The fine art of developing concrete ideas

Aileen Balfe: Designer and co-founder Ail+El Design

The fine art of developing concrete ideas

Aileen Balfe: Designer and co-founder Ail+El Design

What’s your background?

I graduated from college with a degree in Interior and Furniture Design. In the final year of my degree, I co-founded the Mash design co-operative — a group of product and furniture designers which promoted contemporary Irish design in Ireland and internationally. It gave a platform for Irish makers to sell their own products at a time when there were very few retail opportunities.

Soon after I graduated from college, I decided to pack my bags and move to Japan and Indonesia.

I’ve always been inspired and influenced by Asian culture and went on to complete further studies in design and textiles.

After five years I returned to Ireland, and it wasn’t long before I talked my childhood friend Eleanor into going into business with me and Ail+El was born! We worked together for several years before she went on to concentrate on her career in fine art. I wasn’t alone for long as Eleanor was replaced by my little boy Elliott who now helps me out in the workshop when he’s not busy playing and watching cartoons. He loves getting his hands dirty! My husband Ipung helps out too, so Ail+El has become a family business.

What’s a typical workday like for you?

I usually start the day with admin — answering emails, invoicing, keeping on top of accounts, and dealing with orders before heading into the workshop. The rest of the day is usually spent in production. Making Ail+El products involves mixing up concrete and filling moulds, demolding, sanding, masking, and spray-painting. So, you can usually find me doing one of these tasks!

Tell us about a recent project or design/favourite project or design you have worked on?

I’ve been working on a new two-tone colour range of planters. I love testing and combining colours and patterns. You get a great buzz when you hit on something that works.

You can get a set of four Ail + El concrete coasters for €24.
You can get a set of four Ail + El concrete coasters for €24.

What’s your design style?

Ail+El’s style is contemporary — my homeware combines the industrial qualities of concrete with geometric patterns. I don’t really like the idea of boxing Ail+El off into a specific style category though, as I like to think the style will evolve over time.

What/who inspires your work?

Ail+El’s work is mainly influenced by graffiti and street art. Living in Dublin, I draw a lot of inspiration from the city and contemporary architecture. I’m also influenced and inspired by artists and designers from bygone eras, especially Bauhaus and the Art Deco period.

What’s your favourite trend at the moment (if you have any)?

I don’t really follow trends, but one trend that I think is wonderful at the moment is houseplants! It’s so good to have greenery in your home and it’s great for the air quality too, plus it’s good for business, so long may it continue!

Ail+El’s tall concrete planter, €38, small planter, €28, and candleholders, €10.
Ail+El’s tall concrete planter, €38, small planter, €28, and candleholders, €10.

What’s your most treasured possession?

I treasure my photographs. Other things are the bits and pieces I have collected on my travels: prints, ceramics, jewellery. I love my old passports. It’s so nice to look back at the visas and stamps of the places I’ve been.

Who would be your favourite designer, or style inspiration?

It’s tough to choose one as there are many designers, past and present, who I admire. I’m always drawn to pattern and colour so if I were to name a few, they’d be: Eileen Grey for her patterns, especially her rugs; Lucienne Day’s printed textiles; Frank Lloyd Wright — the patterns in his stained glass are beautiful; Martí Guixé for his ideas and concepts; Hella Jongerius; Patrick Scott...the list goes on!

What would be a dream project for you to work on?

I’d really like to collaborate with other Irish designers on a project or product. There is a wealth of fantastic Irish designers out there and so many that I would love to work with.

Top design tips?

Invest now and again in pieces you are drawn to, like prints, paintings, ceramics, and textiles. Buy yourself flowers and plants. They always brighten your mood! Don’t worry about killing plants, succulents and cacti are super hardy. Lastly, don’t be afraid of colour.


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