West Cork has been cosmopolitan and bohemian for centuries, with a long history of embracing and assimilating new people and new ideas.
o surprise, then, that amidst the more traditional craft shops, there’s a handful of interiors outlets selling interesting things in out-of-the-way places. These shops are hardy hybrids, engaging with local customers and online shoppers as well as holiday makers.
“We don’t get that many tourists in Ballinspittle,” says Emily Connell, interior designer, art therapist, and owner of Chalk & Easel.
“Most of my customers are repeat locals. Maybe they’ve already got their houses done but I’ve got a reputation for finding the right present for people. If you come in with a description of the recipient and a price range, I can almost always help.”
O’Connell’s ability to choose gifts for people she’s never met is almost uncanny. “Maybe it’s the background in art therapy!” That said, she’s resisted the temptation to let Chalk & Easel become a gift shop. “I still have a lot of things for interiors because that’s my passion. I love the lighting, it’s so much fun. Every room should have a light in the corner. But not just a light source. It has to do something!”
Lamps range from small ceramic side lamps with linen shade (€45 to €60) to larger light fittings in metal and glass (up to €375). “Sometimes people come into my house and they see a lamp with a tag on it because somehow it’s never made it into the shop.” That would be an occupational hazard.
Her aesthetic comes so naturally to her that she knows instinctively what will work and what won’t, but with an emphasis on natural materials and longevity.
“Chalk & Easel is designed around the ethos of buying things that you’re going to keep forever,” she says. “I’m very fussy about the line, the proportions and the materials. It has to deserve a place in someone’s home. I also tend to favour things that are simple and smooth, because they don’t collect dust.”
Her pieces are sourced from London, Italy, France and Denmark as well as Ireland. Like many retailers, she upped her online game during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.
“Online has been amazing. I was so shocked at how it took off. I thought that it wouldn’t be personal but I’ve really been able to connect with people. I’ve had strangers emailing me with photos of their homes, showing me how the things that they’ve bought online look in their homes.
“I don’t know how it works, but the atmosphere in the shop seems to translate to the website, and it’s led to people coming in to the shop when they’re in the area. If they were in Cork, maybe they’d take a trip out. That’s lovely.”
It’s ten years since Claire Graham and Tom Keane opened The Old Mill Stores in Leap, County Cork. It’s situated bang on the N71, the scenic route from Cork to Killarney that winds its way through Conakilty, Skibbereen and Bantry. Not the obvious place, you’d think, for an interiors shop. But it works.
“By this stage we’ve become something of a destination shop,” Graham says. “People factor in a visit on their way to the west.” Their customers range from locals, who come in to shop for gifts, to those with holiday homes in West Cork and a bit of money to spend on nice pieces of furniture.
“We’re not Ireland orientated. There are plenty of craft shops already and that’s not what we do. We do have handcrafted items, but they’re not necessarily Irish.
“We travel a lot and it’s always a busman’s holiday, checking out what’s happening everywhere we go. We try to keep our lines unique to us. It’s extremely important to us that we provide something that nobody else is selling.”
During the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, they increased their online offering. “We did the famous pivot from bricks and mortar to online, but we also expanded the physical shop to include a third room.”
This allowed them to offer more furniture. “We don’t sell huge pieces. We’re mindful of where we’re located, so we stick to tidy things like cabinets and sideboards and nests of tables. We have the regular sellers, and then we throw in a few curved balls.”
This year’s curved balls include a range of Italian deckchairs from Seletti wears Toilet Paper (€135 each) including the iconic Shit design (black polka dots on a yellow background and a lipstick mouth with the word “shit” written on the teeth. Not your run of the mill stuff, but Graham’s a fan of the range.
She also stocks Seletti’s gold framed mirrors (€295) decorated with surrealist stickers in a collage style. One has a girl floating in the sea; another features the two of spades held in between the cheeks of someone’s bum.
A range of playful ceramics by Pols Potten was discovered on a trip to Denmark and Graham is awaiting delivery of their Roman vases, which have the look of ancient artefacts only they’re made in powdered iron and decorated in various bouncy colours (€265 for a set of 4).
For those in search of Irish craft and design, she recommends Forest and Flock in Bantry and Green Dot Design in Clonakilty.
For bigger design projects, Embellish Home Interiors in Skibbereen offers a full design service.
“We’re very lucky with the talented tradespeople in the area,” says Lorraine Delaney who started the business 17 years ago.
It began with a shop selling home accessories, which now includes paint from Little Greene and wallpaper and fabrics from the likes of Designer Guild and Cole & Son. “We travel all over Europe to try and get some quirky pieces that no one else has,” says Delaney.
In nearby Clonakilty, Helen Coughlan of Meadows & Byrne, says its shop in the town is thriving.
“From day one that store has just gone from strength to strength. People want to come in to Clonakilty. It’s part of a day out and that’s a stronger motivation for people than shopping online. The key thing for us is that we’re just across the carpark from Supervalu. That helps a lot.”
Just now, she’s reporting a brisk trade in outdoor furniture. “We sell aluminium furniture that’s pretty much rust-proof and maintenance-free. It stands the test of time. You need to if you live in West Cork with the wind and salty water pummelling at your home.”
A Grady 4 seater bistro set from Meadows & Byrne costs €349 and comes in a choice of seaside colours. “We sell from stock. It means there’s no waiting. You can buy something and put it straight into your car.”
chalkandeasel.ie, theoldmillstores.ie, meadowsandbyrne.com, embellishhome.ie