It’s a strange habit we’ve had in Ireland of not celebrating success, rooted in a culture of begrudgery that ignored and even ostracised creativity and innovation, and instead honoured herd thinking.
Furniture designer Eileen Grey, so respected amongst the art and design elite in France, and who became almost a household name there, was relatively unknown and under-appreciated here in Ireland until recent years, as was her contemporary, the Irish modernist artist, Mainie Jellet.
While Jellett’s work is now an essential part of the study of Irish art, what is less known about her is the contribution she made to design for the domestic environment.
During the 1930s, she designed a series of rugs which survived as gouache paper drawings and were produced on a very small scale during that decade, some by Jellett herself, and by her sister, at their home in Dublin: More were made by the Dún Emer Guild.
A few still exist in the house at Fitzwilliam Square which remains in the Jellett Family, although they are now in poor condition. Some were also made in France according to Eileen MacCarvill’s book of the early 1950s on Jellett, entitled, The Artist’s Vision.
Fast forward to the present day and Céadogan Rugs of Co Kilkenny, with permission of the Jellett Estate, is now licensed to make the rugs to the exact designs, though the technique used — while still handmade — differs in its execution.
“Two designs were made to be interpreted with different colours,” says Céadogan owner Denis Kenny. “The others have to stick to the correct colours and adhere as far as possible to the original designs.”
Growing in popularity for their timelessness and collectability, the new iteration of the rugs started just over 20 years ago.
Denis explains: “We were approached to make three rug designs in 1993 for the then Clare Street Gallery. It was the first I had heard of the Jellett rugs.”
This led to the development of a collection launched in 2008 based on thirteen rug designs. Two are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland and six at the National Opera House in Wexford.
It’s curious to note how Jellett opted to design a household product that inevitably succumbs to heavy wear and tear — it would appear to stem from her strong beliefs about how the home interior should be constructed.
Her essay, Art & Decoration in the Small Modern House, cited in a publication by Céadogan Rugs and Bruce Arnold, might have been considered a seminal work in a more modern Ireland, as certainly it was a work before its time back in the 1930s.
Admittedly, she was writing over 80 years ago when poverty was a feature of Irish life and so many could barely afford to eat, let alone decorate their homes.
But for those who could, and for us today, (when austerity doesn’t have the same meaning as it did then), it’s a visionary approach that would apply comfortably to any home at any time, achieving the timeless look we probably all aspire to, but are regularly distracted from, by the vogue for relentless change in trends.
She celebrated the house that was put together by the occupants and reflected their personalities, not one designed to impress, instead emphasising the importance of occupants applying their own developing taste.
Jellett also advised on consideration of the colour scheme running through an entire house — from curtains through to furniture, advocating the same colour for walls and ceilings and avoiding highly patterned wallpaper, something the Scandinavians understand.
She appreciated that ownership of original artworks was unlikely and advocated reproductions — and even posters, which is probably not surprising as she was also known to design advertisements.
Even, warm colours for north-facing walls was her style, as was the retention of polished floors topped with rugs at a time when linoleum was becoming the in-thing.
But what singled her out from other artists who moved into design and interiors is that she didn’t replicate or adapt her paintings for use in her rug designs. Instead she worked from scratch, exhibiting her first rug in a solo exhibition in 1928.
It took exactly eighty years from that exhibition to the launch of the collection in 2008, but it means the acquisition of Mainie Jellett’s work by her aficionados is now achievable through this rug collection when her paintings, if they come to auction, are beyond the reach of so many.
Next week: we visit The Rediscovery Centre
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