'Designing furniture is like composing music," said Brendan Dunne, furniture maker and musician. "You must bring to each a sense of rhythm and line and good workmanship." Irish mid-century modern furniture is thin on the ground.
Look through the catalogue of any mid-century modern auction in the country and you'll find few, if any, Irish pieces. But there were a handful of people designing and making Scandinavian-inspired furniture in 1950s and 1960s Ireland. One of these was Brendan Dunne.
Overlooked for decades, Dunne is now back on the design radar. There's a whole room at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, devoted to his furniture amid general atmosphere of rediscovery. "He's one of the best Irish designers you've never heard of," says Geoff Kirk, who sourced the collection for the museum.
Dunne, who trained as a classical musician, often referenced music in the naming of his work. His A Minor dressing table is one of his most elegant pieces. "It stands up against most designs that were around at the time," says Kirk. "In good condition, one of those could be worth between €1,200 and €1,500."
The museum collection shows Dunne at his elegant best, but not all his furniture was of the same standard. "There's a fair bit of it around," says Kirk, "but not all of it is nice. The good pieces are rare. He did an awful lot of jobbing woodwork - I suppose he had to make ends meet - and he seemed to operate on a couple of levels. He made sturdy furniture for the locals and a few really beautiful bespoke pieces. The nicely designed furniture seems to have been made for special orders and you don't come across it that often."
An unsigned hall table or coffee table is worth about €120 and an unrestored chair, between €200 and €300. Once restored, a Brendan Dunne chair will sell for between €600 and €700.
Dunne abandoned his musical career to become a furniture maker. In 1951, he set up a large factory and workshop on Dublin's Merrion Row. His business partner was Michael McMullin (1916-2012), music critic for The Irish Times and "an outspoken virulent critic of the official musical establishment". He was probably fairly critical of the furniture establishment too.
By this time, McMullin had already visited Sweden and Finland - he was a fan of Sibelius - and must have seen what Scandinavian furniture designers were up to. He may have encouraged Dunne in that direction.
Dunne's furniture was in line with what was happening in northern European furniture design, but very far from the Irish norm. The Irish buying public preferred old reliable copies of 19th century styles, and the furniture industry complied. "If there was a demand for that sort of stuff, we'd stock it," an Irish furniture manufacturer told a reporter from The Irish Times in 1953.
"Don't blame us for those depressing little furniture suites, blame the public taste." Eight years later, the Scandinavian Design Group's famous report on Irish design concurred: "In the stores, we are told, it is more difficult to sell contemporary furniture than period furniture, despite the fact that the reproduction of the old forms is without any understanding of the original work."
Despite this, Dunne's work seems to have been popular. His factory was tremendously busy and employed 24 workers.
One of these, Sidney Baldwin, was a former member of the Royal Corps of Signals in the British Army. He met an Irish lass and came to live in Dublin where Dunne employed him as a delivery driver and presumably offered him a discount on some furniture.
When his house was cleared, following Baldwin's death in 2017, Katharine Deas of Oriana B went to have a look. "He furnished his house entirely from his workplace," she said.
"By the time I arrived, a lot of the furniture was already sold. A suite was left - it was absolutely knackered and needed a lot of work, but I loved it enough to buy it. It still had its original brass feet!"
These were the bread-and-butter pieces (the suites in the National Museum are the icing on the cake), but still recognisable as Brendan Dunne designs, and a little snapshot of an unusual chapter in Irish design history.
See museum.ie, kirkmodern.com and orianab.com.