Saturday 24 August 2019

Karen's design eye has been honed

A new exhibition will reveal our artistic edge, the head of Irish Design 2015 says

Art of the matter: Karen Hennessy, Head of Irish Design 2015, says we need to communicated better with people. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Art of the matter: Karen Hennessy, Head of Irish Design 2015, says we need to communicated better with people. Photo: Gerry Mooney.

Anna Coogan

Irish creatives and designers are punching above their weight, according to Karen Hennessy, chief executive of Irish Design 2015 (ID2015), which so far this year has seen our design community of clothes designers, architects, graphic and textile artists exhibit in New York, Milan and London.

And Karen couldn't be prouder of this fact.

"We do punch above our weight, absolutely," says Karen. "If you take the RIBA Stirling Prize for architecture in the UK and how they've announced a shortlist of six, and three of these are Irish," she says of how our designers are competing with the big boys.

We'll soon see evidence of this when Liminal: Irish design at the threshold - the flagship exhibition of ID2015 - returns from European design festivals to exhibit at St Andrew's Church on Suffolk Street, where ID2015 is housed.

It's also where Karen's office is based, and which is pristine in appearance, with carefully chosen contemporary and designer furniture contrasting beautifully with the church's stained-glass window, which almost fills the office's main wall.

It's like a showroom but, Karen says, "My real office is in my handbag. I'm always on the go so everything is in my handbag."

Commerce graduate Karen, who is also a chartered accountant, and her team of eight have been tasked with encouraging the development of new design products throughout the year - "I think we'll be up to 200 new products developed by the end of the year," she says.

One of these is the Design Island app on which Irish designers recommend where tourists should go while they are on a visit here.

"So if you're coming to Donegal, Kilkenny or Leitrim," Karen explains, "you go on the app and designers recommend design-led hotels and cafes, architecturally-led buildings and gallery spaces to go and see."

It's peer to peer, so you can check out the recommendations of your favourite designers, she says.

Karen ascribes her passion for design to growing up in the craft hub of Kilkenny where the creation of pottery, jewellery, glass, and textiles were part of her everyday life.

"Kilkenny was a rural enough kind of environment in my day," Karen says, "and then you had what was happening in Kilkenny Design Workshops and always new and interesting people coming into town.

"We had someone from Jerpoint Glass and Mosse's Pottery come into our class for example, so design was always there. I'm definitely more contemporary in my style, but there is an edginess and chaos in terms of how I work and see things," says the mum-of-three.

She has accompanied our artists, furniture makers, weavers, glass blowers and high-tech design businesses to the London Festival of Architecture, Maison et Objet in Paris, London Fashion Week and Milan Design Week. And, yes, her design eye has been honed as a result.

"Yes, in the sense Ireland has changed," Karen says. "If you go to Paris, practically everything you see is curated, from the bun on the plate. We need as a nation to get better at that. We need to be a bit tidier. To take pride in what we have and what we do and how we communicate with people right down to how people are treated when they are waiting in line," she says.

Design2015 is all about creating jobs and promoting Irish design, and over 50 international events and 350 national ones have been planned for the year. There are more months of busyness ahead for Karen, whose working life is all about collaboration and strategy and mergers - she was formerly head of corporate development at Glanbia for ten years.

She is married to Mark, who works in IT, and is mum to Lauren (15), Luke (12) and Alicia (7), and is energised by the events of the past months, and looking forward to joining our designers at events like the Chicago Architecture Biennial later this month, and Shenzhen Biennale in November.

"I would say initial stats in terms of exports and PR value - which could change and rise more with tourism value - would be between €35 million to €40 million," Karen says. "That's the financial legacy going forward of Irish Design 2015 for Ireland."

She adds: "Because the country is coming out of a recession, we are doing the ordinary in an extraordinary way and our designs are more innovative than ever."

Liminal, showcasing new design work coming out of Ireland, will run in St Andrew's Church on Suffolk Street next month, from November 20.


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