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The fine art of sitting pretty


QUEEN OF FABRICS: Nuala Goodman gets comfortable on one of her own designs which feature in her exhibition, 'Gardens', which is currently on show in Dublin. Photo: David Conachy

QUEEN OF FABRICS: Nuala Goodman gets comfortable on one of her own designs which feature in her exhibition, 'Gardens', which is currently on show in Dublin. Photo: David Conachy

QUEEN OF FABRICS: Nuala Goodman gets comfortable on one of her own designs which feature in her exhibition, 'Gardens', which is currently on show in Dublin. Photo: David Conachy

NUALA GOODMAN is one of the country's most distinguished artists and designers, who you have quite possibly never heard of. Her exhibition, Gardens, currently at Minima in Dublin, first opened at the Venice Architecture Biennale two years ago, attracting visitors like Miuccia Prada, and then travelled to Milan, Nuala's home city for more than 20 years now.

The exhibition consists of furniture pieces by the rather legendary Italian design company, Moroso ("it will not be a coincidence if you find yourself sitting on a Moroso armchair ... when you are a guest at Tina Turner's or Marina Abramovic's house" proclaims their website grandly), upholstered in Nuala's glorious hand-finished fabrics.

Using a technique called flocking, Nuala creates tactile, three-dimensional fabrics, with strong images inspired by gardens, and splashes of iridescent colour. She mixes the flock -- finely shredded velvet basically -- almost like paint, and applies it painstakingly. The results are delightful -- armchairs, sofas, rugs, footstools, with sleek, clean lines, upholstered in gorgeous, extravagant fabrics.

In her adopted Italy, Nuala is clearly recognised for her tremendous abilities: "I went to Italy first as an NCAD graduate in 1984 for three months, to work in architect Ettore Sottsass's studio," she recalls. "And for the first time ever, people were saying, 'Oh my God, that's amazing'. In Dublin, people would never say that. Or they didn't then."

She works across various disciplines easily -- hand-painting clothes, designing fabrics, painting portraits (including of Paul Smith): "It's always been my path, my Karma, to work through a combination of painting, sculpture, textiles and clothing," is how she puts it -- without anyone feeling the need to put her in a defined box. This is one of the reasons she's still over there.

"In Italy, if you're creative, you can cross the divide into different areas very easily," she says. "It has happened a bit here -- John Rocha designing for Waterford Crystal for example -- but it still doesn't happen as much." The other reasons are perhaps even simpler. Economics, lifestyle, and family.

"I did painting in NCAD, and worked a lot in the fashion department, too. When I graduated, I was always going to go somewhere, because in that generation, everyone was leaving. London would have been the obvious one, but I had gone to Winchester for a few months in my last year in college.

"I thought it would be fantastic because we were brought up to think everything in England was better, and it wasn't fantastic. So I went to Italy -- immediately I felt the seductiveness, the warm climate, the fantastic food, the very high quality of life.

"The way an ordinary person lives in Italy is the way a wealthy person might live in Ireland. I'd never been to a hot country before. Getting off the plane for the first time and feeling that warmth in your face."

It's a seduction that has clearly never lost its grip. The subtlety, highly developed aesthetic sense and visual perceptiveness of Italians clearly charms her. But there are drawbacks to this painstaking attention to detail.

"You're always under pressure to be really groomed. And sometimes you don't feel like it ... It's good, it makes you disciplined, but it can be ... " Shrug.

By way of illustration, she tells a story.

"A few years ago, when I had a studio in the city centre, I'd go into this bar beside it in the morning for my coffee. I'd be pristine and fresh, they'd do my cappuccino with a little heart on top in foam. Then I'd go back a few hours later, tired, scruffier, with paint on my hands. The same guy would slam down the coffee cup so it slopped over onto the saucer. It was his way of saying, 'not good enough'."

Sartorial judgment via the medium of coffee. Ouch!

And of course, the traditional family values of most Italians can be difficult, even for someone used to the ways of Irish mammies. "Italian men -- I think they're handsome and lovely, but you know what? At the end of the day, they are all a bit immature. They're mammies' boys. Nearly all of them."

These days, Nuala is mother to two in the making, as well as a little girl, from her relationship with Paolo Giordano, a photographer, who she met through friends ("it was kind of love at first sight," she concedes).

"Before I had children, I used to sometimes listen to Italian children talking to their mothers, and think with shock how different they were, and how we would never have dared talk to our parents like that. Now, though, I have to say, my boys do the same to me ... Maybe it's a generational thing. I suppose it's nice that our kids feel comfortable enough to be rude to us," she laughs, but doubtfully.

As a new mother in a still-slightly strange country, Nuala had to work out for herself how she wanted to be with her children.

"At the beginning, I used to feel quite insecure. The paediatrician had all these rules about what they could eat, when. People would come up in the park and say, 'Look at your child, he's not warm enough'. Italians like to wrap their children in layers and layers of clothes. And they're always sick. So I'd feel guilty, and put more clothes on him.

"With the second, Luca Liam, I thought, 'to hell with this...' He was on solids at three months and I dressed him any way I liked. Frances Rose was eating spaghetti alle vongole at six months!"

For the first few months she was in Italy, Nuala hung out with a largely international crowd, all of whom spoke English. It began to seem to her that she wouldn't need to learn Italian at all. Then she got a job designing a clothing collection for the American mass market, which involved long days at the factory.

"I was dumped in this factory and had to deal with these pattern cutters, seamstresses, and so on. That was a baptism of fire! My first words were things like 'button hole', 'hem', 'seam'. I remember the first month, every evening I'd go home with a splitting headache. The clothes were sporty clothes, sweatshirts and so on. Not the kind of clothes I liked at all, so I approached it by thinking, what sort of sporty clothes would I actually wear? The Italians weren't so sure about what I was doing, but the Americans came along, walked in and said, 'I love it!'"

From there, Nuala spent almost a year in London after all, working with James Howett, who has created bespoke furniture pieces for Liv Tyler, Tilda Swinton and Julie Christie, and was then creating a collection called The Irish Chair. The back of each handcrafted chair was painted with a portrait, done by Nuala. Ten were made, of which two now stand in the U2 offices in Dublin.

"That's how I started working with furniture. I was glad to branch out of fashion; you have to be quite tough to work in the fashion world -- the hectic schedules, the big egos ... " From there she designed a range of painted boxes "like little temples" for Alessi, also with Howett, and a watch, Eve, for Swatch, now a collector's item.

Nuala and Paolo then set up a business, I and I ("India and Italy"), designing objects and textiles to be produced in India, tapping into the country's remarkable artisan heritage. It was Paolo's vision. The couple had just had their first child, Vincent, now 18, and it seemed a good time for Nuala to change the flow of life a little.

"I put my own work aside for a while. We worked together for eight years on I and I, and I learned how to run a business, I learned it all from another perspective. I put my creativity into meeting clients and filling orders.

"I enjoyed it, but at a certain point I was dying to get back to doing something of my own." That something was the series of paintings, Portraits From Milan, including many of the great, charismatic figures from the world of Italian design, in which she really honed her flocking technique.

It was these portraits that led to the next big thing in Nuala's life -- at a time when she badly needed it.

"I was looking for somewhere outside Milan to show the portraits. I had been to Venice, to the Fortuny Museum, one of the most beautiful I'd ever seen. I was just swept away by it. I finally got an appointment to see them, so I took my catalogue with me, and kind of at the last minute, I threw these fabrics I had done with a textile company, using the same flocking technique, into my bag.

"I met the director, Daniela Ferretti, showed her my catalogue, and then, when I took out the fabrics, her eyes lit up. She said, 'Would you like to do an exhibition next May? You can have the whole bottom floor -- 300 square meters'. I was stunned."

That was a strange time in Nuala's life. A month before that, her whole world had fallen apart when she split with her partner.

Looking back on it now she reflects.

"He was quite a reflective, intellectual guy, he needed time on his own. You can't fall apart when you have three children though -- so I was just getting on with it.

"I rolled up my sleeves and thought, 'OK, I'm not going to fall to pieces'. Three weeks later, I got this incredible opportunity. It was something I had aspired to for a long, long time. It was always at the back of my mind. That museum always spoke to me, more than any other museum. Was it destiny?" Nuala said yes, embraced the remarkable opportunity, despite the overwhelming timing, and put together the idea for the show. "I'd always wanted to translate some of my designs into carpet, and I could see myself applying them also to furniture.

"Once Moroso, the furniture firm, were involved, the show snowballed, because they've always been heavily involved in the Architecture Biennale. The dates were moved to September to coincide with the Biennale, and the show was a huge success. We did a visitors' book, and if ever I feel, 'God, I'm not doing anything', I just open the book," she says now.

Nevertheless, gestation was tough -- 14-hour days in the factory, creating 52 pieces, working against the clock. How did she manage with the children?

"Paolo is a great father, and he became an even better father when he moved out, because he realised how important the children were to him. We're all still very close."

From Venice, Gardens travelled to Milan, and is now here in Dublin, albeit in a slightly scaled-back form.

"It's nice to be back doing something in Dublin," says Nuala. "Over the last years I've done so little, just a couple of pieces in the RHA and that's it.

"People in the art world here think of my work as design, but people in the design world feel that it's art. I don't really care though. I need to do something more than just painting. I like texture, three dimensionality, cloth. I like to unite those different strands to create a singular visual language. I've done something important in Venice and in Milan, but it doesn't mean anything here. Or not much."

So what's next? Clearly, with Nuala, it's going to be something pretty significant. Her eyes sparkle; "I have found a way of mass- producing these textiles that looks pretty good. The pieces in the show are one-offs, very high-end, but it could be possible to mass-produce them. In which case, let's wait and see."

Destiny? Karma? Whatever it is, it's calling.

'Gardens' by Nuala Goodman is at Minima, Hanover Quay, Dublin, until mid-July. See www.minima.ie or www.nualagoodman.com

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