Tuesday 23 October 2018

The wood magician: furniture designer Joseph Walsh

Self-taught furniture designer Joseph Walsh has made huge leaps in the international design scene, yet remains rooted in Ireland and its nature.

Enignum VI canopy bed.
Enignum VI canopy bed.
Lilium II
Enignum Pair
Joseph Walsh and his latest exhibition, Lilium
Lilium 1

Maggie Armstrong

Joseph Walsh is a furniture designer and maker from West Cork. His one-off pieces, each one unique and far-reaching in dimension, seem to belong to another world. The artist, now 35 and internationally watched, leads a team of 15 craftsmen in his converted barn studio in Riverstick, near Kinsale.

We meet on the opening night of his exhibition Lilium, in the Oliver Sears Gallery on Molesworth Street. Two stupendous forms hang from the ceiling and a silken white sofa twists through the space. Joseph, who fancies himself a wordsmith too, coined the word Lilium, combining 'lily' and 'lignum', the Latin word for wood.

Joseph's work is first striking as pure artwork. Only after your eye has followed the ribbons of wood to their conclusion, its function becomes clear. For example, Lilium I resembles a giant bulb with sprawling roots, each strip of wood worked to a paper-thin fineness. Look again, and you realise it's a table. A smooth white seat, sparsely cushioned in lush green velvet, brings to mind peas in a pod. "The idea was a seat that wraps around the user, like finding the perfect branch of a tree," he says.

Born in 1979, Joseph Walsh grew up on a farm in Kinsale in the middle of nine children. The Walshes are an artistic family to reckon with. His mother Miriam made crafts and clothes and his younger sister, Carmel, is a stylist with the Italian fashion magazine Luisa via Roma.

Joseph Walsh has a similar panache, wearing a perfectly fitted tweed suit, but there is something timeless about his boyish looks. Sitting on a step to chat he communicates with his hands rather than with his eyes. Once or twice he leaps up to fix something on one of the curvy blades of wood. A speck of dust? An infinitesimal misalignment? Who could tell.

Remarkably, Walsh is self-taught. He left school aged 12 due to an illness, but says, "I don't like to talk about it. I don't like it to be the main part of the story." The misfortune of missing school brought him into his craft. His grandfather, James Duignan, gave him his first tools and taught him the basics of fret work and joinery. His first finished pieces were a cabinet and a bay window seat. "With developing the making skill and with each technique that I would master I started becoming more ambitious," he says. He speaks in a true West Cork brogue.

Lilium 1
Lilium 1
Enignum VI canopy bed.
Lilium II
Enignum Pair
Joseph Walsh and his latest exhibition, Lilium

Joseph works mainly with ash, an indigenous timber. "In my late teens I was already looking at bent forms, steam bending and laminating," he says. "When I was 16 I came across John Makepeace [a British furniture maker], and that captivated my imagination. I was seeing forms I had never seen before. His work was so wildly new yet so earthy." At 19 he founded his design house. In 2008 he broke the international scene with a solo show in New York.

Though he recoils from personal questions, Joseph Walsh comes alive when discussing the evolution of his work. He speaks of "milestones" with the candour of someone who knows that biographies will be written about him. Asked if he admires Eileen Gray, Ireland's other famous furniture designer, he says her work is "interesting" before adding "I like it". He pauses. "I am often asked if I like Eileen Gray's designs but we only have two things in common: furniture and Ireland."

Joseph can see the appeal of IKEA in today's marketplace. "It's a part of the global cycle at the moment. It's how we access stuff, and the price points appeal to us." In his studio you might pay €150,000 for a dining table, and he recognises the problem of affordability. "The gap between a bespoke piece of furniture and a mass-produced one would be in the thousands."

He says he would not buy something on the highstreet. "Instead I would seek out some fantastic work by designers." He admires Neil and Annabel McCarthy, an Irish couple based in the south of France making "extraordinary lacquered work", and Joris Laarman, another vanguardist in design technology.

For such a prolific and visionary artist, does creativity ever run dry? "By creating work you are creating ideas," he says. "I'm in quite an exciting scene." But where is this scene? He admits it is in London, New York, Milan. Of Ireland, he says "You'd love to see things being more local." He is "sure" today's interest in homegrown food and fashion could translate to an interest in furniture. As the well-heeled guests trickle into the gallery he fixes his apparel and slices away.

Joseph Walsh's Lilium is at the Oliver Sears Gallery, Molesworth Street, Dublin, until November 27; oliversearsgallery.com

Irish Independent

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