Who’s done the most for Irish design in the last 20 years? Eleanor Flegg’s choice is not an obvious one

Who’s been the greatest champion of Irish design over the past 20 years? If it were up to me, I’d nominate Margaret Heffernan. Maybe she’s not an obvious choice.

The famously shy (but incredibly powerful) CEO of Dunnes Stores doesn’t put herself up for awards. But under her direction, Dunnes Home has done more to bring interesting, accessible Irish-designed homeware to people across the country than any other agency.

If you’re living in the midlands or along the western seaboard and you want to buy a rug with a bit of attitude or a reasonably priced 300 thread-count sheet, or a really good skillet, you can. Because of Margaret Heffernan.

“Mrs Heffernan had the vision and she’s been involved with every single one of the designers every step of the way,” says Teresa Rafter, who set up Dunnes Stores’ Home division 22 years ago.

Now, Rafter is in charge of the homeware brands: Paul Costelloe Living, Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic, and Considered by Helen James. “It’s a big job dealing with all those big personalities! They’re all of them outright, serious and passionate about their brands.” As it turned out, Dunnes didn’t need to go looking for celebrity designers.

Fifteen years ago, London-based fashion designer Costelloe came knocking on the door at Dunnes Stores’ head office. “I met Margaret Heffernan,” he says. “She was enthusiastic and welcoming, and the rest followed.”

His homeware collection, Paul Costelloe Living, launched in 2006 and became known for classy sheets (€35 for a plain white double), collectible tableware printed with his fashion sketches (€4.92 for a mug), and excellent fake fur (€19.68 for a hot water bottle). “Dunnes gave Irish customers an opportunity,” he says. “But it gave Irish designers an opportunity too. It’s certainly been very helpful to me.”

“He’s the father of it all,” Rafter adds. “I think it gives him a break from fashion and a chance to reconnect with Ireland.”

Next came Carolyn Donnelly, also with a background in fashion, but keen to design homeware she couldn’t find in Irish shops. “We were just coming out of a recession and I knew there was a whole other customer out there. People like me! So I suggested I design a homeware range and Mrs Heffernan was delighted. There was no dampening my enthusiasm about anything I suggested.”

Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic was launched in 2012 and offered something completely different to what was already on the shelves. The designs are vibrant in colour, with lots of interesting patterns: a tactile throw in dark red with a dusty blue trim (€49.19); a seat pad in printed teal velvet (€14.76); or a trivet decorated with robins (€4.92). She has a hot water bottle too (€9.84), but hers is teal velvet embroidered with golden scarabs.

“The essence of Dunnes is that people go in regularly and they want to see something new,” Donnelly explains. “Otherwise they get bored. I’ll put a few new products out there every month. They’re there for a couple of weeks and then they’re gone.”

For Donnelly, design is hugely important to the range. “We design all of the prints and patterns and artwork ourselves — that’s what we have to do to generate an original look.”

Design is a team effort and while some of Dunnes’ designers are permanently attached to the brand, there is also a steady throughput of graduate designers, hired for a year’s paid placement. “They work under my direction and they learn so much you wouldn’t believe it! It’s an amazing experience for a young person straight out of college.”

A third range, Considered by Helen James, was launched in 2015. Having lived in the midlands, James was acutely aware that providers of interesting homeware were very unevenly distributed in rural areas. “Unless you lived in Dublin or Cork, there was very little choice and where there was choice, it tended not to be accessible,” James says.

The brand that she brought (quite literally) to the table was focused on casual dining. “I love the idea that the plate that you use every day is just as beautiful as the one that you use when friends come around.” Working with a supplier in Portugal, she pioneered a reactive glaze for mass-produced tableware. An Evissa cereal bowl costs €7.87 and is made with a glazing process that ensures each piece is subtly different from its companions.

“It’s a wonderful way to get a handmade look and it gives it a bit of soul.” She’s also enjoyed tapping into living craft traditions in India and Vietnam, where most of her furniture designs are manufactured, but is particularly proud that her candles are made in Carlow. “The candles have been a surprise hit,” she says.

Her scented candles (€9.84) come in fragrances like root ginger and lemon balm and are specifically designed not to clash with food. “It’s not going to make your kitchen smell like your bathroom!” says James. She too has designed a hot water bottle (€9.84). It has a knitted cover in wholesome red and white stripes.

“All three designers design the product in their ranges,” explains Teresa Rafter. “They’re very involved. But additionally, we have two brand ambassadors. They don’t design, but they each promote their brand.” Francis Brennan The Collection was launched in 2016. If you like the fluffy white towels in smart hotels, you’ll find similar in the range (€2.95 to €24.60). Then came a surprise hit. Cook with Neven Maguire, a range of kitchenware backed by the celebrity chef, was launched in 2019. It was good timing.

A well-designed cookware range, solid and practical, was just what the locked-down customer craved. Now it’s available in 103 stores, outstripping Paul Costelloe Living and Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic (both available in 65 stores) and Considered by Helen James (available in 32 stores, but expanding). All of these ranges are also available online.

Even Rafter, seasoned professional that she is, seems taken aback by the success of Cook With Neven Maguire. “It’s very good quality — we use the best stainless steel — and it’s very well made. People just believe in it and the people who bought a starter piece are coming back for more. And men seem to love it! They say that the women talk about Paul Costelloe, but it’s the men that are talking about Neven Maguire.”

See dunnesstores.com.

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