K nown for his unique ability to express lyrical and sculptural shapes in wood, blending functionality with assured fluidity, Joseph Walsh is renowned as one of contemporary design's most important and influential voices.
From functional, domestic pieces to large-scale, site-specific works, Walsh's expressive and dynamic designs are celebrated all over the world, with his work displayed in institutions including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, critically acclaimed for Walsh's soulful approach to design and instinctive understanding of raw materials.
Speaking from his studio in County Cork, the designer discusses his design philosophy, his recent Gestures collection - which is available to purchase here - and how he forever maintains the balance between function and beauty.
How has being a self-taught designer and artist affected your practice compared to peers who followed a more traditional route?
I think I had that proximity to materials and making from a very early stage. And then being where I’m based in Ireland: had I wanted to pursue a more design-led career, we don’t have that kind of manufacturing base that one might find in England, or more so in Europe. To be a designer you almost have to make it here. And I guess by the time I got to the point whereby I was presented with opportunities to just design for some of the more known brands, I realised that actually I was too attached, not necessarily to the making, but to the control that it gave me, as opposed to designing within parameters of manufacturing.
My parameters have been more about the purist pursuit of form, as opposed to the kinds of parameters that exist in the larger industry of the design sector, I would say, which is more about the economics of manufacturing or processes that are established.
How would you describe your studio space in Cork?
It started as just me – a small studio in a converted farm building around 22 or 23 years ago. And now it’s grown into the farm where we occupy all of the buildings. It’s quite vibrant; there’s about 20, 25 people employed, working predominantly in wood although there’s a research element, working with other materials. It’s a small little vibrant centre of excellence in rural County Cork.
What are the origins of the Gestures collection that is on sale at Sotheby’s? How did that project begin?
I could almost go back about 10, 12, 13 years, whereby my work took a change into the Enignum series, which involved developing a way of working with material which allowed these fluid, sinuous forms. In the years that followed, I scaled that process to the point that we started to make the Magnus series: monumental sculptures in wood.
I guess the more I got into that sort of vocabulary, I wanted to bring that back down into the more domestic scale. When I started drawing the Gestures, thinking about how the monumental Magnus series had been drawn with charcoal, I started to take the charcoal and draw these silhouettes of functional pieces, with that kind of thickness and volume and that larger mass, that sculptural presence. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. So, we ebonised this entire series for the launch of the Gestures series to connect back with those charcoal drawings.
And what does the ebonisation process involve?
There’s a dark wood called ebony, common in travelling chests from 500 years ago. To darken any other wood became referred to as ebonising. The method of achieving that differs, and there is a whole variety of ways of doing it. In this instance we’re using a Chinese ink which gives us this really deep penetration so there’s kind of a depth of blackness as opposed to a dye on the surface.
What can you tell us about the pieces at Sotheby’s?
There are two different groups of chairs: six Enignum locus chairs, which are more delicate, dancing sculptural forms, and three quite large, bold Gestures lounge chairs, lower and more buoyant. I always like making chairs because it’s almost like the ultimate challenge, in a way, to do something that’s a beautiful, fluid, dancing sculpture but you can still sit on it, and it offers support in the right places and it’s comfortable.
We also have a large dining table, which is again quite a bold, Gestures composition in the base, and then a solid ash top made from a single tree, but treating it almost like slabs that just nest in together to create this wonderful top with the joints expressed and sculpted. In that instance the wood is almost treated more like marble.
What have you learnt over so many years of working with wood and why is it that that material still speaks so strongly to you?
I started with it very young, so that helps. I know it better than any other. So, it’s my kind of default go-to material. That’s not an insignificant thing.
I like the idea that we kind of share a lifetime with a tree, in a way. They’re growing in our lifetime, and using the material well in our lifetime that can be replenished in another lifetime makes sense. There is the wonderful diversity and variety in the characteristics of the material. Even within a single species, as you get more and more familiar with it you see the difference from one tree to the next.
I’m fortunate because when I was really young, I had local farmers giving me trees – you had a chance to ask somebody to cut them with a chainsaw, fell them. That kind of knowledge and experience really stays with you. And if I hadn’t had that opportunity I’d probably just be buying timber in the sawmill and missing so much of the potential.
How do you approach the functional versus the aesthetic? Are you always balancing the two in your mind as your design?
I think I just basically move between more or less functional and non-functional. I’m on a sliding scale. Where pieces are somehow free of function, they have to be very, very, very good. If they serve no function, then the sculptural presence must be incredible.
I really like that interplay. It’s very rewarding making functional pieces that are also beautiful, and I like the kind of intimacy and contact you can have with a sculpture that is functional. In a way I see that separation as a kind of artificial construct as opposed to really having any greater meaning. I don’t see the hierarchy I guess in a way. I just move fluidly between them.
Main image – Gestures Bench (2020). Photo: Norman Wilcox-Geissen