Modernist love: how a Cork family found their dream home

Having lived in London and Amsterdam, a Cork family wanted a home that reflected their love of modern design. They found it with the help of Keith McMullin


I like modernist houses,” says architect Keith McMullin of McMullin Design, referring to the “box on a box” he designed in what was originally part of the grounds of Castlemahon House, an estate near Blackrock Castle in Cork.

The owners were returning to Cork, having left it behind in 1990. They spent a decade in London and another in Amsterdam, where they had their minds opened to the possibilities of modern architecture. “In Holland every element of design is given careful consideration, from architecture to how they arrange their flowers. They’re very modern-minded.”

They wanted a robust home that could stand up to the demands of four sons aged nine to 19.

McMullin’s wingman on the project was Fergal O’Leary of Horizon Furniture, who met the owners at an interiors show. They bonded while discussing art and films, particularly the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, considered by some to be the founder of modern art. (A retrospective of Mondrian’s work opens next month at Tate Liverpool.) McMullin used a plain palette of materials, including limestone, render, louvred cedar and cladding on the exterior. The house is based on passive principles, so it has lots of glass, with extensive southfacing glazing and minimal windows to the north. O’Leary designed statement pieces of furniture, artworks in their own right, for several of the rooms.

In the kitchen, the focal point is a freestanding Mondrian-inspired cupboard. O’Leary also cites Dublin-born artist Sean Scully as an influence on the design, which focuses on form and colour as Mondrian did. Using different woods and blocks of lacquered colour in ratios that mimic Mondrian’s best-known works O’Leary added what he calls “painterly qualities” to the piece of furniture.

It is also a tactile piece. Each handleless panel has an incrementally different depth so it feels good to touch. It has two long cupboards for tableware and glasses and three smaller cupboards.

In the adjoining room, a dresser of a very different vintage was bought at an antiques market in Amsterdam and looks like it belongs to the Dutch “old master” era. Floor-to-ceiling solid oak sliding doors were designed by the Nolan joinery, in Limerick. In the library, O’Leary designed built-in bookcases with a sliding ladder and secret storage, and a desk that echoes the lines of a piano. It is a variant on a style that he calls Robocop.

Two deep-tan Natuzzi leather sofas frame the sittingroom, bookended by wraparound Jack side tables that have been coopered by hand, says O’Leary, as you would have made a bucket traditionally. Made of solid walnut with warm claret covering the inside of each table, they slide over the arms of the sofa to become a tray.

The steel fireplace, sourced from Flame By Design, is the centrepiece, and O’Leary designed a soft-close drawer that sits below to accommodate logs for the fire.

The house has a separate media room, a space where the boys can gorge on films. The ceiling is deep purple, chosen by the project’s interior designer, McMullin’s wife Deborah, to create a more intimate space. The fact that you step down into it also helps with the ambiance, says Keith.

A projector is hidden from view, and a Lee Marvin sideboard with a walnut frame and oak sliding doors houses a vintage subwoofer that plugs into the sound system. The house has five bedrooms. In the family bathroom, a curved freestanding Amalfi bath sits in front of a picture window looking down towards a bend in the River Lee as it says goodbye to Cork. It is, O’Leary says, the best view in the house.

Mitchell and Associates landscaped the garden, where free-standing walls to the front of the house screen it from view.

The architect, interior designer and furniture designer tried to source their suppliers in Cork. It was important to use local contractors that would offer an aftercare service, Keith McMullin says. “If they’re not local you won’t get them back.”;

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