Design store: Exploring Irish design at the National Museum

Building objects by hand, informed by geological markings in landscape and the coastline, inform the work of ceramicist Michael Moore.

Carol O’Callaghan explores the ever-evolving Irish design collection at the National Museum of Ireland.

We’re all familiar with the expression ‘saving it for the nation’, something the National Museum of Ireland is doing with Irish design in an ever-developing programme of acquisitions, ensuring an unbroken chronology of our design achievements by designers at home and abroad, and by those who design and make in Ireland — regardless of nationality.

Instrumental in this is Dr Jennifer Goff, curator of furniture, musical, and scientific instruments, silver and metalware, and the Eileen Gray Collection in the decorative arts and history division of the museum.

Apart from an impressively long title, she’s a woman with a keen eye to ongoing acquisition, including the most recent work by Sasha Sykes, ‘As I Am Now’, which takes the designer’s material of choice, modern resin, and crafts it into a transparent fireplace mantle.

As I Am Now’, a fireplace mantle in resin by Sasha Sykes shown here in the surroundings of Aldborough House.

“This was a gut instinct the moment I visited Sasha in her studio, back during the summer,” says Jennifer. “She was thrashing around ideas and drawing outlines on the wall of her studio for a monumental 18th-century William Chamber’s inspired fire mantle.

“Alarm bells, in a good way, went off in my head and my instinct was that this piece was going to be amazing. I watched and checked in with Sasha throughout the design process.

“The piece went on exhibit at Tresor in Berlin and when Sasha sent me the photographs I got really excited.

“Contemporary Irish design is peaking. Lighting designer Niamh Barry and furniture makers Joseph Walsh, Zelouf & Bell, and Sasha are exhibiting and being highly sought after abroad — especially in New York.”

When first appointed to her role, it was a lack of Irish furniture from the 20th and 21st centuries at the museum, which Jennifer set about addressing.

“We created the new furniture galleries to show the public that Ireland actively embraced arts and crafts, art nouveau, and art deco — and pieces from the 1940s and the golden age of design in the Kilkenny Design Workshops.”

The Torii drinks’ cabinet is made from materials such as black bolivar, red birch, white figured anegre, grey ripple sycamore, gold leaf, cast bronze, bamboo, brass, and leather, with traditional joinery and marquetry by Zelouf + Bell.

Then, as now, choosing excellence in design from a social, cultural and historic perspective are her criteria.

“I love meeting and working with new designers and artists, going to their studios, seeing the design and thought-process — supporting Irish talent both historical and contemporary.

“I look at the work of designers past and present to see an evolution in their work as I feel it is important to represent the breadth of a designer or craftsperson’s work.

“I also actively look to fill gaps in the collection. In relation to 20th-century furniture I am constantly looking at work by Barney Heron, Cyril Maguire, Brendan Dunne, Crannac furniture, and KDW from the 1960s through to the 1980s.”

Although donated artefacts and collections have contributed to expanding what the nation owns, purchases are also made through a joint partnership between the museum and organisations like the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland.

The Sanagi table by Joseph Walsh Studio, made from walnut and lacewood.

One of the most significant acquisitions of the museum to date must be the Eileen Gray Collection, purchased between 2000 and 2003.

“There are three main collections representing a veritable anthology of Eileen Gray’s varied career as a designer and architect,” says Jennifer. “The collection is comprised of 2,080 objects across photography, graphic art, new media, lacquer work, architecture, and design.

“Undoubtedly for any museum which has acquired Eileen Gray pieces, future acquisitions have become more of a challenge since the sale of the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Bergé Collection in 2009 when the 1919 Serpent armchair reached the world record price of €21.9m.”

Nonetheless the acquisitions made by the museum have also enabled opportunities to create and nurture partnerships and relationships with international institutions such as the Pompidou Centre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and MoMA in New York.

“I’m working with the Pompidou Centre and the Bard Centre in New York for an exhibition on Eileen Gray in September 2019,” says Jennifer. “This is a very exciting project and will be the first exhibition of Gray’s work in decades.

“I feel blessed to take care of this collection for the nation, and that I represent the museum in this role.

“There is an inherent pride that the museum fulfilled one of Gray’s last wishes to have her work represented in Ireland and exhibited in Ireland. We finally brought her home in that sense.”

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