Inside designer Helen McAlinden's Victorian three-storey home facing onto the sea
Designer Helen McAlinden has come together with two other Irish companies in a sofa collaboration, and the combination of her design, and their fabrics and frames, has resulted in on-trend pieces fit for all houses, including Helen’s
One often hears of young people going to far-flung places such as Australia and meeting their spouses, who just happen to have grown up around the corner from them back in Roscommon, or whatever county they hailed from.
In a business twist on that phenomenon, designer Helen McAlinden and Foxford Fabrics took a stand at an international design fair in Italy in a bid to find a partner in a possible furniture collaboration, and ended up with Finline from Portlaoise. "I designed a range of furniture fabrics for Foxford, and Joe Queenan of Foxford decided to show them at this very upmarket fair in Como, Italy," explains Helen. "We got a relatively good reaction, but the most positive reaction was from Ciaran Finane of Finline. He loved Foxford's warm wool fabrics, they're very on-trend now in furniture styles. That was last June, and already there's a range of Finline sofas covered in Foxford fabrics of my design," the softly spoken brunette says. "It's very exciting for me. Anything new is always good."
As Helen says, collaboration is the name of the game these days, and this alliance is a particularly vibrant one. Foxford is a household name - back in the day, everyone's granny had a Foxford dressing gown, and since those days, they've considerably broadened their appeal with scarves, throws and blankets.
Finline has a great reputation for excellent sofas, and of course Helen herself is an award-winning fashion designer, one of the few to have weathered the downturn; she has her own fashion shop at 20 South William Street in Dublin 2.
Helen has survived because her collection always combines good design, classic, sophisticated style, and possibly most importantly, fine fabrics.
For Belfast woman Helen, it all started with fabrics and textile design, although it nearly didn't happen at all. "I was always into design. I planned to go to art college and had been accepted, but to get a few weekends away, I applied to a few universities as well," she says, laughing.
"For some freak reason, I got good A-levels in English - which is strange, given I'm dyslexic - and the nuns rang my mother and said I had to go to university, so I did. I did my primary degree in English at Ulster. When I graduated, I went back to do what I always wanted to do, and did a post-grad in textiles in Manchester."
She followed that up with graduate trainee experience in Marks and Spencer and Courtaulds in England, before taking up a job with Coras Trachtala (now Enterprise Ireland) in Dublin.
"I was there less than three years, and then I went out on my own. I didn't want to work in a semi-state forever. I was mad - the arrogance and exuberance of youth," she says, adding, "I was ill-equipped, I hadn't a clue; I didn't know what a balance sheet was."
She really only intended to work as a freelance designer and to do so for several companies, but through a series of events she ended up taking over a fashion company almost unintentionally.
But it all turned out fine; Helen started trading under her own name in 2001 and has her own shop. She also sells in the Design Centre and Arnotts, and has a stylish website.
"I don't think online is going to take over from retail, you will always need bricks and mortar, but online is important. I think retail is more niche, people want style, an edited collection, a point of view, something a little bit unique," she says.
"Unique doesn't mean things have to have bells and whistles, and my clothes certainly don't. I have a minimalist aesthetic, but people don't want to be walking around in what everybody saw for €9.99 on the high street."
Part of Helen's survival has been because of her collaboration with Foxford, which started 15 years ago. As well as extensive travel abroad to keep up with international trends, she also travels to Mayo regularly.
"Foxford is a very interesting story," Helen says. "It was started in 1892 by the nuns to give employment in the west of Ireland. The nuns got fed up in the late 1970s, and Joe Queenan was sent in as part of the liquidation team. He fell in love with the company, and the rest is history. He transformed what Foxford is about. There are two sides to the business - a tourist side comprising rugs and scarves, and then there's a coordinated range of bed linen and throws."
And now there's the sofa side.
"Finline is also an interesting business. It's a family firm started in the late 1970s. It's now run by the second generation, two brothers in their 30s - Ciaran and Kilian. Finline would be well known for very traditional-style sofas. The brothers wanted to bring things more on-trend with the new range," Helen says.
Helen is delighted with the result, which can be seen in her own home, a gorgeous Victorian three-storey terraced house facing the sea in south Co Dublin.
The terrace was originally built in the mid 19th Century as holiday homes for the British military. Helen and her husband bought their house in the late 1980s. When they separated some years ago, Helen opted to keep it on.
"I have to give my ex-husband credit for the location. He is from Dungarvan and he wanted to be beside the sea," she volunteers, adding, "When we first saw it, I thought, 'Oh my god, how can we live here?' It was a total mess; it had to be reroofed. I remember coming in and seeing up to the sky. It had every kind of rot, and no central heating. It was in several apartments, but we put it back into one house."
And of course they were lucky in that it included lovely high ceilings, mouldings and original mantlepieces. In the early days, Helen used the basement as a studio, then it became her mother's home until she passed away.
When Helen and her ex-husband bought the house, they did the essential repairs, but it's only in the last two years that Helen got around to doing jobs she had always wanted to do, including opening up the two elegant reception rooms and putting dividing doors between them.
She's also extended the kitchen area for the first time, put in a lot of glass with views to her compact back garden, and she got new units.
"I googled 'modern kitchen' and up came Evoke Kitchens in Waterford, and they were very good, so helpful," she notes. She also put in the new bathroom she had always coveted, complete with a roll-top bath.
Apart from the basement, the house comprises the two elegant reception rooms at ground-floor level, the kitchen, the bathroom on the return, and two large rooms on the first floor - one is a bedroom, and the other is sometimes a bedroom and sometimes a living room. "For such a large house, there aren't a lot of rooms," Helen says.
She had all the walls repainted, opting for a mix of greys, which go well with the oak floors - these have been limed and bleached. She hasn't bothered with curtains, preferring to use shutters. Instead, softness is provided by floor rugs and the many cushions - a mix of velvet, wool and mohair - which coordinate with the check, tartan and plaid sofas.
Her eclectic style combines antiques gleaned from her family home - a painted dresser in the dining room was her grandmother's - with auction purchases like the Chinese lacquer cabinet. She's not averse to Ikea and other people's throwaways, either.
"The kitchen table was €80 in Ikea. And the chairs were upcycled. I had a couple of chairs, and a friend of mine rang me and said, 'I've just seen four chairs like yours in a skip outside the church hall, will I get them?' I said, 'Of course'."
Helen adds, "I love these houses, I think you can do exciting things with them, you can combine a mix of styles and they work together beautifully."
Helen's certainly does.
See helenmcalinden.com See finlinefurniture.ie See foxfordwoollenmills.com
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine