Seeing Irish design in a new light

Mon, Nov 1, 2010, 00:00

Design is not superficial. It’s an invaluable skill. Designers are strategic thinkers, problem solvers; what they produce has to make sense, writes GEMMA TIPTON

LOOK AROUND YOU. Would it surprise you to realise that everything you see, including some of what we take to be the “natural world”, has been designed by someone? From paper cups to computers, from domestic and street furniture to the patterns of fields and roads, even to the newspaper or website where you’re reading this: design is at work everywhere.

This hasn’t always been a good thing: with the power to enhance or hinder every aspect of our lives, the real surprise is that we have settled for such bad design in so many cases, and that we have tended to give such little thought to the role of design in Ireland, both in our lives, and in our economy.

When you squint to read a poorly laid-out information sign, that’s design. When you smile at a chandelier made from recycled wine bottles or a table constructed out of bits of sash windows, both by Shane Holland, that’s design too. Recipes are a form of design, as are illustrations, architecture and the shapes of the cities in which we live and work.

During the boom, design was often seen solely as a luxury – that extra something that enabled people to charge more for things, rather than being deemed, as it is in Scandinavian countries, to have a fundamental role in making the world work better for us, and maybe even impart a greater element of beauty too.

Across the country things are changing, with moves afoot to bring design to the fore: from Pivot, the campaign spearheaded by architect Ali Grehan that aims to win the designation of World Design Capital for Dublin in 2014, to this week’s events as Ireland celebrates Design Week, now is the time to get to grips with design in all its guises. According to Arthur Duff, of Duff Tisdall, it’s also time for a rethink.

Duff has been a stalwart champion of design in this country, seeing its evolution pre-, during and post-Boom. “Design has become a much-maligned word and is suffering a bit from over-use,” he says. “Good design is not about adding more cherries to the already over-stuffed cake. Good design is that discrete, thoughtful response to a problem that produces an effective solution.”

Grehan agrees, saying “people need to acknowledge that design is not something superficial. It’s an invaluable skill. Designers are strategic thinkers, problem solvers; what they produce has to make sense.”

Designer and architect Barry Sheehan, who teaches at the Dublin Institute of Technology, is one of the organisers of Design Week. He takes up the theme, adding that part of the blame for design’s relatively low profile should “go to the designers themselves. And I include me in that,” he says.

“Design is a crucial part of the economy, but it’s often portrayed as superficial, a luxury, rather than something at the core of everything we do.”

Sheehan says we have an incredible legacy of design in Ireland. “We led the world in building and communications going back to Newgrange and the Book of Kells, but we let it slip. We have a great reputation for culture: for film, literature and music, but we forget design.”

Another problem that Sheehan pinpoints is the fragmented nature of design in Ireland, with web designers, craftspeople, fashion and furniture designers, architects, graphic and industrial designers all working separately. The Pivot project has been working to change that, as has another initiative, led by Design Twentyfirst Century, Designing Dublin: Learning to Learn (DD:LL).

DD:LL was initiated by a Mexican Canadian, Vannesa Ahuactzin. Ahuactzin worked with Bruce Mau on his Massive Change project, which looked at how design could change lives, from the transport systems in cities to green solutions to the developing world.

“DD:LL,” says Ahuactzin, “is founded on the idea that great things can be achieved for Ireland if you bring together a multi-disciplinary group of people to work on real, city-based challenges.”

In addition to the potential suggested by Ahuactzin, Grehan and Sheehan, there have also been remarkable success stories: Design Partners, based in Bray, Co Wicklow, have had their products displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art; they also design for brands including Le Creuset, Logitech, Dell and HP. Grafton Architects won World Building of the Year for their Luigi Bocconi University in Milan in 2008. Philip Treacy is synonymous with high fashion hats.

And yet more Irish designers are making their mark around the world. Designer Shane Holland uses these examples to call for design to be taken more seriously at Government level.

“We have no shortage of graduates,” he says, “but while the construction sector has historically had considerable backing, this has been lacking for design.”

Holland appreciates that “there’s no money for throwing at things these days,” but says that Design Week itself “makes the pitch for the power of design in Ireland”.

You can see the incredible strength and variety of design throughout the week, around Ireland, with exhibitions, events, talks and workshops (see panel for highlights). As Duff says, Design Week, and the Design Trail that wends its way through Dublin for the week, “is a wonderful opportunity for total immersion, just like diving into the 40-Foot, with contemporary design for all”. It’s time to get our feet wet.

For information on Design Week, see; for details of the World Design Capital bid, see; and for more information on getting involved with DD:LL, see

Design week highlights

Wayne Hemingway The fashion designer turned designer/ planner speaks tonight at the Opening of Design Week at Dublin City Council, Wood Quay. Launch from 5.30pm. Admission free, but spaces limited. 01 489 3650

Group Hygge All about getting designers, creative people, business people and anyone else with even a passing interest together, the venue is Dublin’s Long Hall pub on South Great George’s St, Wed 4.30-6pm Spirit of Creativity, a similar event, takes place in Dundalk on the same day.

Design Tree See, be inspired, and maybe buy the latest work by emerging and established Irish designers. At Moxie Studios (Corner of Lad Lane on Pembroke Row). From Wed. On Sunday Nov 7, a special screening will show all 37 episodes of David Shaw Smith’s classic series, Hands.

Space for Learning When the Irish Architecture Foundation asked 10 architects to work with 10 schools to rethink those places where we spend the “happiest days of our lives”, the results were amazing. NCAD Gallery, Thomas Street, Dublin 8. From Fri.

Green Machines Sustainable design with a quirky edge. At the Science Gallery, Trinity College until Dec 17.

Outside Dublin Exhibitions and events taking place around Ireland, including at The National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny; Design Week Waterford at Waterford City Council Library; Louth Craftmark at Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda; Coláiste Feriste, Belfast; Tullamore Court Hotel and Áras an Chontae, Co Offaly; and Wandsworth Quay Gallery, Cork. See for dates and full details.

Imagining Irish design

Imagined / Reimagined:

Cream of Irish Design Hosted by Duff Tisdall at The Malthouse, North Circular Road, this exhibition showcases some of the best of Irish design, while the Reimagined section asks designers to create inspirational products from salvaged
materials. From tomorrow.

Exhibits include: Shane Holland’s chandelier, Ardú – Console Table, by Martin Gallagher; and Elder Rug, designed by
Brigitta Varadi for Ceadogán Rugs.