Monday 16 September 2019

The time machine

 

Graphic designer Neil Gurry and fashion designer/visual artist Karen Brennan in their living area. The apartment was a shell apart from the fabulous big windows which afford views of the Arc de Triomphe and the Sacre Coeur. With the help of their architect, they decided on the layout of the space
Graphic designer Neil Gurry and fashion designer/visual artist Karen Brennan in their living area. The apartment was a shell apart from the fabulous big windows which afford views of the Arc de Triomphe and the Sacre Coeur. With the help of their architect, they decided on the layout of the space
A large part of the big open-plan space in Neil Gurry and Karen Brennan's apartment is devoted to the kitchen. Both love to cook, and manage to work around the profusion of clocks and other artefacts
The dining area is furnished with a Saarinen table and chairs. Having lived in Milan when they first emigrated from Ireland, they love Italian design
A well as clocks, the apartment walls are decorated with lots of artworks, some by friends of Neil and Karen and some by Karen herself, who has started painting in recent years. She did the two portraits of John Joe when he was younger

A lot of things have changed in the modern home over the last 20 years, and most changes have been remarked upon many times; the addition of the glass box, the popularity of the colour grey, the disappearance of handles from kitchen units, to name but three - but few have noted the absence of the household clock.

A one-time staple of every kitchen and drawing room, it has virtually disappeared. However, one place the clock is alive and well and ticking loudly is in the Paris home of the Gurry family - every surface, even the kitchen island, seems to be covered in clocks of all types, and one would be forgiven for thinking that it's the family business. Instead, it's the passion of teenager John Joe, who became something of a YouTube sensation some years ago when he appeared on The Late Late Show with his clocks. "He was about eight at the time," says his proud father, Neil Gurry, "It was very cute. He had a nice little chat with Ryan, and we didn't think anything of it. And then the next day, on the internet, it was, you know, 'I want John Joe to fix my clock'. He had more hits on The Late Late Show site than Tom Cruise."

In the midst of the profusion of clocks, there's an eclectic selection of artworks, and this is where Neil, and his partner, Karen Brennan, parents of John Joe, get to express their passion. Both trained in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin in the late 1980s, and both have worked in the creative sphere ever since - Karen in fashion, and more recently as a visual artist; and Neil as a graphic artist.

A freelance designer, Neil designs brochures and catalogues for prestigious Parisian institutions, including the Pompidou Centre and the Philharmonie de Paris. The couple met at college - Karen is from Roscommon, and Neil grew up in Dublin - and when they qualified, they almost immediately headed abroad. "Karen had qualified as a fashion designer and there wasn't much work for fashion designers at the time," says Neil, "I did visual communications. I could probably have got a little job in an ad agency or something, but, you know, we had aspirations as well. We were looking very much outside of Ireland for what was happening in London or New York and other places."

A large part of the big open-plan space in Neil Gurry and Karen Brennan's apartment is devoted to the kitchen. Both love to cook, and manage to work around the profusion of clocks and other artefacts
A large part of the big open-plan space in Neil Gurry and Karen Brennan's apartment is devoted to the kitchen. Both love to cook, and manage to work around the profusion of clocks and other artefacts

Karen had identified a designer she wanted to work with in Milan - Romeo Gigli - and so they headed off. It was a brave thing to do; they didn't really know anything about Italy, nor did they have any Italian. "We were babies," says Neil. "We didn't know what we were doing; we didn't speak the language; we were completely naive."

However, it worked out well. Amazingly Karen did get to work with Gigli, though it took time and perseverance. That led to one of the most coveted jobs in fashion - one of the head designers at Prada, designing the Miu Miu line. Meanwhile, Neil got work with one of the main designers in Milan. "The company I worked with used to do a lot of exhibition work. One of my first projects was an exhibition of Fiat in London. And then we did another one for Ferrari in Florence," Neil recalls.

After four years, while Karen stayed on in Italy, Neil decided to move to Amsterdam. "We hadn't broken up or anything, I just sort of felt that there were more interesting things happening outside of Italy than what I was doing there. [I was] just naive and ambitious and happy to try new things," he says.

That particular move didn't work out, and after nine months, Neil moved to Paris and immediately got work as an art director at an advertising agency there; this led to regular work with the Pompidou Centre. "They had to hire a graphic designer for an American artist that they were doing a show for. That was my first break into freelance work on art-based things. So I work quite a bit with them and other museums and galleries," he says, adding, "Each project brings its own challenges. I get to work with a curator who knows the subject back to front - it's almost like having a lesson in the subject, as well as, at the same time, trying to find a solution for how to present it. I'm really lucky."

Though Neil has, over the last 26 years, become a fluent French speaker, he's obviously sought after for catalogues for English-language artists, and his next project with the Pompidou is a big retrospective of Francis Bacon's work in autumn 2019. His other big client is the Philharmonie de Paris, a huge classical venue, with enormous audiences at every performance. Neil does the graphics on their seasonal programmes. "That's really intense, because they put together their program of events for the year that's coming up. So it's constantly changing," Neil explains. "Somebody pulls out and you have to replace that, and the whole layout moves."

For the first few years of Neil's life in Paris, Karen remained in Milan and the couple commuted. "We'd sort of see each other every two weeks. So we managed to keep the flame alive, and then she got work here, which was good," he says.

The dining area is furnished with a Saarinen table and chairs. Having lived in Milan when they first emigrated from Ireland, they love Italian design
The dining area is furnished with a Saarinen table and chairs. Having lived in Milan when they first emigrated from Ireland, they love Italian design

Karen joined Neil in Paris when she was headhunted by a wealthy Japanese fashion company; she was giving up a hugely coveted job at Prada, but it didn't phase her. "The Japanese job was really good; it was well paid and super interesting. Karen never wanted to be star designer, she was more attracted by the project than the names, really," Neil says.

When John Joe was born, Karen decided to take a break from work. John Joe has cerebral palsy and was born with a physical disability; these days, the 17-year-old is a typical teenager - apart from his clock fixation - and is studying for his baccalaureat. "He's an extraordinary individual; he doesn't complain. There are obviously limitations to what he can do, but he's done remarkably well through it all," Neil notes, adding, "He's totally bilingual and bi-cultural as well. I think John Joe feels Irish when he's with us in the apartment, but when he goes out, he's a French kid like the other French kids."

Neil and Karen's apartment is in Belleville, very near the centre of Paris. With a community of Arabs, Africans, Asians and some French people, it's a real melting pot, which is one of the things Neil loves about it. The couple bought it about 15 years ago. "We bought it because of the boom at home. Everyone was like, 'You have to buy, it's so cheap in Paris, you have to buy'," he says, adding, "Luckily, we did. I think Paris was undervalued in a way, for a European capital."

The apartment is in a building, built, interestingly enough, by a horologist (a maker of clocks or watches). It was originally a factory dating from 1915, and it still retains many of the structural elements, including the metal beams. When Karen and Neil bought it, it was a shell, and they found an architect to divide it up and help them create a home. "He and his colleagues had the patience of saints, because we went into every little detail. We'd have a meeting that took about four hours and all we'd talk about would be skirting boards," Neil says with a laugh, adding, "They were really good."

The apartment consists of a huge open-plan living/dining/kitchen space, with enormous windows allowing views of Sacre Coeur and the Arc de Triomphe. Behind that are two bedrooms, complete with expansive windows, and two bathrooms. There's also a mezzanine which doubles as a guest room/office/stuff room; John Joe isn't the only one who likes to collect. "We're artists and I think we just like having things. So when we see things, we buy them, and then not know how we're going to store them," the genial Neil says with a laugh.

Fortunately, canny John Joe knows there's no real future in clocks; he plans to become an auctioneer, so auctioning off everything eventually could become a solution.

A well as clocks, the apartment walls are decorated with lots of artworks, some by friends of Neil and Karen and some by Karen herself, who has started painting in recent years. She did the two portraits of John Joe when he was younger
A well as clocks, the apartment walls are decorated with lots of artworks, some by friends of Neil and Karen and some by Karen herself, who has started painting in recent years. She did the two portraits of John Joe when he was younger

See neilgurryworks.com

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan

Photography by Tony Gavin

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Life