A preview of the Irish contribution to Tent London

Anyone travelling to London next week shouldn’t miss the London Design Festival taking place across the city until the end of this month.

A preview of the Irish contribution to Tent London

It’s far from being a totally British affair, however, as designers and makers from around the world gather to show their wares and concepts.

So popular is this festival that individual countries now set up their own pavilions to show off their native designers’ work — from locations as far away as Argentina and China as well as those closer to home like Poland and Lithuania.

Our own official Irish presence, organised by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland takes place at Tent London, an exhibition located in what was once the East End’s TrumanBrewery.

It’s a vast and cavernous building, ideally suited to hosting such an event and a splendid re-purposing of a defunct structure which has been achieved without interfering with its architectural integrity or features associated with its previous use.

Starting out as an edgy show about 10 years ago — with a strong emphasis on student work, Tent has now grown to be one of the best frequented shows at the festival, with a prestigious line-up of exhibitors while still retaining its edginess and innovation.

In more recent years, Ireland has made the journey to show some of what our design and craft makers have to offer, initially with a presence away from the main hubs of the festival, in a disused car garage on a back street in Shoreditch.

Happily, it has since moved to Tent, an altogether more appropriate venue to host a national presence among its international peers, and to reflect the standard of work Ireland is producing, which is at least on a par, and often exceeds, what is offered elsewhere.

Showing under the theme of Ó, meaning ‘from’, the objective is to give visitors a sense of Ireland’s craft heritage and how this has impacted on contemporary design — drawing on the work of over 20 designer makers working in disciplines ranging from stone, glass and ceramics to wood and textiles.

Among them is Meath-based lighting and furniture designer Shane Holland whom I first came across in 2007 when he exhibited solo at the then fledgling Tent.

Undeterred by the fact that he had a broken ankle encased in a surgical boot, he set up shop and even managed to make me an excellent espresso as I sat on one of his bench designs for a chat.

He also had Irish whiskey on offer which later he doled out to disconsolate bankers from Lehmann Brothers who had lost their jobs that day. Irish hospitality, compassion and networking all at once.

Back then there was no official Irish presence, although Shane has consistently gone year after year in a group or alone.

“It raises awareness and you get recognition by constantly going to London,” he says. “The more you’re seen there, the more seriously you’re taken.”

This year as part of the Irish pavilion, Shane has designed and made the Póg Mo Thóin Stoolín.

“It’s based on the traditional Irish three-legged stool by the fireplace,” he explains. “But I wanted to give it a bit of comfort.”

This was achieved by the addition of a cushioned seat using fabric made by Cushendale Woollen Mills, but the overall design is not a facsimile of the stool we know from fadó fadó.

Shane has given it a sharper aesthetic for modern times without taking from the design of old, but enhancing the offering by adding in the accompaniment of a matching table — the Tablín. Echoing the design of Stoolín, both are made from native chestnut with bronze wedge details.

It’s gratifying to see traditional products and materials amongst what’s on show from other Irish makers, but with new purpose.

Stoneware table products are fashioned from Connemara marble, and textiles from Foxford Woollen Mills other than blankets, which were a staple in most Irish homes before the duvet’s arrival.

An added dimension to the pavilion is a series of production spaces where visitors will also have a chance to watch some of the designers demonstrate their making techniques — like hand weaving and ceramic making.

And if there’s anyone who needs to know the meaning of Póg Mo Thóin, one of the Irish contingent at the pavilion will be delighted to translate for you.

* Next week we catch up with Dermot Bannon.

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