Plane living: A peek inside the home of furniture designer Fergal O’Leary

Carol O’Callaghan talks personal taste and living life with furniture designer/maker, Fergal O’Leary at home.

On a bright and frosty morning, a trip to the Cork suburb of Ballintemple for coffee and a chat with a furniture designer, brings with it the bonus of discovering a clutch of red-brick houses sequestered at the end of a drive, once the entrance to a mansion.

Ten years ago, furniture designer Fergal O’Leary, wife Shirley, an educator, and children Jack and Mary Jane moved into this enclave and made it home.

While I drift through it taking in the furniture, art, and objects of day-to-day family activities, Fergal serves coffee on what I suspect is an offcut of wood from his studio workshop, but today is masquerading effectively as a tray.

It speaks of a philosophy of using what you have, and also of inventiveness, and a home layered over time with the

texture of different experiences. It includes objects and art picked up on holiday, furniture gifted by family; prototypes of Fergal’s work; bought or swapped pieces; books and guitars, lots of guitars.

From day one, Fergal explains, it wasn’t a show house.

 “I brought home furniture I had been making, although most of it was sold by Christmas.”

Today, the living room is largely furnished with his work — a shelving unit, television and stereo cabinets, occasional tables, and the Stanley coffee table. The latter is made from red laminate and beech wood, a prototype which came home for testing, resulting in a rounding of the edges and corners after his daughter bumped her head on it.

His Mary Jane chair, his favourite piece, sits in four subtle variations around his dining table of American red oak on a base of Irish cedar and oak, at one end of an open-plan kitchen. Fergal says, “It was made in a hurry so we’d have it for Christmas dinner.”

It’s now his favourite part of the house, feeding into the family’s love of entertaining.

 “We love having people round for long afternoon eating. Feed the kids first, then everyone sits for hours, eating, talking, drinking.”

He’s supplemented the Mary Jane chairs with two Eames DSW models in blue and pink, and gives away a trade secret. “When you add in colour, it makes natural wood ping,” he explains.

But the piece I’d like to take home is a dominant free-standing larder. 

Given Fergal’s penchant for naming his furniture after people (he also has Jack and Stanley chairs) I reckon it’s a Khal Drogo — statuesque, desirable, and a tad menacing. Utterly practical, this storage beast is where drawers are filled with kitchen textiles and shelves offer up everything from cornflakes to champagne flutes.

For a touch of what Fergal calls “Ikea — but with better materials”, a configuration of his own modular pieces in a fireplace alcove shows off items like books, ceramics, wooden bowls, and a line of interesting postcards, no doubt picked up on family visits to museums, and a natural extension of original print art dotted around the house, much of it by local artists.

For an injection of humour, above the fireplace hangs what the family calls Fat Mona, a rotund La Gioconda brought back from honeymoon in Thailand, and which looks, as Fergal puts it, “as if she’s been blown up by an air pump”.

There’s another work of note, somewhat quirky, but with decidedly local origins.

It seems a visit to the mechanic for car repairs yielded a metal timing belt, which Fergal mounted on a slice of waney edged European cherry wood and hung in the hallway.

It’s definitely the conversation piece of the house, I think, until I drift into the living room and my eyes come out on stilts at the sight of two black vintage swivel chairs. There’s something of Arne Jacobsen’s Egg chair about them, but not quite.

“I grew up with them in my parents’ house,” Fergal explains. “They were bought in the ’70s but I have no idea who made them.”

Not that it matters, as they have both sentimental and design value for a man who says if he could have any piece of furniture in the world it would be the Hans Wegner CH07 Shell chair.

Given that he might have to dispose of a few beloved guitars to accommodate it, I suspect it will stay on his wishlist for a while.

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