September 13, 2017

Joseph Walsh Keeps Craft Alive in His Irish Studio

Designer Joseph Walsh thinks children should be allowed the opportunity to fail, to have a sense of achievement, and build a “humble confidence” and curiosity. That approach certainly worked for him: At 12, Walsh crafted his own version of a farmhouse dresser, which led to his first commission at just 15 and the founding of his company at 19.

Now, in a sprawling, ordered studio on his family’s 18th-century farm just outside Cork, Ireland, Walsh and his team are putting the finishing touches on a set of 24 ebonized-walnut and leather dining chairs slated for the Duke of Devonshire’s private apartment at Chatsworth House in Bakewell, U.K. Upcoming plans include Sarah Myerscough Gallery shows in London, New York, and Miami; a collaborative workshop seminar later this month; and a three-year-long exhibition at Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Suzuka, Japan. In these and all endeavors, Walsh works with a hidden agenda: to create a culture where making and growing flourish.

The designer puts finishing touches on his Lilium screen, also crafted of ash. Photography by Andrew Bradley.

Interior Design: How has your work evolved over the years?

Joseph Walsh: Initially, I was interested in lines and silhouettes, the beautiful curve of a settle bench. But I eventually found traditional furniture to be a bit limited formally, slightly rigid and one-dimensional in terms of emotional expression. Around 2008, I started the more freeform work you see today, really layering up the piece, breaking it apart. I didn’t know how a design would translate from the scale model into full-size object—or even how to make it. I just had a sense of what I wanted to achieve.

ID: Do you begin with a clear vision of what a piece should look like?

JW: Yes and no. If I could write down the design that’s in my mind, if I could describe it perfectly, there almost wouldn’t be a need to create it. The reason to realize a design is because you can’t express it any other way.

ID: You describe yourself as “choreographer” to your team of craftsmen, engineers, and designers. How does that collaboration work in practice?

JW: The studio is a living organism, with different personalities and skills, and it’s important that the conversation and the daily mood feed into the work. The tension in that process gives the objects a kind of energy and presence.

Walsh works on his Enignum series. Photography by Andrew Bradley.

ID: You primarily make one-of-a-kind pieces. How do private commissions work?

JW: Clients typically want something site-specific, unique to the location and the circumstances. Every piece is borne of a relationship, a dialogue. But truly getting to know each other only happens when the conversation is at an advanced level.

ID: What’s the ideal?

JW: Success is when a piece really becomes part of somebody’s life, when they can’t imagine life without it.

ID: How does that differ from your public work, for instance Magnus Modus, your permanent installation at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin?

JW: There is still a private dialogue—with the institution— but also an engagement with public space. We had time for that piece to evolve, but for gallery goers, the work is an instant engagement: they’ll journey past with a glance and move on. That’s very different from a design you live with.

ID: Does your choice of material influence your design?

JW: I’ve always liked working with ash, which has a natural pliability. Pieces like Magnus Modus and my Lilium series are an interpretation of that material. The wood dictates the form; it’s a connection back to the life of that tree.

Walsh employs 15 craftsmen, woodworkers, and engineers in his studio. Photography by Andrew Bradley.

ID: As you’ve achieved international acclaim, has the world become smaller for you?

JW: Actually, no. Our understanding is that the whole world’s on Twitter, that we’re all seeing and thinking the same thing. And that’s true to a certain extent. But there is another world that doesn’t make itself public, that you can’t imagine still exists. We’re currently doing a project in an ancient Japanese shrine that’s now being run by the 97th generation of priests.

ID: Tell us about the names of your pieces, like Enignum and Erosion.

JW: The names are often about the passage of time: things growing, eroded by wind or water, dying, decaying, creating a fertile bed. Enignum, for instance, is a combination of enigma and lignum, Latin forward—the mystery of the material.

The Lilium low table, in ash, on display at “Reveal,” a 2017 exhibition of private commissions at the American Irish Historical Society in New York, where Walsh had his first solo show in 2008. Photography by James Harris.

ID: Is it important to you that you’re working where you grew up, in Ireland?

JW: What is Irish? What is Irish design? I don’t think about it in those terms, but I do think about living on this island and living in this place on this island. Having a workshop, having a team, sitting together in the farmhouse having lunch, is the continuity of how life has been on this land. There is a misconception that it’s a luxury to be everywhere. Actually, true luxury is to be somewhere and to have a meaningful connection to that place. Here you have an incredible sense of connection to the land and to the cycle of life and nature, so you have a sense of continuity.

ID: And it’s expressed in your workshop.

JW: Continuity isn’t valued enough. We’re in the age of breaking everything—disruption is the maverick thing to do. But it’s much more maverick to continue something. It’s much harder, but society achieves much more: more stability, more peace, more quality of being.

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