Innovative furniture design from a former ballet dancer

Orla Reynolds was an aspiring dancer when injury forced her to rethink her career

 

The worlds of dance and furniture may have little in common, but a young Dubliner has united them in an innovative pas de deux, so to speak, that is attracting a lot of attention and praise. DIT graduate Orla Reynolds from Artane, who trained as a ballerina from the age of four, is now one of the bright new stars in Irish furniture design with her award winning bookcase called “As If From Nowhere” singling her out as one to watch. This modular white unit hides within its shelves four chairs and two tables which slide out to form a dining arrangement. In lacquered MDF, the table and chairs in bold primary colours are made from mild steel and birch plywood, and are ideal for small living spaces or for catering for unexpected guests. It is now going into commercial production.

“My inspiration came by focusing on dance,” she says when we meet in the Synergy Centre in Tallaght, a bright and modern building specially created for start-ups such as hers. “I like to imagine the home as a stage, so the movement from bookcase to dining is like a scene change. It transforms the space like props on a stage. My sister had a lot of wasted wall space in her apartment and my mother a lot of clutter at home, and I wanted the solution to have an element of surprise”.

The clean lines of the unit “mirror the lines you can create with your arms and silhouette – I used to spend hours at the barre looking in the mirror trying to get the line right, down to the fingertips,” she recalls.

Unexpected direction

She is from a gifted family – her father, a secondary school teacher has begun a new career as a musician, her brother is the director of news for CNN, an uncle directs musical theatre, an aunt is a pianist and her mother is creative writer with a popular blog called phonehome2. Her grandmother, now 98, was a seamstress for many years while an ancestor won medals for his trade union banners.

She confesses that she “absolutely hated secondary school”, sent a portfolio with 10 designs to the Grafton Academy of Dress Design after her Junior Cert, where she swept through the entire syllabus in three months. In 5th year she started pursuing dance as a professional career and won a place in the College of Dance in Monkstown and was later accepted for the Urdang Dance Academy in Covent Garden for a four-year degree in professional theatre and dance with guaranteed West End employment afterwards.

It was then that she developed a painful condition known as compartment syndrome, radiating severe pain along her legs and had to defer completing the degree. To reverse the damage a specialist suggested that she sit for a year. “So I became a receptionist and went from doing 21 hours of dancing to sitting for eight hours a day – it was quite depressing”. Two years of temporary work including a stint with AIB in O Connell Street, filling and balancing the ATMs, was followed eventually by surgery on both legs. “The condition is more common in men who play rugby and I was the second woman in Ireland to have it – the other was a dancer from Riverdance,” she says.

As hopes of a career in dance were diminishing, she started to think of alternatives. “I liked art and making things – I made presents, cards and always boxes. That was like the first reference to another form of compartment syndrome because creating things was like therapy because I was channelling these sad things into a new life”. She admits to an obsession with space and clutter.

After a year completing a fine art portfolio in Coláiste Dhúlaigh, she won a place in DIT in Mountjoy Square to study furniture design – one of seven females to specialise in furniture in third year “and I knew I was in the right place”. In her first year, a storage unit she designed called Lap Stop for lap top and other devices, earned her the Crafts Council Student Designer of the Year in 2010.

Competition

Tom Raven, one of her tutors in DIT gave her, she says, the best advice ever. “He knew my strength was model making – go home, he said, spend the weekend making 30 models. And that is how the bookcase came about, and I know now that if I have a mental block, I will go into a room, sketch and play and it will lead somewhere”. Other products are in the pipeline.

Success has come fast. After she submitted a video, six images and a press release of her bookcase to Dezeen, the online architectural and design magazine, the video went viral in 2012. Since then, the bookcase has won her the Grand Prix award from the IDI for best graduate, the best furniture designer award from the same body, the Crafts Council Award for Future Makers in 2013, and in Milan she was recently shortlisted for the Design Report Award from a jury that included the curator of contemporary furniture in the V&A.

She also works on set design with the New Theatre in Temple Bar and the production of A Portrait of an Artist of a Young Man, directed by Jimmy Fay, for which she designed its multifunctional set is now on its second national tour having toured to Paris and Wales.

With a €50,000 grant from Enterprise Ireland under her belt along with a €15,000 investment from the enterprise development project New Frontiers, Reynolds is now having the final samples of the unit made in Slovenia with a retailer signed up for the first batch.

Further interest has been expressed from Arnotts and in September she will exhibit at the London Design Festival. There are other products in the offing, but for the moment she wants, quoting Ronald Reagan’s antelope and chipmunk fable, “to pursue the big opportunities and not waste energy following lots of little things”.

orlareynolds.com

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