When Joseph Walsh was eight years old he fell in love with wood. Four years later, after leaving school for what was meant to be a temporary break, he turned to furniture making full-time and never looked back. Now, at age 29, Walsh runs his own studio in the countryside near Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland, with nine people working for him. He has established himself as a designer/craftsman in Ireland, well-known not just for his furniture, but increasingly for his art installations as well. And word is spreading overseas, with his work being shown in Paris and at SOFA Chicago. It will be on view at the American Irish Historical Society in New York City October 17 through November 2.
Walsh's grandfather, James (Seamus) Duignan, a woodworker, was the person who first stirred his passion. "From quite a young age, he gave me tools, first a fretsaw and then a coping saw." Walsh says of his mentor. "He showed me what could be created with them and then I progressed through the tools over time. As I accumulated the tools I learned to employ them in my own way."
Employing the tools that his grandfather gave him while also expanding on what he'd learned through the books he has pored over through the years, Walsh advanced to a higher level of skill and initiative. He discovered that being self-taught gave him the basics he needed while also allowing him the freedom to bend (and sometimes to break) the rules of design.
"When I was a teenager, making a simple chair was a significant challenge. But I broke it down and came to terms with it," Walsh says. "Now some years on I'm making my own original designs, in some cases laying down uncharted paths. But the same rule applies. I furnish myself with the existing information, work on my own intuition, and then prototype and test it."
Walsh offers his clients the opportunity to work with him on this quest. While they can commission his selected designs, they can also request a one-of-a-kind piece. His Bespoke series is created based on his customer's vision and he brings that vision to life. "It's the ultimate expression of individuality," he observes.
As Walsh continues to explore where wood can take him he has begun creating installations made of oak, glass, bronze and steel, such as In Aer, 2007, finding they allow him to express ideas without the limitations of functional forms. "I have always looked beyond where I am currently at, so while I work with wood, I don't necessarily think of myself as a woodworker," he says. "It just happens to be material I can communicate well with. I did not know that installations would be my path 10 years ago, but I did know that I wanted to do more and I still do."
This desire stems from Walsh's goal to "achieve perfection." In so doing, he looks to many artists and designers, with one of his greatest influences being the eminent British designer and furniture maker John Makepeace. "He was a great inspiration when I discovered his work in my teen years," Walsh reflects. "I was very impressed by his broad approach and the environment he created. For me he really broke the mold, and his work gave me the confidence to do so, and to keep doing so.