Irish entrepreneurs birthing businesses from child's play

ENTERPRISING Cork dad Niall McCarthy has turned an idea — customising children’s furniture with their own artwork — into a successful business.

Irish entrepreneurs birthing businesses from child's play

Decorated with kids’ own drawings, the pint-sized tables, lockers and chests-of-drawers have become so popular that even adults are getting in on the act, asking him to customise grown-up pieces such as dressers and sideboards.

The Crosshaven-based, father-of-two established The Upcycler company four years ago after being made redundant from his job in the furniture sector.

Originally he was simply ‘upcycling’ or revamping domestic kitchens by repainting the doors and trims – but then a client who had hired him to modernise the family kitchen asked him to ‘upcycle’ a long wooden sideboard while he was at it.

McCarthy used a combination of wallpaper and pieces of decorative paper to make eye-catching panels for the front of the piece.

The clients loved it.

He decided to try customising children’s furniture using their own artwork – the process involves scanning and photo-shopping the child’s chosen artwork and turning it into bright adhesive vinyl panels which are then applied to the furniture.

The pieces went like hotcakes, and soon a whole range of customised furnishings was born.

One newly-wed couple asked him to work his magic on a chest-of-drawers — they wanted it to become a treasure-trail of wedding day and honeymoon memories, featuring everything from photographs to tickets and bills:

“They gave me a collection of the paper memorabilia to form a paper trail of their honeymoon and they asked me to work on a piece of furniture with it.

“It was very unusual and it was a once-off – the drawers of this piece are literally a paper trail of their first days of marriage, right through their wedding day and honeymoon.”

The work is very varied, he says:

“Sometimes people want to replace an old piece of furniture but cannot find anything to fit into its space — so in this case, upgrading works very well.”

“It costs money to get rid of old furniture nowadays, so people are more prepared to upcycle in order to continue using something, than to pay money to simply dispose of it.”


Jacinta Leigh, meanwhile, couldn’t bear to simply bag and store her twins’ drawings and old clothes, so she turned them into imaginative keepsakes – and began a new career.

An award-winning textile designer, the mother-of-three got the idea when she was giving her kids’ bedroom a makeover.

She transformed their imaginative artwork into “Softies”, cushions and embroidery on canvas – all made from her children’s pre-loved clothes – and the idea for Scatterpillar Designs was born.

“I was very interested in fibre art and sculptural textiles.

“The Softies are soft sculptural textiles – they make unique and special childhood keepsakes,” she explained.

Leigh made her first Softie in 2012. By January 2013, she’d signed up for a Start Your Own Business course with the Dublin City Enterprise Board, and was later invited to submit two designs to that year’s Toy Show.

Her Angry Eyeball caught Ryan Tubridy’s attention and suddenly the phone started ringing at the fledgling Scatterpillar Designs:

“I couldn’t have asked for a better start,” she recalls.

The response to Scatterpillar was so strong that Leigh was invited to take part in the Craft Council’s prestigious showcase at the RDS last January.

She quickly became so busy that her work materials started to take over the family home – then a kindly neighbour stepped in:

“There was fabric everywhere and I’d nowhere to spread out and work on a permanent basis, so my neighbour Paddy stepped in and gave me his spare room!”

A particularly special part of the business for Leigh, who lost her own first-born child when she was eight months pregnant, are the commissions she receives from the relatives of bereaved parents:

“Part of the story of Scatterpillar Designs comes from trying to hold onto very special memories of the children we have lost,” she explains, adding that the Softies have also become popular as wedding presents or as presents for grand-parents. Leigh plans to set up an online shop, and her products will soon be available in the retail sector.

“I’m currently in negotiations with a number of retailers,” she adds.


Former marketing executive Catherine Lougheed’s Eureka moment came at 7am one morning at Cork airport.

Lougheed was heading off on holiday with a friend – and the friend’s five-year-old son:

“My friend was explaining the various parts of the journey to him, and the importance of a passport.

“Her son had his teddy with him and he became very worried that teddy wouldn’t be allowed on the plane because there was no passport for him,” recalls Lougheed.

The little boy was so horrified by the prospect of having to leave teddy behind in the departures area, that Lougheed got a piece of paper and drew up an emergency passport.

“The security guy was really nice about it,” she recalls.

“Later on I sat and looked at all the small children who were travelling that day.

“They all had some sort of soft toy with them — a teddy or a bunny or a monkey or a doll – and I thought about how it could be an idea to offer a service providing passports for children’s toys.

“For some children travelling can be a very daunting experience.” Being trusted with the responsibility for Teddy’s passport helps take the child’s mind off the journey and makes them feel grown-up, she says:

“Around that time there were stories about Gerry Adams tweeting about his teddy bear and it was also the same time that Minister Simon Coveney was introducing horse-passports so I felt why discriminate against teddies!”

After designing her teddy passport with the aid of her niece, she launched her company in April of 2013:

“The passports are in dark burgundy so at a cursory glance they would appear to resemble the real passports issued to other members of the family — but the harp on the front has a Teddy’s head on it.”

Teddy travels with the collaboration of the Minister for Toyland affairs of Ireland, she says, and, although her service started out providing the passports for small children, some grown-ups have received them as gifts also:

“I know someone whose daughter was emigrating to Australia and she was bringing her teddy — so her mother got a passport for the daughter’s teddy.!”


Sex and the City was the catalyst for a mother-of-two Laura O’Mahony’s new business. One cold dark night in 2009, O’ Mahony, then a marketing manager with Limerick Institute of Technology was watching an episode about a baby shower:

“I saw a nappy cake on this programme, which was about a baby shower. I think it was Miranda’s.!

“The cake was made up in tiers like a wedding cake, but it was made from disposable nappies and then decorated with things like baby blankets, muslin blankets, bootees, soft toys and organic baby products.”

Shortly afterwards she gave birth to her first son Joe – and coincidentally received a nappy cake as a gift from a family friend who had seen them in the USA during a visit there. Laura liked it so much she decided to make one for her cousin, who was due to give birth a few weeks later:

“I have a background in graphic design and I’m good with my hands. My cousin loved it. I brought it in to the hospital ward and everyone came over to look at it — nobody’d seen anything like this before.”

All of a sudden she was getting phone calls from people who wanted to buy nappy cakes:

“Nobody was really doing this at the time and I saw a gap in the market.”

The timing was perfect — her temporary contract with the college was due to finish, and she wanted to spend more time at home in Clonmel with her baby. So she decided she’d set up her own business and hasn’t stopped nappy-caking ever since.

These days Laura rises at 5.30am to keep up with demand for the ‘cakes’, which start at €50 and are made of eco- nappies, fleece blankets, muslin blankets, designer soft toys and organic baby care products. But that’s not all — the concept of the baby shower has now caught on to such an extent, that Laura also offers special baby shower gifts like baby changing bags and blankets.

Last year was her best to date.

“It can be manic but I now have a good salary every week from the business and it’s growing steadily,” she says happily.

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