President’s Chair maker John Lee scoops €15,000 prize
Meath furniture-maker who created seat for Michael D Higgins wins Golden Fleece Award
John Lee: “I’ve probably got more adventurous with experience. Before I would have thought, how am I going to make that? You get more confident. I tell myself, there is a way.” Photograph: Alan Betson
The Co Meath-based furniture-maker John Lee is this year’s winner of the Golden Fleece Award. Established in 2001, the prize offers artists and makers the gift of time with a bursary – in Lee’s case of €15,000. So what does that mean to this third-generation craftsman, and how might it change his work?
Lee studied at the furniture college in GMIT, Letterfrack, Co Galway, and reckons he was born into his craft.
“My father is a retired woodwork teacher, and my grandfather a carpenter. I’d always be out in the workshop when I was young.”
Lee still lives with that legacy, not only in his own career, but surrounded by furniture made by his father.
“You take it for granted,” he says. “Though my sister is restoring one of the chairs he made in college.”
Tall and rangy, and with a physique defined by the intensive work of furniture-making, Lee describes studying in Letterfrack in the early 1990s as a fantastic experience.
“It was hugely isolated – there were very little bus services back then. I’d get to Galway and then thumb out – you’d be the whole day on the side of the road with your thumb out . . .”
He’d always assumed he’d end up making kitchens. “I never considered making less bespoke, more artistic things, but Letterfrack opened my eyes.”
He won a European scholarship and his external examiner, the late Andrew Varah, invited him to work with him in the UK.
“It was a six-month work placement, and I stayed for five years.”
Lee’s admiration for Varah is evident in how he speaks, but he knew it wouldn’t be forever. Coming back to Ireland, his first thought was: “Well, how do I set up a workshop?”
While working with Klimmek and Henderson in Rathcoole, Lee steadily gathered and restored old machinery and began building his studio.
“I was doing crazy hours, I never stopped working, and sometimes I’d think I’d never get there.”
In 2004 it all took off.
“It was the year I got married, set up the business, bought the house . . .”
Clients come by word of mouth and from exhibitions, and Lee says they range from “people with incredibly beautiful houses, to people who just have a love for beautiful objects and design”. Bespoke pieces start at around €3,000 and can take months to complete, which is understandable when you see how he creates curves with slow, gentle scrapings of the wood.
One piece is the Presidential Chair, which Lee made as a result of winning an OPW design competition in 2011. It will seat all Irish presidents from Michael D Higgins forward. The brief, he recalls, was presidential not regal, and something that would last the test of time. The result is an elegantly curved chair in which the wood seems to flow like water around deep blue leather.
Winning the Golden Fleece will, as founder Helen Lillias Mitchell intended, give Lee the space to experiment and create. “I’ve probably got more adventurous with experience,” he says. “Before I would have thought, how am I going to make that? You get more confident. I tell myself, there is a way.”
So, what is his dream piece? “It’s probably something complicated. Maybe it’s a chest of drawers. No matter how complicated a table is, a chest of drawers is going to be more so, and I like that. You keep up with new techniques. The more you push yourself, the more opportunity to get out of your comfort zone, that’s exciting.”
Obviously thrilled to win the award, Lee says: “I can’t wait. I don’t know what I’m going to make yet, but it feels like there’s a weight taken off my shoulders . . . I’m going to play.”
The results should be very special.
The other artists and craft makers shortlisted for the Golden Fleece Award 2017 are Chloe Dowds (ceramics), Gerry Davis (painting), Fiona Mulholland (sculpture and jewellery), Nuala O’Donovan (ceramics) and Yanny Petters (painting on glass). Fiona Mulholland received a Special Award of €5,000, the others received Merit Awards of €2,500 each.