On a patch of land near Kinsale in rural Co Cork, the ruins of a castle stand, almost impossibly tall. There is really only one wall left, and it's a challenge to say whether the last parts of its craftsmanship are holding it together or simply the vines. You can see why it was built: it has a defensive position, looking over the river Bandon, as well as out to sea, but Joseph Walsh suggests digging deeper for the site's histories.
A self-taught designer and furniture maker, Walsh set up his studio on the family farm where he was born, just outside Kinsale. This year, he celebrates his 40th birthday, and the studio's 20th and, in that time, his award-winning works have been shown, and owned, around the world. Collections range from the Sacred Heart Church at Minane Bridge in Co Cork to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Museum of Ireland and the National Gallery of Ireland, where visitors can see his vast sculptural Magnus Modus in the atrium. As we speak, one of his chairs is being shipped to New York, having been recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum.
Walsh came to furniture while his eight brothers and sisters were at school, but he was home sick. As recovery induced boredom, he began to make a kitchen dresser in pine. When I first saw one of his works, I thought it was over the top. It was his now-famous canopy bed, made for Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. A great sweep of ash curves in curling swathes to create both base and canopy, from which white diaphanous material is draped like an elaborate dream.
It can take time to get used to the new. I decided to start smaller, with his Enignum Shelves from the same series, where the wood is encouraged to twist as it travels down, creating spots for a cup of coffee or priceless object d’art. These are pieces that need space, and seem strikingly modern, but which also somehow root you back into something older. A shelf doesn’t have to look like you always thought a shelf might look like, and here it comes from an intuitive sense of wood, rather than a gimmicky flair for difference.
Back on the hill in Kinsale, Walsh has been planting trees. It’s a private project, “not forestry”, although he has plans for that too. “It’s more a garden of trees, an arboretum – it’s about creating a place that’s really special in a place where people have stood in the past and known it was really special.” He shows me around, measuring the growth of an oak with unveiled excitement, while describing a visit to a place by a lake in Switzerland where three huge beech trees create cathedrals with their drooping branches.
“It is just so outrageously beautiful,” he says. “You kind of think: Wow, every kid should see this place to dream. Because if you can dream it, you can imagine it, and then it’s possible. Sometimes you see something so extraordinary that everything else in life just seems kind of doable.”
In Walsh's understanding, 'culture' has acquired a different meaning over time
Back to his own site, he recalls a visit by Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, whose sculptures frequently make wild imaginings out of trees. Penone's work developed out of the Arte Povera movement from the 1970s, which tried to strip art of its institutional and consumer cultural overlay. He suggested that Walsh investigate the site's history through folklore. It might seem a little fanciful, but consider how history is written by the, usually wealthy, winners, and realise how much is therefore lost by ignoring the voices of other understandings of culture. "Pursue folklore as if it was archaeology," Penone advised, and so Walsh followed stories of a "green way" – and sure enough, there were the bones of an ancient road.
A lived experience
In Walsh’s understanding, “culture” has acquired a different meaning over time, with trips to museums, the ballet and theatre: consuming culture; replacing an understanding of culture as a lived experience that you participate in. This might be playing a musical instrument, making with your hands, or simply knowing the names of the trees and the stories of the land around you.
It's also about a reimagining of the role of objects in our lives. We've stopped for a glass of water and some chocolate under a shelter that also houses an old tractor. The glasses themselves are a bit of a surprise. They're by J Hills Standard, the small family company preserving the tradition of handcut crystal in Waterford. The pieces are beautiful but, let's put it this way, they're not cheap. I think of the battered and scuffed plastic things I bring on camping trips, but Walsh encourages me to wonder how much money I have spent (wasted?) in the past on things I don't really love.
It’s true, my own kitchen cupboards are cluttered with an oversupply of ceramics, of which I only use a few favourites each day. And these I look after with care. While he’s not suggesting bringing your cut crystal on a picnic with the kids, he is advocating a rethinking of stuff: developing a more rewarding relationship with the things in your lives.
It's a sentiment also expressed by Glenn Adamson, who will be moderating the forthcoming Making In seminar at Walsh's studios. Adamson's book Fewer, Better Things asks us to think more deeply about the things that surround us. "Stop for a minute and pay attention to the chair you are sitting in," is Adamson's introduction to the idea of reawakening our own material intelligence.
Another speaker at Making In is Viennese silversmith Jean-Paul Vaugoin. Again, it’s easy to dismiss luxury cutlery as an indulgence, but Walsh suggests a reimagining of it as a distillation of “all the craftsmen that have lived that for a century and a half, the families they have raised. It’s just so much more than the consumer who puts the cutlery on the table. There’s the culture you create as a consequence of the choices that we make.”
If you lose the appreciation, it just comes down to price
I raise the idea of the coffee chain, Starbucks, as a cultural blight. "It's less about Starbucks and more about us," returns Walsh. "It's about this idea that we all want to be able to consume all of the same things that everyone else has. It's a circle, you create the culture." As our seas fill with plastics, and landfill fills with everything else, it's a timely conversation. So what is the answer?
"Developing appreciation can slow down the incredible race to consume. If people can develop a deeper appreciation of things, they're not in so much of a race to go to Ikea and get lots of that stuff. There could be something amazing in Ikea," he adds. "But we can't identify it – we just see it all as the same convenient stuff."
When Walsh began working on his new series, using indigenous Irish timber, he ran up against an unexpected problem: Ireland's smaller sawmills are in decline. The vast catalogues of available timber types have dwindled, and tree planting policy isn't exactly encouraging diversity. Storm Ophelia gifted Walsh with some Irish oak but, he points out, it takes 300 years for an oak tree to grow. "If you lose the appreciation, it just comes down to price," Walsh says, suggesting that we have grown used to price as the only indicator of value, and cost as the only motivation.
But what if this is just an argument for wealthy people to have a nicer time, I wonder. “You get into very complex social discussions then, but you do need to have someone with enough resources controlling oak forests, to make that commitment, and you need them to have the loyalty of the people around them not just to destroy something in order to be all equally consuming crap,” he says. “People are kept poor because they are consumers. It’s the choices that we make.”
As a thought experiment, Walsh suggests imagining a self-sufficient walled town, in which life is only as good as all the people elect to make it, in terms of how they live, what they grow and how they choose to develop. Then scale that up. “We have to somehow get back to that kind of society,” he suggests. “Not isolationist, but understanding the consequences of our actions. If we’re not going to make things, then we will just be consumers. And if we are just consumers it will slowly erode away our ability to appreciate, because then people will just sell us stuff. And we will get poorer and poorer because of it.”
Making In takes place at the Joseph Walsh Studio near Cork on Saturday September 14th. Tickets €150.00 on Eventbrite. josephwalshstudio.com
Speakers at Making In include:
Charles Renfro: architect and partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro, whose work includes the High Line, the repurposed rail track turned public park in New York.
Glenn Adamson: former director of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, and author of Fewer, Better Things.
Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara: founding partners of the multiaward-winning Grafton Architects., who curated the 2018 Venice Architectural Biennale.
Sheila Loewe: president of the LOEWE Foundation. The luxury fashion brand also administers the LOEWE Craft Prize.
Jean-Paul Vaugoin: silversmith with Jarosinski & Vaugoin, one of the oldest Viennese silver makers, a family tradition dating back to the 1800s.
Aldo Bakker: designer, Amsterdam. He believes that objects not only evoke emotions, they possess them too.
Chris Schanck: designer, Detroit. His famous Alufoil series took discarded and industrial materials, sculpted them, covered them in aluminium foil, and then coated them in resin: the ultimate in upcycling?