Nessa Doran O’Reilly is the founder of the wonderfully creative enterprise that is Furniture Magpies. As well as being one of Buckinghamshire New University’s Furniture MA alumni, and a first class student twice-over, Nessa is also one of the co-stars of Gok Wan’s latest show Fill Your House For Free. Furniture Magpies is a furniture design and make company that offers an alternative to mass-produced items, specialising in regenerating old furniture to meet the desires of modern life. Launching her company in 2010 at London Design Festival, Nessa has spent the last few years creating bespoke and limited edition pieces. The idea developed through her MA, where she was forced to really consider the merit of what she was doing and struggled to justify releasing a new product onto what she considered to be an already saturated market, and so the idea for Furniture Magpies was born (http://www.furnituremagpies.com).
I approached Nessa to ask her a few questions about the exciting and unique path that she has forged within the furniture industry.
Where does your love for furniture come from?
Gosh, I am not sure! I remember always trying to make furniture out of cardboard boxes and tape when I was small and being completely gutted when they broke after trying to sit on them or use them in any way. Initially I was considering fine art as a university option but really wanted a practical skill – when I saw a course for furniture (there were only two in Ireland at the time, so had not really been aware of it as a field of study) it was a total light bulb moment. I remember that complete surge of excitement and certainty on my first day that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and I have never lost that. I think the way in which furniture embodies the energy and innovation of the time in which it was created in such a tangible way has always excited me – the work created post war 40’s – 60’s captured that real sense of hope and excitement and was beautifully simple and functional. It is just the most incredibly rewarding industry to be a part of.
What is your favourite thing about making? What is your favourite thing you have made/repaired?
My favourite thing… I am in love with that moment when an idea for a piece begins to form in your mind quicker than you can get it down on paper, it is that real adrenalin and excitement to see it come to life and evolve on the bench, which is another favourite thing! I love that as your making a piece it can naturally change and take on a life of its own. Eeekkk favourite thing…. I made a coat stand on my MA that embodied a lot of the research I had done on happiness and I really loved it, I loved how people interacted with it, how it was constructed and finished, and how it provided a practical function and made people smile.
Do you think your TV show Fill Your House for Free will help raise the profile of female makers? What have you learnt from the project and your co-stars?
I never really thought of it, I got a lot of great messages from women afterwards saying they had been inspired and gone out and bought a drill or sander, but I’m not sure if they would not have done the same thing had I been male and it was the up cycling aspect that inspired them. It would be amazing if it were due to fact that they thought: ‘if she can I can’: that is something I would love to promote. The project was just so much fun and the lads where amazing, although they both probably thought that I shouldn’t be too precious about things. But I have always been horrified by the idea of sanding off original finishes and painting furniture, and although I am still not onboard with removing most finishes, painting is reversible and not altogether restoration un- friendly. The most important thing is that you allow the piece to be loved rather then sent to landfill.
How did you find the jump from furniture education to industry? How do you feel that they have closed their furniture courses?
I studied for my MA at Bucks (one in design and one in conservation) prior to which I had my own workshop in Dublin, so I was eager to get back into the professional field when I finished there. It was Bucks that really affirmed my love for the industry and re-inspired me, so I was completely heartbroken when they closed the courses. It just seems so incredibly shortsighted and the most horrendous waste of talent, experience, and knowledge. That university started as a furniture training school, it was internationally recognized and respected – I really struggle to understand the closure. I studied for my BA in Ireland where our degree courses are four years; I really believe that extra year is incredibly beneficial, as I think it did prepare me slightly better for the big bad world.
Have you had any set backs during your education/career? How have you overcome them?
There are always set backs, I was incredibly fortunate to get funding to start up a workshop straight from my BA to produce my degree project. Two years in, just finding its feet, I shattered my ankle in three places at taekwondo. As I worked alone, there was nobody to finish orders or keep the workshop going. It would be at least five months before I could get back – so I used any money I had to get orders finished and gave up my lease. I had always wanted to go back and do an MA and this seemed like the perfect opportunity, as I found there was one starting in High Wycombe in eight months time. I sold my machines and timber, saved the money and went for it. There had been murmurs about a recession, but like everybody else in Ireland I didn’t believe it as things where just so good. Within twelve months Ireland was completely devastated by the recession, my workshop would have closed and I would have never have been able to sell my machines or finance the move and study. My unlucky accident really kind of saved me.
Have you found the industry to be male-dominated?
No question it is a male dominated industry, I was buying band saw blades yesterday and every question I asked was answered to my other half … who was not buying band saw blades. This happens every time he is with me, it used to bother me, but not anymore, as I realize it is not done in malice. The support offered by everybody within the industry is just incredible though, everybody I have met is just so encouraging and willing to share advice, and I absolutely love that about furniture.