Furniture that’s a flight of fancy

Handmade pieces from a Waterford workshop are inspired by nature

Detail of heron cabinet crafted by Noel Whelan.

Detail of heron cabinet crafted by Noel Whelan.

 

When furniture designer Noel Whelan moved to his current home on the Bunmahon coastline in Co Waterford, his eye was caught by a heron that used to roost in a tree beside his house.

“We built the house in 1999 and for years after this heron would appear. It would come to the tree day after day, even in the winter when the tree was bare. It would be there on top of the tree, a brilliant silhouette, like a Japanese painting.”

That heron was the inspiration for a new collection of pieces Whelan is working on for an exhibition of his furniture in 2019.

“I’m always looking for inspiration and I could be inspired by anything really. I read a lot of stuff. Even the shape in a tree might trigger a design.”

The new collection is based on images from the animal world. He is working with the idea of taking flat images and crafting them into geometric patterns that give depth and a 3D quality to the work.

“The heron is the first completed piece. I have an order in for another and so far I’m in the early stages of designing pieces featuring an elephant’s head and a fish and an elk. I’m also looking at doing one of a wolf. It doesn’t have any connection to why I’m doing it, but my name, Whelan, means small wolf in Irish. Nature is a big inspiration. I’m watching a pair of egrets in the river in Bunmahon at the moment. First, there was just one there and it used to hang out with a seagull and a heron. All three single birds just there together. They might feature too.”

Time-consuming

Making the new pieces is time-consuming and not the bread and butter of his livelihood, but it’s a direction he’s happy to be moving in.

“I wanted to freshen up the work and do something not already out there. It’s challenging. It’s one thing to find an image, but it also has to suit the piece of furniture.”

Whelan grew up on a farm “right in the middle” of 10 children. After school, he considered art college, deciding instead to serve his apprenticeship with a local cabinet maker. He opened his own business in 1995, and since then has been making finely crafted furniture from his workshop at Dunhill Eco Park a few miles from home.

“I love the work. That’s not to say it’s easy. When things got bad with the economy I applied for jobs doing other things. Something would always stop me though. I’d get another commission or whatever. I muddled along and things are better again.

“We’ve made thousands of pieces of furniture over the years. At the height of the boom, I had seven employed. Now I just have the one lad and we’re kept going. At the moment, the work is about 50/50 commissions and corporate work. I’ve worked on all kinds of jobs, from making €40 chopping boards to a €50,000 boardroom table in the boom. The heron piece is priced at €2,600. Everything’s individually priced depending on the work involved, the type of wood, the size etc. I’m proud of the work.”

“I’ve a small workshop in the business park, with an office and little showroom, basically there to show a few pieces so people can see the quality of the work. So much furniture is made with CNC now [computer numerical controls] with everything automated, but I wouldn’t want to do that. With me it’s all done by hand, not by computer.”

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