Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Considered by Helen James

After writing about the revitalisation of Dunnes Stores in recent years, I got asked to come in and meet one of their designers, Helen James...which I promptly (and over-enthusiastically) said yes to. Luckily for me, this coordinated with the recent opening (just last Friday) of the new café attached to, and showcasing, her collection of homeware and food and we sat down with some great tea for a chat in the wonderful space on Drury Street.

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Upon entry, I squeed in delight for a while as I took in the décor which echoes the core values of the collection as Helen describes it, "traditional but really modern - clean lines, simplicity" imbued with "the idea of nostalgia but seen through a modern lens". It's wonderfully cosy and masterfully combines a workable café space with room for the artful arrangement of the products that started the whole venture in October. The walls are stripped back of their plaster, revealing the red brick underneath and the fireplace they discovered while renovating. The tables are made of heavy solid woods and the colour scheme is beautifully calming and harmonious. Scented candles burn on the display tables next to fresh fruit scones. Copper pans glint on the shelf and mugs with cheeky messages sit next to them. It's a wonderful celebration of traditional Irish design in homes without being twee, while remaining cool and contemporary. "I lived in New York for twelve years and there's nothing like being away from home to make you look at things differently and appreciate things. I always think that's why John Rocha was such an interesting Irish designer because he came here from Hong Kong and he could really see Irish craft and appreciate it in a way that maybe someone closer to it couldn't."

Helen also notes how important it was to make the range very Irish and to work towards our strengths "There are a lot of Irish elements in the range. Like, all of the food was made in Ireland. And we're working with amazing producers. I mean, the food scene here is so good, it's just insane." We agreed, in fact, that Dublin and Ireland, in general seem entirely revitalised with exciting food and design scenes emerging. But the consumer has been made wary by the tougher times of the past few years and expects more for their money. "Independents are moving in and bringing a different perspective. And I think retailers have to work harder for your dollar now and it's made things much more interesting." In the case of Dunnes "it's like, how do they move forward? How do they stay relevant in a swamped market?" Their take on designer collaborations seems very much the answer. Especially as "all of the brands fit together but they're all very different, they have different personalities."

Value was just as important to Helen as good design and quality "for me, working with Dunnes meant creating something of really good quality but offered at a price point that was really accessible. That was really important to me, I'm very much of the Eames' philosophy of design for the masses...I love the idea that even producing something in a large retailer, you can do something really interesting. Y'know, this range was a new concept, it was the first time that Dunnes brought food and textiles together...Which was really exciting."

The full realisation of bringing food and design together can be seen in the café and Helen's hand is in everything, down to the design of the display shelves and the menu. The attention to detail, the care, is apparent. With Gruel alum in the kitchen and wonderfully friendly (at the exact right level - not too much or too little) staff front of house as well as Helen's continued presence, it gives a boutique touch to something mass-produced. Though, the food in the Drury Street location is anything but mass-produced. Cookies had just come out of the oven as I walked through the door and coffees are served with truly artful designs on top via their talented barista. And, actually only 15 out of 150 stores nationwide will carry the range for now so as to "keep it in stores where people are going to get it for now" and to protect the brand.

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Perhaps what most endears both the range and cafe to any and all who see them is the sense of sincerity. It seems very natural and beautifully put together but homely. Helen was given the freedom to do as she wished with the brand and, as a result, it truly represents her as a designer. In fact, "when [she] showed pictures of this place to [her] kids, two of them said 'Oh, it looks just like our house!'" And Helen laughs, "when I brought samples home for a photoshoot with Image Interiors, everything just fit perfectly into my house and I was like, 'Oh, I jut want to keep all of them, I love them so much. I just want them to be here all the time.' So, yeah, it is very much my aesthetic. That was the thing, too I was given complete creative freedom to do what I wanted."

Helen remains excited by the unlimited potential of this new venture of Dunnes' as it gives her the space to try things she never could before. "I had my own label here for eight years and it was so difficult to be competitive because costs are so high. And that's why it's nice to have an economy of scale behind me where I could do something and I knew it was immediately going to go into fifteen stores...that was really exciting for me as a designer because it opened up a whole set of other possibilities."

As to what next? The brand will continue to try new things and move forward; "it won't be a wiping of the slate, it'll evolve. So, it won't be 'this season it's blue chintz', it'll be much more organic than that. For example, in Spring, we have a whole range of tableware that's going to be the same as the ceramic storage jars we have now...more shapes, a few more colours...We're doing some gardening stuff. We're bringing in more textiles, a little bit more pattern - not a huge amount." In addition, they'll have a range of teas, apple juices and lemonades, herb rubs and new flavours in the existing range of chutneys, sweets and preserves.

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So, drop into Drury Street for an absolute treat if you get a chance and keep an eye online and in stores for the future (surely) successful expansion and progress of the brand. Oh, and I highly recommend the apple and mint tea...it's amazing.

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