The best of Irish design at Side by Side exhibition in Kilkenny

EVERY two years the Design and Craft Council of Ireland, in consultation with an advisory panel drawn from the design world, compiles a publication called PORTFOLIO: Critical Selection in which they feature Irish designers and craft makers they deem to have made the most significant impact internationally in the previous 24 months.

The best of Irish design at Side by Side exhibition in Kilkenny

Primarily, it’s an awareness-raising exercise aimed at collectors, gallerists, and commissioning bodies, and this year details the leading designers and makers in the disciplines of ceramics, glass, metals, paper, textiles, fashion, calligraphy, furniture, woodturning, stone, and basketry.

But what is more interesting for the general public and anyone with a love of beautifully- designed and Irish products is an exhibition based on its selection.

Called Side by Side, it takes place at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, from now until April 28, and also includes a programme of talks aimed at individuals who are keen to learn more about Irish craft and design.

It also caters for school parties, and has hands-on workshops with some of the makers, and interactive craft-making events for families.

[comment] The Duo porcelain vases by Jack Doherty.[/comment]

The exhibition itself says much about the standard of our design and craft output that the work of furniture designer and maker Joseph Walsh is included when it is rarely seen in group shows.

But the company here is extraordinarily good and includes master glass maker Karl Harron whose mesmerising pieces have a detailed aesthetic that, at a glance, suggests they might be made of finely-wrought ceramic.

Work by many of the other exhibitors has been bought by the National Museum of Ireland for the State and is now in the permanent collection.

Metalwork by Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill in silver, gold, and copper alloy can be found in the Irish State Art Collection, and museums and private collections internationally.

He uses methods like welding, fabrication, and hammerwork which creates the expectation that the objects will be somewhat less than refined, but is actually the opposite, with a surprisingly refined and delicate aesthetic.

The result is simple, straightforward objects, sitting in contrast to the work of fellow exhibitor, silversmith Cara Murphy, whose work has a more feminine aesthetic and high silver sheen.

One in particular to look out for is the design partnership of Zelouf & Bell.

[comment] Kimono cabinet in Bolivar red birch lacquered walnut by Zelouf & Bell.[/comment]

Belfast-born Michael Bell and New Yorker Susan Zelouf bring together two very different cultural heritages.

The result is eclectic and sometimes extraordinary but always rooted in the definition of design being something that is both functional and beautiful.

[comment] Gimlet cocktail cabinet in sycamore by Zelouf & Bell.[/comment]

Throughout the exhibition there are subtle reminders for the visitor that the name Side by Side goes beyond that of putting different craft disciplines together.

Craft makers participate with designers; the disciplines of craft and design sit with fine art; rural workshops — where so much of this work is made — are now associated with urban commercial galleries; and how so many of the skills employed in the making of these pieces have a wealth of historical craft development behind them combined with the input of new and advancing technologies.

There’s also a reminder of how craft has been elevated in terms of desirability to the level of art, prompting growth in a new breed of gallery specialising in craft sales, and the expansion of other galleries’ portfolios of artists to include craft makers and designers, and to see craft and design fetching prices on a par with fine art.

[comment] Walnut bowl with silver-based dye by Roger Bennet.[/comment]

Not surprising then that the curator appointed to run Side by Side is Christina Jansen, director of The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh — a commercial gallery with a special focus on selling contemporary designed objects to museums.

Design aficionados will remember the sale of Irish-born designer Eileen Gray’s Dragon chair for €21m in 2009 as part of the disposal of Yves St Laurent’s estate.

It was a small, unassuming leather chair but its significance as a piece of Modernist design is vast. Where once, craft was the poor and functional relation of art — the making of objects out of necessity — it’s fast becoming its peer in the commercial world.

Side by Side is at The National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, until April 28. It will tour to the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Parisin June and IDI 2015 Design Hub, Coach House, Dublin Castle in November.

To book: Contact National Craft Gallery at 056 779 6151, email:

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