Props guru living the vintage life in Clontarf
Movie makers and fashion designers from all over call on Killian McNulty’s expertise. At home, he is surrounded by classic furniture
Killian McNulty on a Milo Baughman grey velour sofa at home in Clontarf, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Every item in Killian McNulty’s home in Clontarf, a stylishly modernised 1940s semi that he shares with his wife, artist/lighting designer Niamh Barry and their two daughters, has a story and a special meaning.
When he starts to describe any one piece, his knowledge and appreciation of modern furniture and antiques becomes impressively clear.
We are looking at a Milo Baughman grey velour crescent-shaped sectional sofa, a gyrating black lacquered cocktail table furnished with intriguing pieces of bronze which he collects and a silver Love Lamp lined with copper by Willy Rizzo.
His enthusiasm is obvious. Rizzo, he explains, was a famous Paris Match photographer who became a furniture designer for 10 years and was part of the international jetset. His pieces are now highly prized by collectors.
The glass-topped ibex dining table, supported by two brass rams’ heads, by Alain Chervet, is a standout piece from the 1960s and the rosewood and papercord dining chairs by Danish designer Neils Moller came from a Belfast dealer. “These things make me feel happy and comfortable – I don’t want to be around junk,” he says with a smile.
Pride of place, however, is a Project G Clairtone stereo also from the 1960s considered the ne plus ultra of vintage audio with its twin black globes, a Canadian design icon of which fewer than 100 were made in Europe.
How he acquired the first when he saw a photo of it in a US magazine is a story – too long to relate – in itself. “When it comes to something that I want I am dogged and 12 hours scouring websites is nothing to me,” he says casually. He has another in his office.
McNulty is the owner of three companies and operates from a site in Oberstown near Lusk with 37,000 square feet of vintage and industrial furniture, lighting and antiques.
The first, Historic Interiors, is a prop company capable of furnishing any set or period, covering 13,500 square feet filled with “what normal people use every day – cups, saucers, livingroom furniture, crockery. The stuff we all live with – chairs, tables, cabinets, from the 1680s up to today”.
The Vintage Hub, run with Will Walsh (formerly of Wilde Child fashion and furniture), is a website geared to the Irish market with a Scandinavian leaning “and it has been a runaway success. Irish reaction has been incredible”
And Mid Century Online is predominantly American design furniture and essentially a lot of items made with chrome and glass, “so quite glitzy”, he explains.
His knowledge and expertise was acquired “by osmosis”, he says, and the experience as a young teenager (and the only boy in the family) travelling around Ireland with his father Matt, a man with a “voracious” appetite for antiques. “I would follow him predominantly around Cavan, Carrick-on-Shannon and the west because that was where he could get what he wanted.”
Matt McNulty was head of Bord Fáilte and Dublin Tourism, and part of a group of people who acquired Malahide Castle, Newbridge House and Ardgillan for the State. “He helped to furnish Malahide [the sale did not include furniture which had been sold separately] and bought antiques for it on behalf of the State and encouraged his friends to make bequests to the castle. Quite a percentage of pieces of furniture were acquired by my Dad for the castle and he always had his ear to the ground for anything else that he could have brought back. In fairness, he has done the State some service.”
After school in Gormanston, McNulty spent a year in Barcelona before returning home to work with his father “because people in the film industry were asking about props” in his base in Oberstown.
His first job was working on a film called The Old Curiosity Shop in 1994 and later he started sourcing props for Historic Interiors in Germany, France, Sweden and Italy. Buying in the US for the prop company triggered the start of Mid Century Online and acquisitions from Scandinavia.
“When I put [several pieces] on Mid Century Online it was a bit jarring with US design furniture because the US stuff – teak and rosewood – didn’t work with the Scandinavian stuff, so I removed all those pieces from the web and set up Vintage Hub.”
One of his biggest recent commissions is furnishing Tommy Hilfiger international shops and concessions. “I was contacted by a girl from Holland [Hilfiger’s European HQ] for a set of chairs for the Tommy Hilfiger shop in Munich and she wanted them upholstered. We have a full time upholsterer and I found her a set of Willy Rizzo dining chairs for the changing rooms.
“We have a can-do business – nothing is problem and we don’t put hurdles in people’s ways. I got her to send me the fabric, covered the chairs and put them on a photographic set and sent everything to her. She was thrilled to bits. And then I got another call for a brass coffee table for Doha, then a request to do the whole shop in Regent Street, six side chairs, sofas of specific sizes which I drove to London myself,” he says.
Now Hilfiger has ordered a sofa and a whole suite of furniture for Saudi Arabia and more store orders are en route. “We have tons of stuff – having stuff is the least of our worries,” he says.
On a recent visit to Oberstown, the range of furniture and antiques on offer was overwhelming – from African masks and suits of armour, to sofas, old coffee grinders and even Chanel vitrines. “A woman is interested in one,” he says, “for a drinks cabinet or to store her shoes – it would work for either.”
The people who buy from him, he says, “know that there is more to life than Ikea or Arnotts and want to look further afield. As dealers we have a duty to educate and people should buy because they love something and because it is going to add something to their space and not because it is an investment. Something rare and useless is nothing. It has to be functional in today’s world. I grew up in a house full of antique items and have always had more of an interest in owning something that has a second life. I just don’t get excited by modern furniture ...”