Irish creative couples share how they work together (without killing each other)
14th Feb 2020
In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we revisit this feature chatting with five Irish creative couples who have made working together, well, work.
Although the old saying warns to never mix business and pleasure, ignoring this advice has paid off for many of Ireland’s creatives. The number of couples working together seems to prove that it is not uncommon for who you love, and what you love, to overlap. From furniture to prints, many of our well-known brands have a creative couple behind them, while other makers have partners working in a similar sphere. So what’s it really like to work with your other half, and how do creative careers influence a relationship? We chat to some couples to find out….
Killian McNulty, Mid-Century Online, and Niamh Barry, Lighting Designer
Husband and wife Killian and Niamh (pictured above) met when working on the same film, on props and art respectively. “Technically,” Killian admits, “I answered to her during the shoot,” but since then, the only time their work has overlapped was when they were designing their beautiful Clontarf home. The general way this worked, according to Killian, was that “Niamh designed the space and I furnished it. The rule on the furnishing front was that I got very excited about something and brought it home. If Niamh liked it, it stayed, and if she didn’t, it left. Is that a collaboration?”
Niamh and Killian’s Clontarf home, shot by Ruth Maria Murphy
Joking aside, the couple’s shared creativity is a point of connection rather than conflict, for the most part. They do discuss each other’s projects, which Killian admits, “can create quite heated discussions.” For example, he explains that while he discusses Niamh’s work with her generally, she won’t accept comments on her design process. “I totally respect her for that, and it’s why anything that Niamh creates is one hundred per cent hers. She is rarely influenced by anyone.”
Similarly, he says that while he will take on board Niamh’s opinion of furniture he is buying, “a thumbs down from her will not always be the death knell of my desire to buy it.” Ultimately, though, the couple appreciates their common awareness of the importance of good design, a shared interest that sparks many of their conversations.
Adam Frew, ceramicist and Catherine Keenan, glassblower
Another couple brought together through their work, Adam and Catherine met at the Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart. They had adjacent studio spaces there for five years, but they have since built a shared studio at their home in Co. Derry.
Working side by side suits the couple, as there’s always another opinion, or another pair of hands to meet a deadline if needed. “Adam does some glassblowing at any opportunity, he enjoys the challenge,” Catherine says. “I’ve had a few goes on the potter’s wheel, but have found that Adam makes it look annoyingly easy.” It’s also an antidote to the often solitary life of an individual maker, Catherine admits: “sometimes it’s just nice to have someone to eat lunch with!” Their studio will also increase how flexible the couple can be with their work, especially since the arrival of their daughter just over a year ago.
Working so closely together, it’s somewhat inevitable that they share thoughts on each other’s projects. “We do tell each other what we think, and we don’t sugar coat it!” Adam explains, “You wouldn’t respect the other’s opinion otherwise.” Luckily, they like each other’s work so it doesn’t cause too many arguments. They have collaborated only once before, on some ceramic bottles with glass stoppers, but would like to work on more projects in the future.
Julie & Owen Mc Loughlin – Jando
This Dublin printmaking studio had a rather romantic beginning. Julie and Owen were planning their wedding when they began to see the potential that their collaboration could have. “After many fruitless searches for stationery we decided it was easier to create our own,” explains Owen. “We created a personalised hardback book which included the story of how we met, profiles of our guests and a compartment containing confetti, badges and luggage tags. On the book’s dust jacket we wrote ‘A Jando Publication’ as a little joke between ourselves. Jando is an acronym for “Julie And Owen”.
The couple say that their relationship affords them an honesty with each other that can be very helpful. However, Owen explains that working so closely with your partner makes it impossible to avoid conflict. “It’s important not to allow these business disagreements to spill over into your personal lives. We’ve got thick skins so any conflicts that do arise tend to be forgotten pretty quickly.”
In terms of advice for any couple thinking of working together, Julie and Owen are clear that you both have to be completely committed to the product as well as each other, as it’s not going to be easy. However, creating work together they are proud of is worth it, Owen says, “so you have to learn to enjoy every single success no matter how big or small.”
Sam Hutchings and Nessa Doran O’Reilly – Sam agus Nessa
This crafty duo met in London where they were working in furniture making and restoration. As they put it, “we were both running our businesses from the same workshop, and our benches got closer and closer!” They decided to make the move to Ireland to set up their own business, where they create fun homeware crafted from Irish timber.
Their shared interest is what brought them together, and they believe their relationship is essential to the business they have created. “Our company is completely tied to, and an expression of our relationship – it wouldn’t exist without it,” explains Nessa. “Our products are influenced by our life together.” The downside of this is that when business gets hectic, so does their home life. “The only thing that makes it manageable is that we are chaotic and busy together,” says Nessa. To key to making this intense work/life relationship work, the couple believes you both have to love what you do, and be equally invested in it.
Kathryn Wilson and Shane Cotter – Architectural Farm
This Dublin-based couple met while working in the same office, so they knew there would be no surprises when they made the decision to start their own practice. They admit that there was a period of adjustment in the beginning, but would advise any couple working together to “be patient, accept there will be disagreements and challenges. By giving each other space you will find a rhythm that works for you.”
The main disadvantage of working together, the couple believes, is that “we effectively have all our eggs in one basket, and given the cyclical nature of our industry, when business is slow, we are both dealing with that together.” There are also huge advantages, however, both for their work and personal lives. “Working and living together means when ideas arise they can be discussed at any time. You could say that our work naturally meanders in and out of our life outside of the office, which is great as discussing things outside of the office environment can bring a different prospective to a project.”
They also value how honest they can be with each other, without the fear of office politics. Shane and Kathryn’s three children have benefitted a lot from the flexibility having their own practice gives: “Our children have been party to many architecturally themed dinner conversations and site visits!”
Featured image: Ruth Maria Murphy
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