The Irish Archives Resource is delighted to announce that this year we will be participating in the Archives and Records Association’s #ExploreYourArchive Week! Each day, for the next nine days, we will be posting a blog to celebrate some of the fantastic archival collections that have been contributed to the IAR. For this celebration, there is no better theme to begin with than tradition. 

Despite its small size, Ireland is celebrated internationally for our rich history and symbolic traditions, playing a significant role in shaping both our cultural heritage and identity. However, for these traditions to survive, they must be preserved. Many are passed from one generation to the next, shared within families and communities. On a higher level, there have also been a number of government-led initiatives throughout the years to promote their preservation through practice, one example being the establishment of the Kilkenny Design Workshops, which first opened its doors in November 1965.

KDW/NP/16/32 Textile designer Jenny Trigwell at work in studio, Kilkenny Design Workshop Collection, National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL), NCAD, Dublin. Image via Digital Repository of Ireland.

The History of the Workshops

In the decades following the Second World War, the Irish government placed a major emphasis on improving the nation’s economic growth. The establishment of Córas Tráchtála, otherwise known as the Irish Export Board, is just one example of the steps taken to achieve this. Established in 1952, just one year after the arts council, the board were primarily concerned with the design, packaging, and marketing of Irish products, however in 1960 they officially assumed the responsibility for improving the standard of industrial design in Ireland, and three years later, the concept for the Kilkenny Design Workshops was born.

Led by William (Bill) Henry Walsh, general manager of Córas Trachtala Teo and founding chief executive of Kilkenny Design Workshops, the board invited the Scandinavian Design Group to Ireland in April 1961 to conduct a survey of Irish factories, workshops, schools, and colleges assessing the current status of design education within the country. The group was comprised of five designers, heralding from Denmark, Sweden and Finland. It was from this survey that plans were set to create workshops with the principle function of the “production of well-designed prototypes for industry”.

The stables of Kilkenny Castle were chosen as the location for a total of five workshops, providing a home for craftsmen and women to train and specialise in traditional methods of textile weaving, textile printing, ceramics, woodwork, silver and metalwork. Their doors were officially opened in 1965 by Dr. Patrick J. Hillery, then Minister for Industry and Commerce, bringing in European designers to create products which were to then be offered out to industries on a royalty basis. 

As the workshops gradually expanded, graduating from craft production to industrial design, they also increased their presence within the world of education. In 1966, under the new general manager of the workshops, Jim King, a design scholarship was established, awarding one student a year from Irish colleges with a year’s study in the workshops, a prize worth £500. Upon the success of this programme, the two Georgian buildings adjoining the workshops were purchased with the intention of being used as accommodation for students. Although the buildings were in major need of renovation, £370,000 to be exact, they opened in 1977, allowing Kilkenny Design to launch a designer development training scheme, which awarded twelve graduating students a six-month residential placement in the workshops. Córas Tractalta also displayed numerous exhibitions across Ireland and Europe to promote the work and preservation of traditional crafts taking place in Kilkenny, including ones which celebrated traditional Irish crafts, such as patchwork. 

KDW/NP/54/18 Women looking at Aran jumpers, Kilkenny Design Workshop Collection, National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL), NCAD, Dublin. Image via Digital Repository of Ireland. 

From Shelves to Shopping Bags

However, the success of the workshops cannot be solely put down to those who came to Kilkenny to train and produce goods, but to the support of both Irish and international consumers too. The first shop dedicated to the sale of goods produced in the workshops opened its doors in Kilkenny in 1966, followed ten years later by a second shop in Dublin. Another ten years on in 1986, a third and final store was opened on Bond Street in London, England. Products could also be found in several department stores worldwide, including B. Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and Heals, a famous furniture and homeware store in London.

Although the workshops officially came to a close in 1988 due to a drop in income during the 1980s recession, the Kilkenny Design Workshops and retail stores played a major role in the recognition of Kilkenny as a sought-after destination for craft lovers, resulting in the designation of the county as a World Crafts Council Craft City and Region in 2021, one of only four regions to achieve this recognition in Europe. 

KDW/EX/01/12 W.H. Walsh showing pottery to Patrick J. Hillery, Kilkenny Design Workshop Collection, National Irish Visual Arts Library (NIVAL), NCAD, Dublin. Image via Digital Repository of Ireland. 

The Kilkenny Design Workshop Collection

Just as Córas Tráchtála sought to preserve and promote Irish crafts, the legacy of the Kilkenny Design Workshops has also been preserved and promoted through the Kilkenny Design Workshop collection housed in the National Irish Visual Arts Library, Dublin 8. The collection was donated to NIVAL by the Crafts Council of Ireland in 2001 under the agreement that its contents would be made publicly accessible for the benefit of collective interest and research purposes. Through collaboration with students on the MA in Design History and Material Culture in Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, all twenty-three series of the collection were arranged, catalogued, and preserved utilising the workshop’s original coding system. Containing 2,682 files, of which approximately 2,500 are images and documents, the archive was also prepared for digitisation. The Kilkenny Design Workshop collection became one of the first archival collections to be contributed to the Digital Repository of Ireland, going live with the launch of the site on 25 June 2015, later contributed to the IAR in May 2021. 

Tomorrow we will be back to continue our #EYAExpedition through our collections with a glimpse into the travels of Major RHW Hingston.

Róisín Costello, Records Manager

With special thanks to the National Irish Visual Arts Library for the use of photos from the Kilkenny Design Workshop Collection in this post.

Bibliography 

Marchant, N. & Addis, J. Kilkenny Design: twenty-one years of design in Ireland. Lund Humphries. Kilkenny and London, 1985 

Thorpe, Ruth (Ed.). Designing Ireland: a retrospective exhibition of Kilkenny Design Workshops,1963-1988. Kilkenny: Crafts Council of Ireland, 2005 

Moran, Anna, “Tradition in the Service of Modernity: Kilkenny Design Workshops and Selling Irish Design at American Department Store Promotions, 1967-1976” pp.191-207, in Ireland, Design and Visual Culture: Negotiating Modernity, 1922-92

King, L. & Sissons, E. (Eds.), Cork University Press, 2011. Turpin, John. “The Irish design reform movement of the 1960s”. Design Issues, vol.3, no.1, pp.4-21, Spring 1986

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