In Dublin’s Fair City
Design takes its place among the Irish capital’s many lauded legacies.
Dublin: The land of tall, milky pints of Guinness, cozy old-school pubs, cobbled lanes, and eminent works penned by literary greats. And now, topping all of the history-steeped accolades comes a new kind of cool: Irish design.
In the past few years alone, representatives from the industry have won
Oscars for production design, snapped up gold medals for architecture, and taken center stage at fashion weeks from London to New York. In 2015, Dublin even pipped many a global powerhouse to the post as World Design Hub, chosen by the International Association of Designers as a “pioneer of design.” It’s a big coup — one that has allowed the capital to soar internationally, both creatively and economically. And it’s well deserved.
Surrounded by a rich store of age-old castles and monastic sites, and filled with magnificent Georgian architecture, the city is certainly no stranger when it comes to impressive structures and innovative design. Each century has produced its own landmarks, from remains of Viking dwellings at Wood Quay and the 13th-century Gothic St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to the porticoed General Post Office and more.
On the smaller-scale side, cooperative workshops in Dublin have been producing stained glass, graphic art, textiles, enamel work, metal and woodwork since the late 19th century — ever since the Arts and Crafts movement spread to Ireland. Handcrafted skills continue to pass from generation to generation, creating such iconic products as Donegal tweed, Waterford crystal and Aran knitwear.
Indeed, Dublin’s history includes its share of capturing hearts and creating masterpieces, and that continues today. But the modern design scene’s ascension has not been easy. The emerging industry was devastated by the Celtic Tiger (Ireland’s economic boom from the mid-1990s to early 2000s). High city rents forced many designers to work in isolation, usually from home studios, until — ironically enough — the recession hit. Artist studios sprang up in derelict office blocks while rents came down in the city, encouraging independent shops to open. Consumers became more canny with their spending, preferring to support local Irish talent.
Success began rolling in, and since then, Dublin’s architecture has played a major role in keeping it rolling. As Grace Keeley of the contemporary firm GKMP Architects confirms: “Dublin has been a huge influence, both in terms of the built fabric and history of the city, and in terms of the strong architectural culture.”
It’s true — Dublin is a place of beautiful buildings. Trinity College, home to Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, takes first prize. Founded by Elizabeth I in 1592, it’s a handsome institution elegantly laid out around a series of interlinked squares. A close second is the city’s incredibly chic Merrion Hotel — a collection of four Georgian townhouses with the largest private collection of 19th- and 20th-century art in Ireland. The magnificent Dublin Castle also stands out for its medley of styles, blending the Viking remains of the old castle with Norman, Victorian and Georgian buildings.
This seamless mix of old meets new is reflected across Dublin, where handsome red-brick townhouses dating to the 18th century mingle with sparkling contemporary structures, the soaring, harp-shaped Samuel Beckett bridge towering above them all. Daniel Libeskind, architect of the reconstructed World Trade Center, has even joined the party with his design of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre — a glittering array of angles and glass overlooking the docklands. But it doesn’t stop there. Architecture firms are continually springing up across the city, and the veteran practice O’Donnell + Tuomey recently received the Royal Gold Medal, the world’s most prestigious architecture award.
From exteriors to interiors, there’s plenty for eyes to feast upon. The
National Museum of Ireland houses the permanent furniture collection of Eileen Gray — a Modernist design movement pioneer, who triumphed with pieces ranging from art deco–inspired glass chrome tables to the iconic Bibendum chair. Fast-forward 50 years, and furniture designer Joseph Walsh is following swiftly in Gray’s footsteps; His immensely striking sculptural designs, such as an origami bed made from strips of solid ash, almost dwarf Dublin’s Oliver Sears Gallery.
Independent homeware shops are also popping up across the city like never before, with Powerscourt Centre playing home to the best of them. The 18th-century residence of Third Viscount Powerscourt, Powercourt Centre boasts a neoclassical style that now serves as a magnificent backdrop for the design boutiques filling its space. Article stands out as one such example, having won The Irish Times award in 2014 for best gift/design/interiors shop. Owner John Adams clearly credits the city itself for encouraging this emerging scene — one that has allowed his business to flourish. “Dublin is a very liveable, relatively small-scale city, and that creates a network of likeminded individuals who can feed off each other.”
However, it’s not all about budding talent, as the big names live here too — including fashion designer Una Burke, whose handcrafted, sculptural work has been sought by A-listers including Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Heidi Klum. Yet Una remains true to her roots: “My Irish family values have given me an appreciation of handcraftsmanship and a respect for materials and process,” she says, “and the Irish gift of storytelling also comes through in my collections.”
With all of this history and liveliness, it’s not surprising that the World Design Hub deemed 2015 the year of Irish design. And as far as its associated events go, more than 300 design installations, conferences, exhibitions, talks and more will have taken place across Ireland and at high-profile international events by the year’s end.
Laura Magahy, executive chairman of the Irish Design 2015 initiative, explains the importance of all this design focus as “enhancing our lives, our environment and our society.” Indeed, the economic benefits of this initiative are staggering: An additional €10 million (nearly US$11 million) in design-based exports will have generated 200 new design-led business startups, covering every design discipline: from architecture to fashion, set design to animation.
With such activities and achievements flying left, right and center, Ireland is surely singing its way to the top, accompanied by an unprecedented amount of international renown. The capital’s lauded legacies remain, but the world of design has made its mark, too — and sealed yet another place in history for the Emerald Isle.