to the home he and Yvonne share with Rachel, who's studying philosophy and English literature at Trinity, and, of course, Frankie, they commissioned architects whose work they admire. They used Dominic Stevens for the extension to the kitchen and Maxim Laroussi for the studio at the end of the garden, both of which spaces were open to the public yesterday as part of Open House, run by the Irish Architecture foundation.

The house, which dates from 1936, was special in itself. Its design was influenced by the art deco style, with its higher than average ceilings, its architraves and stained-glass feaures. "We didn't want to interfere with the existing house, we wanted to complement it," John says. "Dominic had great clarity of vision and what he did was physically stitch the old and new together with different elements." One of these elements is a steel bench, which runs from the extension into the old house. "It became the line that knits all the areas," John explains.

In addition, the architect opened up the interior to the outside, with expanses of glass overlooking the garden and overhead, along the length of the structure, and he adhered to the couple's desire for a utilitarian look and feel to the space. The floor is concrete, as well as the walls, while galvanised steel tubing over the cooker contains the extractor fan. So, a resounding success and a relatively painless process.

Then what John calls "the great folly of commissioning a studio" began. He first got the idea for the studio in 2007, and it took the best part of four years to build, due to problems with builders, which proved stressful from a family point of view. However the finished product, which was designed by Maxim Laroussi, is very beautiful, with imaginative use of concrete and glass; but John has reservations. He was mostly doing video when the studio was designed, now he's back to drawing and making prints and it isn't easy to adapt the studio to the different processes.

"A studio is a building that needs to accommodate change to enable creativity. My fundamental mistake was making the studio more like an artwork itself rather than a place to make art. I compromised on utility in favour of the artistic idea," he says. "I wasn't wise, I don't blame the architect. He became a friend, it was a friendship forged in adversity, we shared a lot of suffering," John explains with a Zen-like calm.

All that time in Japan has paid off in more ways than one.

Open House Dublin continues today.

For details of buildings on view, see openhousedublin.com

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