The luck of the Irish has been in short supply since the Celtic Tiger’s roar became more of a whimper in 2008, but things are now looking up for the island nation after five bleak years of stifling austerity measures. At the same time a group of talented and resourceful designers have emerged who are producing bold new products.
These designers set up shop at a time when the odds were strongly against them, but with the country being pummelled by the downturn they had little choice but to become innovative. That is exactly what the four founders of the Irish Handmade Glass Company did when, in 2009, one of Ireland’s best-known brands, Waterford Wedgwood, went into receivership and the Waterford Crystal factory – where these men had spent their entire working lives – closed down.
The group of four, who range in age from mid-40s to early 60s, are made up of three master glass-blowers – Tony Hayes, Richard Rowe and Derek Smith – and master glass-cutter Danny Murphy. They combined their skills, invested their personal savings, took a bank loan as well as a big leap of faith to start their own fledgling glass business in 2010 – the same year Ireland took an €85m bailout.
Since then, and with the help of local support, this group of middle-aged men have crafted their own thriving company. Their handmade, lead-free pieces, with prices starting at €20 and rising to €300 for a centrepiece, are sold throughout the country and are gaining an international profile. “People thought it was great that we got off our backsides and did something, and they want to buy products that are made in Ireland,” says Hayes.
Furniture maker and designer James Carroll, who goes by the trade name Stickman, makes pieces using material gathered in his own forest in the Wicklow Mountains. He has also seen an uptick in local trade, particularly since the slump.
“I seem to be doing better since the downturn than I did through the Celtic Tiger [years]. I’m not sure if it’s because people are responding more to the more wholesome products. A curator recently said that ‘authenticity’ is very big at the minute,” he says. “Maybe people are becoming more aware of sustainable design.”
Carroll likes to do things back to front. Instead of having an idea and gathering the materials to execute it, he works around the wood he already has in his forest – “I’ve got ash, oak, a little bit of sweet chestnut, there’s beech and birch as well” – and then creates the products.
One of his favourite materials is bog oak, which he says can be “fairly hard to work with: blunts tools easily, and makes you dirty”. But, he continues: “It can be buttery when fresh out of the bog. If you try to impose a shape on it, it doesn’t react well; it demands different ways of working it than other types of wood, but it can be like ebony when it is finished with an edge tool, as opposed to a sanded finish.”
Carroll’s bog oak and yew pod stool (£450) is a combination of beautifully smooth and golden-orange coloured wood from the yew tree – considered sacred in Irish mythology – and rich, black bog oak which is thousands of years old. “Once its uniqueness and history is communicated it has a real appeal,” he says.
Laura Magahy, who chairs the recently renamed Design & Crafts Council of Ireland, agrees with both Carroll and the Irish Handmade Glass Company, saying that “the Irish public has been unbelievably supportive of buying Irish, people are going into stockists asking for Irish products.”
Irish design has yet to make its mark on modern design internationally. Renowned instead for Claddagh rings and Celtic crosses, these up-and-coming designers want to shed the outdated image of rural Ireland swaddled in Aran knits. “Obviously our heritage is incredibly important . . . but there has been an evolution of technologies which have pushed the boundaries of craft practice and pushed it more towards design and product. It’s craft interfacing with design,” says Magahy.
Uniting some of these designers’ products is the online store Makers & Brothers, set up by brothers Jonathan and Mark Legge in 2012. Their site was born out of “a frustration with how design and craft was represented in Ireland – we didn’t really like what we saw. Then we decided to do something about it and just made something happen,” says Jonathan.
After a successful pop-up shop test run in Dublin in 2009, they launched their online business in December 2011. It is a mix of Irish and international designers, although two-thirds of the products are Irish-made.
Makers & Brothers will be taking part in a large-scale promotion next year celebrating the country’s designers called the Year of Irish Design, which was launched by Ireland’s deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore in January. It will be convened by the Design & Crafts Council and will show off the nation’s design talent at home and abroad.
“I think there are huge opportunities to market Irish design internationally and that’s what the Year of Design is going to be all about,” says Magahy. “A big part of that programme is to bring the best of Irish design to international cities.”
Successfully bringing their products to far-flung markets are Dublin-based Clancy Moore Architects, formed by Andrew Clancy and Colm Moore. The pair recently struck a deal with the Conran Shop to sell their copper and brass Strand lamps in the UK, France and Japan.
They stumbled into product design inadvertently, says Clancy. They originally created the lamp as a wedding present for a friend after trawling through unsuitable gift ideas, but when “Jonathan Legge from Makers & Brothers saw it he basically said to me, ‘That has potential’,” says Clancy. The pair then took the “crude” prototype, refined it, adjusted it and created a tall and short version – which now sell from €395, each one handmade and individually numbered.
“Colm and I were always interested in product design – we would observe it and be frustrated by it. But it wasn’t an area that we felt was our domain,” says Clancy.
The duo are now moving on to their next product; a pendant light called the Fuchsia, and are also launching an investment rally to “build the brand into something bigger,” says Clancy.
Another duo, friends Karl Medcalf and Shane Wilson, founded design company Locker 13 in Dublin in 2009. “Design jobs are pretty limited in Ireland, and we were both committed to staying here, so with a bit of experience under our belt [10 years] we decided we’d make a break and did so when we found a nice opportunity for a space,” says Wilson.
“Obviously with the recession there was less work around, but we moved into the Malthouse Design Centre and our costs were lower. Supplier costs were lower as well, everyone was in the same boat . . . But things seem to be picking up again this year,” he continues. “There’s about 15 businesses in the centre now, a mix of architects and designers.”
Their creations include lively lights such as the Comfort Lamp (€225), made using old fabric conditioner bottles as a mould for the handmade ceramic base and thousands of brightly coloured plastic beads to create the shade; side tables with a twist (Sadhbh table); and the bright and bold Allsort Range consisting of foot stools, tables and stools.
Claire-Anne O’Brien, a textile designer from County Cork, also plays with colour and scale. She has taken the traditional Irish knit and given it a new spin. Inspired by RTÉ (the Irish national broadcaster) documentary Hands made in the 1970s on Irish craft, she says: “It is just looking at traditional techniques and playing with them. Playing with the scale, the colour and the form and making them more contemporary.”
O’Brien, who is based in London, uses the small knit stitch and blows it up into bold statement pieces for her Olann collection (prices start at £350) made up of chairs and stools, giving a playful edge to her designs.
Although O’Brien talks of moving home she says: “In reality it’s just easier to be here. You’ve got an industry and network here.”
However, the craft industry alone in Ireland is worth €500m a year, and the prospects for a fruitful future appear positive.
“What’s really important is that people from Ireland who are involved in craft and design get off the island and see what’s happening internationally,” says Laura Magahy.