©National Museum of Ireland
By Jennifer Goff, Curator, National Museum of Ireland
Irish Modern: a slow introduction to International Modernism
In the mid-century period, Ireland was slow to adopt news ideas about contemporary furniture design. Things began to change in the late 1940s and 1950s when designers such as Brendan Dunne, John Maguire and Barney Heron brought a new Modern aesthetic to decorative arts in the country. The Irish Times reported, “There is a great deal that is good in contemporary furniture design. It is only in the past few years that it has been possible to get furniture that is modern in conception.” However, the criticism was that such quality, designed pieces were costly and only for discerning clientele. In comparison with what was happening in England and France, Irish attitudes to design still lagged some way behind, still in tune with 19th Century styles. One furniture manufacturer, on producing mass reproduced copies of 19th Century styles, said “Don’t blame us for those depressing little suites – blame the public taste.”
Dressing table and stool designed by Brendan Dunne, ©National Museum of Ireland
Irish Modern: how Brendan Dunne came to design
Following an early career as a classical musician, Brendan Dunne turned to furniture making. In 1951 he set up a large factory and workshop with Sri Lankan born Michael McMullin. Brendan Dunne continuously exhibited his furniture, constantly advertising in the newspapers. The pair had a common dislike for reproductions of 18th and 19th century period furniture and instead produced modern furniture for the modern home. Their workshop in Merrion Row employed 24 men and was exceedingly successful.
Irish Modern: Brendan Dunne’s Scandinavian-inspired furniture
Dunne’s furniture designs are characteristically simple and unornamented. The base of each piece is carried on a framework always with tapered or splayed legs. His use and choice of woods was unusual. Unlike his English contemporaries, Dunne refused to use plywood, which would have featured in other utilitarian furniture imports. Instead he travelled to Scandinavia and as a result of what he saw there, imported large quantities of teak. He also favoured mahogany, sapele, oak, ash and beech.
Dunne’s sideboard is made from mahogany with a sapele veneer. Like all of Dunne’s pieces, design was tantamount. The sideboard has spacious drawers and sliding doors that reveal well-portioned cupboards with adjustable glass shelves. His Scandinavian-inspired coffee table is constructed from veneered mahogany and its amoeba-type design reflects the work of Alvar Aalto. Dunne favoured organic forms, his free-standing teak coat stand resembling a tree-trunk. His chair and stool designs were ergonomic, functional and comfortable.
Dunne favoured bright colours in his chair and settee designs – red, orange, blue and green. In the early 1950s Dunne travelled to England, where he returned with a plethora of fabric samples, which he used to upholster his chairs. The Siesta armchair, with its curved beech arm, splayed legs and textured woven wool upholstery, was his personal favourite.
Chair designed by Brendan Dunne, ©National Museum of Ireland
Irish Modern: a symphony in teak
Dunne compared timber to musical notes. Oak suggested the key of C major and his oak dining suite he called the C Major Suite, while a mahogany bedroom suite is called the A minor Suite. His Beehive collection was entitled Symphony no.1. Dunne said, “Designing furniture is like composing music; you must bring to each a sense of rhythm and line and good workmanship.” Collections of crisp sweeping lines, sharp bespoke unique pieces also had women’s names personifying the individual pieces. Much of the furniture bore his signature in white on little black labels, placed on the underside of each piece.
Brendan Dunne’s business thrived until the banking crisis in Ireland in the late 1960s, after which he retired. Dunne died in 1995 and, like many 20th century Irish furniture designers, such as Eileen Gray, he had disappeared from public view until recently.
©National Museum of Ireland
The Brendan Dunne 1950s living room is on display at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin
A full version of this article was first published in MidCentury issue 04
For more on Irish mid-century furniture, click here