Ellie O’Byrne met a woman who, perhaps surprisingly, was turning out craft furniture in the Cork of the 1950s and 1960s
GOOGLE “Irish women furniture makers,” and only one name crops up repeatedly: that of Eileen Gray.
Wexford-born Gray, the modernist architect and designer, became known as Ireland’s most influential furniture designer; in 2009, one of her designs, a 1919 dragon armchair, broke all records when it sold at auction in Christie’s for €22m.
But Gray aside, furniture making in Ireland has remained a largely male-dominated craft.
In the late 1950s, one Cork woman was flouting convention.
On Ita Reardon’s table in her suburban home in Cork, there’s a framed photo: A smiling young woman stands next to a radiogram holding a record as though about to place it on the turntable under the lid of the polished wooden cabinet.
This was Ita, in her early 30s… and the piece of furniture she stood next to was one of many pieces she made in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Ita was among a handful of women who began attending furniture-making classes in Cork School of Commerce in 1957, honing her cabinet-making skills under the tutelage of woodworking teacher Dan Crowley.
But Ita took it further than most.
In the space of five years, she produced an outstanding collection of over 20 pieces, including a mahogany dining table with Queen Anne-style beechwood legs, a serpentine mahogany hall table with boxwood inlay, beds, standard lamps, nested tables, and a set of six Cork 11-bar chairs.
“I used to give a few things away, but I kept most of it,” Ita, now 91, says, sitting in her comfortable living room surrounded by her creations.
She signed up for the women-only classes with a friend as “something to do on winter nights,” she says: “We thought at the beginning that it would be hard and that we wouldn’t be able to do it, but it was interesting. Just two of us started the class, and then a few more joined. We started with small things like a sacred heart lamp, or a teapot stand.
“After that, we picked what we’d like to make ourselves. I was in it five years; others didn’t stay that long.”
It was unusual for women to make furniture, but Ita was used to breaking with convention; before her marriage, in her day job with Lyons & Co Drapers, located where Bishop Lucey Park now stands, she was the only female wholesale buyer in the country, in charge of ordering women’s and children’s garments for the large firm.
Modest to a tee, Ita roundly rejects the title of furniture designer; she was simply a furniture-maker, she says.
Many of the ideas for her designs came from browsing the furniture department of Brown Thomas, then Cash’s.
“We’d go to Cash’s and I’d copy down a design as well as I could, with my friend keeping an eye out to see if there was anyone watching us,” she says.
But Ita did make improvements and modifications to her designs, such as her radiogram cabinet, which she modelled on a design from Switzer’s window.
In the days of the marriage ban, it was illegal for Ita to keep her job after she wed. And she did, in 1960, to Niall Reardon
. “At the time, I didn’t think anything of it really,” she says.
“We all would have gone back to work if it was allowed, I’d imagine. They do now.”
Daughters Linda, Claire, and Paula would arrive in rapid succession following Ita’s marriage.
It seems to have followed almost as a matter of course that marriage and motherhood would mark the end of her ambitious furniture-making projects as well as her working life.
Did she regret having to abandon her furniture-making?
“No, I didn’t,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I had three children one after the other; I wasn’t going to regret making chairs and things.”
How did her husband feel about marrying a woman who had nearly single-handedly constructed an impressive trousseau of hardwood furniture for their home? Ita smiles.
“He thought it was pretty good, I suppose, because furniture was his business too; he worked for Cash’s, so he knew that I was copying pieces.”
It would make far too good a story for Ita to have met her husband through her design-copying excursions to Cash’s; instead, family legend goes that she caught his eye one day while she was standing at Singer’s corner and he was passing on a tram.
Ita’s energetic flair for design didn’t end with her truncated furniture-making career.
As a child, daughter Claire says, she remembers their mother as constantly active: she would remodel the interior of their home, knocking through walls herself, and took up crochet and tapestry.
Ita’s final project, her set of Cork 11-bar chairs, were made between her wedding and the birth of her first baby in 1962.
A design peculiar to Cork, they are a prized item when they come up at antique auctions.
Ita also made the tapestries for the upholstered seats of her chairs, which have pride of place in her dining room to this day.
Paul Walsh of McGonigle Walsh Antiques in Blackrock was amazed to hear Ita’s story when her daughter Claire, spotting a chair in their shop window similar to the design familiar to her from her mother’s work, got talking about her mother’s furniture making.
“I’ve certainly never heard of any other woman who was making 11-bar chairs,” he says.
“It’s a design specific to Cork city. From a commercial point of view, they’re of very good quality, but you can see that they’re hand-made.” Cropping up at auction roughly four times a year, the collector’s items fetch prices of around €1,000 each; not quite Eileen Gray territory, but for Ita, being surrounded by her beloved handiwork is far more important than any material value for her work. Given to down-playing her work, and hating a fuss of any kind, all she’ll do is smile, and acquiesce: “Yes, I am still proud of them.”
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