Meet Hugh Wallace the man behind a thousand store fronts

Carol O’Callaghan meets the man behind a thousand store fronts — the principal of architecture and design company, Douglas Wallace Consultants, and a man who’s become better known as a judge in ‘Home of the Year’.

WHEN did we start calling houses homes? An American influence no doubt, but it’s a word that is so much more inviting, suggesting warmth and comfort and a place that already seems to be imprinted with our own life story.

So it’s probably not surprising that when RTÉ launched a new programme they called it Home of the Year rather than House of the Year, with the first series airing in 2015. Among the panel of three judges who chose the winner from 21 homes featured was one of the elder statesmen of Irish design, Hugh Wallace.

“The winning house was a tour de force,” he says of the eco-friendly, split level property in Castletownbere, Co Cork, owned by a retired couple and designed by their son. “It isn’t the obvious that makes the Home of the Year, it’s about design and functionality but also about personality and creativity. The detailing was amazing, like hidden gutters, and it was done with confidence but not arrogance.”

Owned by retired couple Ita Molloy and Andrew Harvey, it was designed by Ita’s architect son Donn Ponnighaus who left his job to also project manage and build it.

He admits that the choice is also about the personal preferences of the judges, but after more than 30 years in the design business it’s safe to say his taste can be relied upon.

Growing up in Dublin in the 1960s he never had any doubt about what he wanted to do, but studying architecture in UCD was ruled out by dyslexia and not having Irish, he was excluded from applying.

He went to Bolton Street instead, now the Dublin Institute of Technology, but found a very different Ireland when he had finished his architectural studies to the one that students encounter today.

“There was no work for architects in Ireland in the ’80s so I went into business and specialised in retail design,” he says.

His firm flourished and Douglas Wallace, has a list of past and present clients that include A-Wear, Peter Mark, Brown Thomas, Eason’s, Dunnes Stores, and a range of hotels — most are still with the firm today. And that’s thanks to a philosophy that is all about creating an emotional response from the client and end user — from whoever lives in, or visits a space where he has made his mark.

When not involved in Home of the Year which is heading into its second season in late February, his private practice sees him looking after clients in exotic places like Muscat, Oman, in the Gulf. So with all this high-flying design activity, is it safe to assume his own home is something the rest of us can only dream of having?

“I’d describe my house as boring,” he replies with a chuckle. “I’m the cobbler with no shoes.” But it does have something he believes is crucial to the success of healthy living —light.

“My partner Martin and I had a fab home in Ranelagh but after 12am, the sun started to disappear and we couldn’t have a barbeque in the sunshine. Now we have a south facing garden in the new house.”

He maintains we’re getting better in this country at maximising light but we still have a long way to go. “The difference that door height and ceiling height can make to light is extraordinary. We’re still going with 2.1m doors which is the regulation minimum height, but they look squat in a room with high ceilings and affect light in the house.”

He also offers a word of caution about the ubiquitous practise of automatically building on an extension as the answer to kitchen space problems. 

“You end up with an internal room which is like the Black Hole of Calcutta. Sometimes just rearranging where the kitchen is will give you what you want.”

Planning is key, he says, but mercifully doesn’t suggest creating a mood board —instead he advises buying a much more accessible and user-friendly scrapbook, the very name of which gives you permission to paste in pictures of everything you aspire to for your home — torn from brochures regardless of whether items work together or not. The book then becomes part of your discussion with your architect.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, it can be a mess,” Hugh says. “Give a page to every room and put in what you like — doors, handles, taps, basins. Remember, your own taste is the best taste.”


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