Sunday 22 April 2018

The joy of minimalism

When it comes to homewares, Joi Fu and Damien Hannigan truly believe that less is more. Here, Orla Neligan meets the creative duo behind the company bringing a new, pared-back look to irish linen

Linen cushions from 31 Chapel Lane
Linen cushions from 31 Chapel Lane
Joi Fu and Damien Hannigan of 31 Chapel Lane. Photo: Tony Gavin
Linen teatowels from 31 Chapel Lane
Linens from 31 Chapel Lane
Table linens from 31 Chapel Lane
Linen bag from the Market Bag Project and 31 Chapel Lane
Functional: A vase.

'I have a man's wardrobe," laughs Joi Fu who co-owns Irish textile business 31 Chapel Lane with her partner, architect Damien Hannigan. "Two coats, a few tops and three pairs of shoes; it's fairly understated, but I am pretty low key."

Simple, sophisticated and understated seems to be their basic business model, too. 31 Chapel Lane was set up in 2012, its name derived from Damien's hometown of Cootehill in Cavan, and is inspired by a love for clean, unadorned homeware. Using sustainable high quality materials woven in Ireland, the aim is to celebrate the seed of heritage in a non-traditional manner.

According to Joi and Damien, Irish linen has a strong reputation worldwide but there is often an urge to stamp it with 'Irishness'. They prefer to cultivate the country's existing relationship with linen but to put a greater emphasis on the quality of cloth itself than its origin.

From choosing a fabric to manufacturing the end product, the underlying premise is to resist the urge to 'add more'. Whether it is a tea cloth, apron, cushion cover or napkin, their approach to living space and interiors is one of simplicity or 'just enough'.

Taking tea cloths as an example, they are a must in every household yet their appearance can 'accent'. According to Joi, they should be practical first and foremost and complement rather than outdo other products. "Our designs are clean and minimalist but in truth, we love patterns and bright colours, too. They just need careful consideration when being integrated into a home. It would be a shame to have invested in beautiful hand thrown ceramics or cut glass to have them vie for attention over a strongly patterned table cloth."

This subtle, measured approach is characteristic of both Damien and Joi, who admit to working well together to keep the machine oiled.

Damien's experience as an architect means he is very visually orientated. "Good architecture and good tailoring can be found in the junction of materials. How does the wall meet the floor? How does the linen meet the tweed?"

He also handles all the creative direction for the company including branding and web design - and, Joi admits, is adept at tempering her "wobbles".

"I'm very conservative. I have a banking background and so my approach is very mathematical but I can be in the fast lane sometimes and Damien is good at slowing me down. We work well together as we both bring different skills to the table but share a common vision."

Growing up on a farm in Cavan is something to which Damien attributes his burgeoning creative output. His dad would shore fields around the farm exposing blue clay soil, which was then moulded into plates and mugs by Damien and his sister.

Joi, on the other hand, admits to not having much opportunity to explore her creative side as a child growing up in Australia.

"I was very studious and systematic in my thinking so creativity was not my first instinct."

It was only when she founded the textile business that her creative flair developed. "I felt quite inferior when I started out a few years ago, everyone had a design or textile background but I soon realised that running a business requires lots of skills, and Damien has influenced me a lot."

According to Damien, it is Joi's resilience and ability to march onwards despite the odd crisis of confidence that he admires most about her. Running your own business with little or no funding or support is gruelling, says Joi. It pushes you to your limits but seeing customers come back for more makes it all worthwhile.

"I have learnt a lot in the three years I have been here, mainly that you should trust your instinct: there will always be new relationships, partnerships and opportunities, and to rely on what I call an 'unspeakable peace' when making decisions."

They also make a big effort to focus on their own goals and visions. "Comparing yourselves to others steals your joy and creates fear, causing worries."

Their foray into social media last year was one of the most challenging sides to the business. "You are opening yourself up to be judged and that can be difficult." Despite it's challenges they admit social media also plays a seminal role in their daily inspiration. "It's a double-edged sword," laughs Joi who is learning the power of Instagram. "I'm really enjoying it but there's a lot of opinions out there and the sheer quantity of visual references can be both inspiring and stifling."

An honest approach to interiors and style is something they share. Damien's keen architectural eye is quick to decipher the 'fakes', as Joi puts it. "We'll be in a café and I'll point out a nice chair and he will be able to explain that it's plastic covered in a sheet of metal: I've learnt a lot about materials from him, what's real and honest and what's fake. Better to have a solid cork bench than a veneered oak one."

Cootehill is a long way from Hong Kong where they first met. "I really didn't think he'd make the cut," laughs Joi. But six years on and Joi has happily made Ireland her home. After Hong Kong, the wide open spaces and fresh air is a welcome respite to living there, although she's not so keen on Irish TV content and the concept of the 'good room'. "I don't get that," she laughs, "why have a good room nobody uses until you die and your coffin is put in there? Why not have a really good room and enjoy it?" Her favourite room is her living/dining room where she often hosts friends for dinner parties.

Work is an extension of the couple and they admit to finding it hard to relax. "One thing we love to do is have friends over at the weekends for a big meal."

When she is not planning a dinner party, she is collecting ceramics or travelling around Europe on research trips, a prerequisite for this year's new store opening - an exciting new venture that will give the company a real presence. Where it will be, however, she will not tell me.

Like much of 31 Chapel Lane, the location remains 'understated'. "I want to keep it a secret for now," laughs Joi, "but I promise you're going to love it." As someone who has a growing collection of 31 Chapel Lane accessories in my 'good room', I have no doubts.

How to achieve a minimal look in your home without a sterile feel

"When I am about to purchase a piece of furniture or decor I always ask myself is it functional, of good quality and does it add aesthetic value to the home?" Joi says. "That's why I love vases and fresh flowers. A vase is functional; there are lots of great Irish ceramicists so you can always pick up a good quality vase and a nice arrangement always adds aesthetic to your house."

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