Boom times have a lot to answer for, especially the aesthetics of the show house. The show houses are luxuriously appointed, but decorated without character. It’s intentional. Their role is to be a blank canvas on which potential buyers can project their future. Furniture and accessories are there to help the imagination (empty rooms seem terribly small). The blander the decor, the wider its appeal. Because if a person can adore navy blue walls; another would run a mile.
It’s a sensible selling psychology, but things got complicated when real estate agents circulated pictures of show home interiors in magazines. The magazines were delighted. A lavish photo shoot they didn’t have to pay for, plus an advertising contract? Sweet. The problem was that readers, often unsure of their own tastes, admired the glossy photos and thought you were meant to live that way. And so they decorated their houses as show houses. Everything was brilliant. Everything was new. And nothing had personality at all.
It’s not a way to live. Real houses, even those that are pathologically tidy, reflect the life experience of the people who live there. David O’Brien, a Cork-based interior designer, is committed to creating homes that include meaningful objects and furniture collected over the years.
“I call it sentimental interior design,” he says. “It’s my favorite method of working with clients, connecting with their childhood and happy memories. Your home should feel familiar and safe and the decor should reflect that. This, he points out, is especially important in new homes. “It is this conviviality that the architecture does not even take into account. In older homes, it builds up naturally – things like marks on the wall where children’s heights were measured. You don’t want to imitate that. You want to create it in a different way.
In 2021, O’Brien’s own home was a finalist in the RTE TV series House of the year. Viewers might remember it as the one with a grand piano in the kitchen. “There’s almost nothing in my house that hasn’t been picked up on my travels,” he says. “Some of them are kind of ridiculous, like the rock I picked up at Alcatraz or the cap my dad wore before he died.”
Almost every piece of furniture has a story to tell. Her chesterfield sofa was spotted on Done Deal. “It was advertised for €2,000 and was well over my budget, but I kept checking. One morning I woke up and it was reduced to €500! But his favorite item is a bit unlikely – it’s the porch door. “Dad was a builder and I was so sad that he didn’t live long enough to build my house like he did for my siblings,” O’Brien says.
So he built the house himself, and when it was built, he went to get a door. “I would be quite particular. I looked for a few seconds at a construction supplier in Cork and found a door that looked perfect. Then he noticed his father’s name written on the side of the door. “He had ordered it for a bank that was never built. I’d be pretty skeptical with stuff like that, but what are the odds? They gave it to me for free because he paid for it twenty years ago. It is now one of my treasures.
O’Brien is an avowed diver with a knack for finding bargains. “I check the Facebook market every night and last weekend I found a Victorian lady’s upholstered bedroom chair for £90. These things come to you if you’re consistent, but it feels a bit like fate. Other treasures include a Persian rug; another Facebook Marketplace find. “I met the lady outside a supermarket in Charleville and she had this rug wrapped in brown paper. There was a corner torn from the bag so you could see the pattern.
It turned out that his uncle had worked in the Middle East in the 1960s. He had brought the rug back to Ireland but had never unpacked it. “I liked the idea that it was never unboxed. It sums up this generation. They thought they could work around it, but they never did.
Katharine Deas, owner of homewares store, Oriana B also believes that the story behind a piece of furniture is as important as the look and function. “I’m going to tell you a story about my favorite room and arguably what started my whole journey with interiors,” she says.
“When I was 16, I took a typing course and asked all the local estate agents if they needed typing skills. As it happened, we had just lost a secretary. I went for a quick interview and was asked to start immediately at the Camden branch of Lloyds Estate Agents in London Lloyds paid me a full secretary’s salary and with that came a new form of independence and freedom. I was a grown man and it was bliss! Summer ended and Deas went back to school. She set her sights on a mahogany pedestal desk and rode off to London with her mother.
They met at GF Austin & Son in Peckham, where Deas parted ways with £775 for her dream office. It was more than half of what she had earned that summer. “This desk has come with me everywhere since then and I still love it. Mahogany isn’t so trendy right now and it doesn’t quite suit my style of home, but my sentimental attachment is huge. This summer of 1990 will never be forgotten.
Sentimental interior design is naturally inclined towards older items, but keep in mind that every antique was once new to someone. Siobhan Lam’s most beloved item is an ocher retro velvet sofa (from €1,795) that she bought from her own boutique, April and the Bear, during lockdown. “Our previous sofa was an old one from my parents, lovely but a bit tired and not exactly our style, so we wanted the new one to be very comfortable and stand the test of time.
“It’s been our trusted support throughout the pandemic and every evening we’re delighted to kick off our shoes and curl up on our soft but supportive retro couch!”
One of April’s best-loved pieces and Bear’s new boutique in Rathmines, Dublin 6, is an art print that Lam designed in collaboration with Rachel Joy Price. The print shows the word Grá, which is Irish love, on a pink or mustard background. It costs €50 in A2 format and €85 in A3 format, and 10% of the profits are donated to MASI (The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland). “It holds a very special place in my heart,” Lam says. Warm fuzzy sensations all the way!
David O’Brien will be at the DFS Interiors Theater at the PTSB Ideal Home Show April 1-3. See rjobrienbc.ie and @theblackhouse.ie. See also orianab.com and aprilandthebear. com.