Matthew Thompson

The recession scared many young people away from Dublin. But for a group of creative entrepreneurs, it was just the inspiration they needed. William Shaw visits the world they’ve created.

August 20, 2015

It's 8 p.m. on a Wednesday at the Rooftop Bar of Dublin’s Dean Hotel, a 52-room property set in an 18th-century Georgian building. But it feels like midnight on a Saturday. Groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings are eating pizzas topped with Parma ham and sipping Jameson cocktails, fueling up for a night in Grafton Street’s clubs. Since opening less than a year ago, the Dean has established itself as a haven for artists, creators, and fresh-faced entrepreneurs. But it’s the corridors James Earley wants to show me. The 33-year-old designer and graffiti artist is giving me a tour of the impressive art collection—which he knows well, since he handpicked all 270 works. Aside from a single neon Tracey Emin sign, every piece is by a young, homegrown artist. “I just thought the time was right to celebrate the rich talent Ireland has to offer,” Earley says, pointing to a stylized print by design duo Ronan Dillon and Peter O’Gara of Me&him&you.

That collaborative energy extends to the hotel’s contemporary, unfussy logo and signage, created by the Dublin branding firm Indigo & Cloth. From top to bottom, the Dean is a showcase for a close-knit group of influencers who are turning their city into Europe’s latest design capital. As the 2015 World Design Hub (an honor bestowed by the International Association of Designers) and the home of Irish Design 2015 (an initiative sponsored by the national government), Dublin is midway through a yearlong program of exhibitions and events celebrating everything from furniture and architecture to animation.

O’Reilly working on a hand-painted shirtdress
Matthew Thompson

Seven years ago, the story was very different. The country was in the throes of a severe recession after the so-called Celtic Tiger boom, which lasted from the late 1990s until 2007. Property values crashed. Buildings were abandoned. Dillon, a recent college graduate at the time, estimates that more than half of his classmates left Ireland altogether.

But a downturn can offer opportunities. Dillon’s two-man company moved into deserted rooms on South Great George’s Street—they occasionally had to chase out the pigeons but they paid no rent. For its first project, Me&him&you installed rocking chairs made from old cable reels, palm trees, and a piano onto Dame Lane in the dead of night. Residents who’d gone to bed on a dirty street woke up to a grown-up playground.

Earley also saw the neglected city as a blank canvas, and he began covering unused walls in elaborate paintings celebrating Ireland’s heritage. Elk, bears, and wolves, long extinct on the island, started appearing around town. “I’m not a massively nationalistic person, but I felt it was time to make us feel a bit more proud to be Irish,” he says.

Left: Irish Design Shop owners Clare Grennan and Laura Caffrey. Right: Rosie O’Reilly of We Are Islanders with Cian Corcoran and Ahmad Fakhry of Designgoat at South Studios
Matthew Thompson

In 2009, Dublin’s artists and designers launched the Offset conference, three days of workshops and presentations by local and international experts in animation, fashion, film, and beyond. “Before that, there was more of a culture of hiding your homework. Those events brought people together,” says David Wall of graphic-design company Conor & David.

Perhaps the single most conspicuous change in Dublin today is in the area surrounding George’s Street Arcade, around the corner from Me&him&you’s original installation. The city had attempted to revitalize this Victorian district before the crash, but it wasn’t until 2012 that there was enough momentum from young designers to establish it as the Creative Quarter, a city government designation. When Clare Grennan and Laura Caffrey set up Irish Design Shop—an emporium of locally made products like prints and cushions—there, in 2013, some of the neighboring buildings were still empty. Now, it’s an epicenter of productivity. There’s Designist, which sells wooden egg cups, colorful pendant-lamp shades, and other handmade items. Around the corner, Industry carries a mix of vintage and modern furniture and housewares, like factory-style steel storage units and graphic rugs. Shop owners often congregate at Kaph, a diminutive, light-filled café that hosts art exhibits and serves gluten-free baked goods and single-origin coffee.

A locally printed calendar from the shop
Matthew Thompson

Elsewhere, abandoned warehouses and factories are also becoming centers of creativity, notably South Studios, set in an old brewery south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. On the top floor, you’ll find the intense, fast-talking Rosie O’Reilly, of the fashion label We Are Islanders, who uses sustainable materials to create pieces like bamboo-silk bomber jackets and wool trousers. “It’s about supporting local weavers and seamstresses, making what they do more contemporary,” she says. Architecture firm ABCG and photographer Kieren Harnett are also among O’Reilly’s neighbors.

To the north, across the river Liffey, Cian Corcoran and Ahmad Fakhry of Designgoat have a workshop in a former distillery. The pair, who met as seniors at the National College of Art & Design, devise aesthetic identities for shops and restaurants, including the bespoke wood furniture at the specialty coffee shops 3fe and Sister Sadie. Nearby, the Chocolate Factory is shared by an experimental theater company, several artists, and a recording studio.

Left: Artist James Earley. Right: Conor Nolan and David Wall of the graphic-design firm Conor & David.
Matthew Thompson

In a former Temple Bar garment warehouse, Garrett Pitcher presides over Indigo & Cloth. Like the Dean Hotel, it’s a place that embodies Dublin’s collaborative spirit. The painting of a fantastical beast on the outside of the building? That’s by Earley. Designgoat was responsible for the fresh, wood aesthetic of the ground-floor coffee shop and the first-floor clothing store. Pitcher also heads the biannual magazine Thread, which showcases peers who are pushing boundaries in fashion, art, film, and music.

“People leave if there’s not a community,” says Corcoran, sitting in the Fumbally café on the doorstep of South Studios. “The important thing was to stick with people who were here.”

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