Useful and beautiful, sustainable design is about so much more than being environmentally friendly, writes Nathalie Marquez Courtney
Interiors trends are whizzing by at breakneck speeds these days, with high street stores filled with on-trend but almost inevitably disposable 'fast fashion' finds. The term 'investment piece' has come to signify something covetable, luxurious, a treat.
But what if it meant more? What if it meant quality pieces that were made to last and designed mindfully, with consideration of their impact on the environment as well as the design world? That's what sustainable design is all about, and there are many Irish creatives dedicated to making long-lasting products that also have soul.
"For a lot of Irish makers, sustainability is a pivotal part of their design and approach," says Clare Grennan, co-founder of Irish Design Shop (irishdesignshop.com), which stocks a wide range of sustainably-made homewares.
"More and more, our customers are asking how things are made and where they're coming from." As online shopping has soared in popularity, so too has a desire for the personal touch. "Our customers are into the human element of shopping - they come to shops like us for human interaction and to learn about the story behind the product."
These include products like Hanna Van Aelst's beautiful willow baskets - all the willow used is grown and harvested by Hanna in rural Tipperary - and hand-carved wooden bowls by Roy Humphreys, made using native timber such as yew, oak, elm and ash, all sourced from his family farm.
"It's all about the raw materials, be it wood or wool or basketry," says Clare. "There's no embellishment or add-ons."
Another conscious craftsperson creating striking, simple pieces is Kathryn Davey (kathryndavey.com), who adds colour to Irish fabrics using only natural dyes, creating everything from scarves and socks to napkins and aprons. She discovered natural dyeing while living in California.
"They are very progressive, into sustainability and keeping things healthy, for the body and the environment," she says. "That had a strong influence on me."
When she returned to Ireland, she worked to source Irish linen, cotton and wool and find ways to dye them without using synthetic dyes. The materials and the dyes are completely natural, using things like avocado stones and plants, like the root of the Madder plant, to create a soft and ethereal palette.
For furniture-maker Colin Harris (colinharris.ie), working sustainably is at the core of his practice. He hand-picks Irish hardwoods to make bespoke and limited-edition home accessories and furniture. Colin is eager for people to view sustainable design through the lens of "less is more", rather than seeing it as a restriction.
"It's about finding ways to live a simpler, better quality of life," he says. "Sourcing locally from wild materials at their natural end in the landscape is good from a sustainability point of view, but there is more to it than that - there is a beauty in the wild Irish hardwoods that has come from how they grew, with branches occurring naturally and twisting in the sun. This gives them a unique character, with much more variation of patterns, textures and colours than the commercially managed tress that are grown for their uniformity."
He has been heartened by the growing number of small movements away from mass produced, high turnover pieces towards quality, unique, crafted products that tell a story and stand the test of time. "Machines are churning stuff out that is very low cost and has very low value, so they get thrown in the landfill one or two years later," he says. "But it's important to be connected to the story of the material, where it has come from, how it grew and reached its end of life. The more you are connected to an object, the more it resonates with you and becomes something that is passed down to the next generation."
THE ART OF LIVING SIMPLY
- Materials matter Consider the materials used to produce pieces you buy: Where did they come from, have they been sustainably sourced and where will they go to at the end of their life? Look out for materials that are recycled, recyclable and durable.
- Keep it close Wherever possible, try supporting local makers who work with local materials. This isn’t just good for the environment — you’ll also end up with something special and unique.
- Built to last Ask yourself, how long will this last? Longevity is key in sustainable design thinking. High-quality pieces that you genuinely love are much more likely to be cared for and passed down.
- Re-use and recycle Rather than heading out to buy something brand new, shop for secondhand and vintage pieces or get creative with your existing furniture by repairing, re-upholstering or repainting.