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Irish women designers continue to have an impact at home and abroad, writes Carol O’Callaghan

NOT too long ago I attended a design show abroad for this column and fell into conversation with the commercial attaché of the Irish embassy.

As I tried to impress upon him the need for the state to get behind our design industry — selling abroad in order to keep these small businesses going — I was vaguely aware of the furrowed brow of confusion settling into his face. I stopped mid-flow as he butted in, “Does Ireland have a design industry? Do you mean Ikea?”.

I’d like to point out that at this precise moment we were standing amidst some of the most beautifully designed and crafted furniture and glass work being made in Ireland, one piece having just been snapped up for €20,000 by an Austrian prince for his French chateau.

At the very same show I also found a gathering of fresh-out-of-college Irish designers who had pooled their money together to show off their wares to this audience of international buyers.

One stood out by a mile for her quirky, imaginative and brave products, but also for her natural commercial nous which seemed way beyond her years and experience. She was Jenny Walsh and today her products, which include furniture and clocks designed and made in Dublin, sell internationally.

“I guess my most exciting development has been in learning how to run a business,” she says. “How to go from being a designer to an entrepreneur and everything that goes with that. We’ve gone from three stockists to more than 40 in just one year which is the result of a lot of hard work but has been completely worth it.”

This had me thinking about women in Irish design today and their influence internationally, especially when you find yourself tip-toeing around the rarefied surroundings of ceramics’ gallery Erskine, Hall & Co in London. Here I found finely wrought porcelain designed and crafted by West Cork-based Sara Flynn.

She’s currently kept busy with two interior projects in London and New York and preparing for her next exhibition at the Oliver Sears gallery in Dublin with the working title ‘5 into 4’, plus a new body of work for London in early April. It’s hard to believe all of this is planned and executed from her studio at the end of a boreen in Leap.

One of the most intriguing designers to emerge on the design scene in recent years is Sasha Sykes whose work mainly encompasses products foraged from the Irish countryside and encased in Perspex and resins. She recently completed a commission of 92 pieces for the new Co-Operative Group HQ in Manchester and is now tackling some private commissions, including a 300kg dining table. “It’s probably my largest casting to date. It’s for a 40th birthday and has an incredible array of materials and objects we have spent the past year collecting.”

She’s also finishing a coffee table filled with Penguin books on a rusted steel base for some East London trendies and a large rose petal wall-piece similar to her Shogun stool (right) for a client in Hong Kong.

It’s easy to think Ireland’s fame for making glass is confined to drinking receptacles, but then you see the work of glass designer Bianca Divito whose lead crystal objects range from small window hanging pieces finished in multi-faceted crystals, sometimes Swarovski, to large-scale pieces of thoroughly modern stained glass.

Last summer she was an award winner at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show for one of her outdoor pieces, but not content with designing and making, of late, she’s to be found scaling one of the country’s grandest buildings doing a window cleaning job with a difference.

Perched high on scaffolding in the Lady Chapel of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, she is diligently conserving and cleaning 25 stained glass windows.

Still wondering if Ireland has a design industry?

- Next week we’re serving spring greens


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