Design – the magic world of Joseph Walsh
All images courtesy of Joseph Walsh Studio, and Jacob Peres Office
Joseph Walsh: Enignum shelves, 2016; photo: Andrew Bradley
The magic world of Joseph Walsh
Despite his relatively young age, Joseph Walsh (b. 1979) has rapidly become one of the most influential and renowned figures of contemporary design.
What makes Walsh’s work unique is an exceptional combination of outstanding design and a handcrafted making which often pushes wood bending, molding, and carving beyond conventional limits. In this sense, Walsh epitomizes what the designer-maker of today should be.
A self-taught designer, Walsh began creating single-piece and limited-edition furniture professionally in 1999, in his workshop at his family’s farm in County Cork, Ireland.
Though most famous for his sculptural furniture made in wood, Walsh also engages with other materials – such as marble, limestone, copper, and resin.
While Walsh’s forms somewhat evoke those of south Ireland’s impressive landscape – sometimes gentle, sometimes dramatic -, the practical side of his approach partly originates from having grown up in a farm where hand making, maintaining and fixing practical objects and tools was an everyday thing, he says; it was in that farm that Walsh made his first piece of furniture, a farmhouse dresser, when he was just twelve (he admits it took six full months for him to complete it, though).
Usually, each project originates from Walsh’s sketch drawings and models which are then further developed in his workshop passing through various phases – material selection, sawing, carving, bending, and assembling – up to the final finishing process (usually a lacquer or white oil coating). Larger objects are also developed in detail by using 3D modeling and structural engineering technologies.
Obviously, because of Walsh’s use of natural wood for most of his designs, an accurate selection of timber is a key factor; this is where to be both a designer and a maker really makes a difference; “During the selection we have to be careful watch out for defects in the wood, this is one of the unique values of working in terms of design and making hand-in-hand, that you’re able to really get a closeness to the material and realize a much higher potential of the ultimate piece” Walsh said in a 2010 interview.
Along with special commissions, in the last years, Walsh created a number of unique and limited edition pieces of furniture, now widely featured in major museums and private collections in Europe and the United States.
Joseph Walsh, portrait; photo: Andrew Bradley
The Enignum series
The first objects which, in 2009, brought Walsh’s work to an international fame were those of the Enignum I series – which included a dining table, a group of chairs, and a shelf – all made with thin bent layers of olive ash.
All the pieces of Enignum (a name which combines the Latin words enigma and lignum) share some common elements. Walsh’s fascination for the forms of nature, above all, but arguably also the influence of some of the most unconventional designers of the 20th century Carlo Mollino is the first to come to mind.
Yet, Walsh has been capable to go one step beyond and make his works unique by keeping the whole process, from inception to production, under his complete control, something that most 20th century designers usually didn’t.
Enignum I chair, 2009, olive ash and suede; photo: Andrew Bradley
Enignum I dining table (generall view and detail), 2009, olive ash and burr olive ash; photos: Andrew Bradley
Enignum shelf, 2009, olive ash; photo: Andrew Bradley
Enignum Console Table III, Enignum Shelf XXX, and Enignum Chair VIII, 2017, ash; photo: Andrew Bradley
The Erosion/Equinox series
In the same period, Walsh also experimented different techniques with the Erosion series, a group of handcrafted dining tables, bedside tables, and beds made with a material removal process to obtain complex, fluid forms which resemble driftwood eroded by running water and wind.
In the same time, Walsh also created the Equinox Wall mural sculpture, in which repeated vertical fins of ash are arrayed along a wall from a central axis, suggesting the cycles of Nature and time passing, with a pattern carved through the front, evoking the change in season.
Erosion I dining table, 2009, burr olive ash and olive ash; photo: Andrew Bradley
Erosion I low table (detail), 2009, olive ash and rippled ash; photo: Joseph Walsh Studio
Equinox Wall, 2009, ash, silk, copper leaf; photo: Andrew Bradley
The most recent body of work developed by Walsh is the Dommus collection (once again a word derived from a Latin term – domus, meaning house), a series of pieces – a dining table, a type of chair, and a cabinet – which reinterpret some older models by Walsh with new forms and different materials (black-lacquered walnut wood, in most cases).
In 2017, Walsh also made a large wood sculpture, entitled Magnus Modus, now installed in the courtyard of the National Gallery of Ireland.
Dommus Erosion table and Dommus Enignum chairs (2017), walnut, ebonized walnut, and lacquer; photo: Andrew Bradley
Dommus Enignum cleft cabinet, (2017), walnut, ebonized walnut, and lacquer; photos: Andrew Bradley
Magnus Modus, 2017, sculpture, laminated olive ash wood; permanently installed at the National Gallery of Ireland; photos: Andrew Bradley
Is Joseph Walsh’s art, design, or high-end artisanship? I don’t think he himself would be much interested in such a question, actually. Nevertheless, I am quite sure he would agree it’s something still very related to a small kitchen dresser made a quarter century ago by a twelve-year-old boy living in a farm in south Ireland.
All images courtesy of Joseph Walsh Studio, Jacob Peres Office, and Sarah Myerscough Gallery.