A Conversation With Superfolk
There are few designers as refined and respectful in their approach as the duo behind Superfolk. Based in Westport, on Ireland’s wild and windswept west coast they are great observers of the everyday. Their almost daily rambles, with their dog Woody, up mountains and across beaches are carefully documented. Many such moments they have kindly shared with us below. There is poetry to their photography, to their reflections, to their work and as we spoke recently the depth of thinking that is so deeply ingrained in their way of working emerged proudly. They are designer-makers with a way of life that is deeply rooted in the vernacular nature of their work, a couple with a passionate curiosity.
M&B: So, how did Superfolk come to be? At first I thought it was just Gearóid, but it's obviously not just Gearóid and I guess at the beginning you Jo Anne were in the depths of architecture. I presume it has always been both of you, but only recently have you been able to push forward together.
Gearóid: So how did it come to be? I guess it was just some type of vehicle for me to experiment without me having to be overly tied to what I was doing by having my name attached to it. I felt it might be scalable then. Gearóid Muldowney was never going to be scalable to some degree.
Joanne: And also people have great trouble saying your name.
Joanne: The very first project that we did together was the making of the stools. And that was an art exhibition that I had been invited to take part in. For the exhibition each participant did one art project and one collaboration, and so Gearóid and myself did the stools as part of a collaboration for a festival in Kilkenny.
Gearóid: It was primitive furniture to facilitate a performance area. So we made large flat stools that could be tied together to make a stage area, and then a mixture of small and tiny stools for people to use as an informal seating area. So that's where it began.
M&B: So from the outset it was the two of you?
Gearóid and Joanne: Yeah.
Joanne: Though that project may have been called 'Joanne with Superfolk'.
Gearóid: The very first Superfolk stuff may actually have been me making furniture in Mayo, one big, long, yellow bench that went to Japan.
M&B: How did that bench end up in Japan?
Joanne: It took a notion.
M&B: So many legs and so thought it was up for the journey? You both studied in NCAD I assume you met there?
Joanne: I was studying sculpture, like the song. And Gearóid…
Gearóid: Craft design and I specialised in the metals area. I should be a jeweler really.
M&B: Are metals going to come back into your work?
Gearóid: Yeah, at some stage. But I don't think I'm going to get too involved in it again, it's very dirty.
Joanne: It's noisy and cold.
"Its soul is difficult to see"
M&B: It's never appealed to me as a material. Fascinated by it but I never actually wanted to work with it.
Gearóid: Working it like a blacksmith, at that base level, that's interesting.
M&B: Then you're almost working it like wood, you are working the grain.
Gearóid: Yeah, yeah. And that's a personal thing, designing in metal it's nearly like plastic or something... its soul is difficult to see.
Joanne: We met in college, and I was just finishing up. Then Gearóid you went off to Finland and when you returned we met again. That's it.
M&B: Superfolk, it’s a name I really like, where did it come from?
Gearóid: Sometimes you hammer at something for a long time and you have to realise that it doesn't work. And sometimes something just clicks and it works, it didn't take much work. It came about at the time that I was making three things. I was working on some old furniture. I restored one, I repaired one and I kind of repurposed the other. And it was that kind of transition with the furniture that I thought was interesting. To understand what had came before and to marry that with something that was useful for today. So it's really just straddling that bridge that the idea of Superfolk comes from. That's really all it was.
Joanna: I was just going to add that I remember where I was when Gearóid said 'I had this idea'. We were driving, you were driving and I was sitting in the passenger seat and I just remember you talking about the name Superfolk and straight away I thought yeah that's good, that works, job done.
"We spent a good bit of time going backwards, going backwards, into the heart of what we were doing and what we were interested in"
M&B: An intuitive name in many ways. Beyond that you use a line “Discovering Nature Every Day” Where is that leading to? Has that been a more recent thinking as you've settled into Westport?
Joanne: We're more focused now and more clear. I suppose we spent a good bit of time going backwards, going backwards, into the heart of what we were doing and what we were interested in, and what our approach is about. So I guess it is about the element of discovery, curiosity and the natural environment.
Gearóid: I guess it's about something that describes our point of view, and you know what it is we're doing naturally anyway. I guess it kind of describes a little bit where designers sit in the world in that they're not 9-5 people. They can't be they're using their brains 24/7 to understand the world. And that is us, and I guess “Discovering Nature Every Day” as a line helps explain it’s an ongoing process.
Joanne: It kind of a way of looking at the world.
Gearóid: And also offering it to other people as it's not an exclusive right of ours to look at.
M&B: A call to action for people generally?
Gearóid: A little bit.
Joanne: I think it is about an understanding and describing the way we look at the world or the way you could look at the world.
M&B: It’s a nice approach; I'm then interested in understanding how you guys work together or what your process is? Are you developing ideas independently, bringing them together or developing ideas together and pulling them apart to define them independently? How do you work together?
Gearóid: So, it's a mixture.
Joanne: Yeah, we try not to spend too much time doing things like brainstorming. We try to work on something individually a little bit and then one of us will bring it back and we discuss. I guess we go over and back and over and back, and discuss it as we go.
Gearóid: And I'm just thinking, I probably overanalysed it before we both started professionally working on Superfolk together, and I suggested you do a product, I do a product and then we do a product together. It seemed like a reasonable kind of balance, but it was a road map that we never stuck to in any way. It's a mixture of approaches really. I might be a little bit more odd and secretive, where I'll be working on something silently on my own.
M&B: Odd and secretive…..
Joanne: And maybe I do a little bit more of the thinking about how people will understand something or how it will be used. I don't know, maybe insisting that there is some way you could hang our trivet, because I imagine that people will want to hang it on their wall, it is a beautiful object more than just functional. I draw things, Gearóid doesn't
Gearóid: I make the things. I generally make things quite quickly
M&B: So you have it in your head and you physically put it together?
Joanne: He would make the thing before he would draw it.
M&B: It can be the best way to figure something out.
Gearóid: I think it is an approach that comes from jewellery….a little bit anyway. And it comes from just being able to do it. Why spend that amount of time making a model when you can actually making the real thing. Working models is what I call them.
Joanne: And then as you saw when you were here, a key part of what we do is we live with our objects for a while, and we make prototypes and variations of each thing, and then it becomes about editing, refining and living with the work until we are happy with it.
M&B: What do you feel is essential about your work?
Joanne: I heard a phrase recently... "The simplicity on the other side of complexity." I think that there's a lot of development that goes into the variation and iterations that we develop, but the final thing that might end-up being the simplest of things. And so we always want to wait until we feel that we're at that stage.
M&B: That's a nice line " Simplicity on the other side of complexity".
Joanne: Don't credit me, it was on a podcast. I think there was a Quaker who was talking about Buddhism and they may have been quoting another. It's pretty obscure reference.
M&B: A Quaker talking about Buddhism?
Joanne: No don't write that down! ...
M&B: Does a typical day always include a walk?
Gearóid: It depends on the season.
M&B: Rambling about looks to be a big part of your lives in Westport.
Gearóid: I always remember we were both originally taught, but separately, in the same art school in Galway. I was taught by Sarah Farrell and Joanne by Robin Jones, they taught me how to draw and how to see things, and how to make things to some degree. So a lot of our foundation is based on that experience and we still refer to it to this day.
Joanne: It was before we went to art college. And I would still say it was the best year of education I ever had because they taught you how to draw but more than that they taught us how to look.
Gearóid: So observing it is a bit like exercise, becoming match fit, where you have one single opportunity that will arise and when that comes you must be accurate and on form.
M&B: So the rambles are about observing, exploring, exercising the mind and maybe not consciously but gently building up an awareness, a thinking.
Joanne: In my masters, my written thesis was called ‘Architecture is Fly-Fishing’. I felt, in architecture school you spend a lot of time, invest a lot in that idea of repetitive labour, but in a very over laboured way. Where as being kind of light and precise and hitting to the core of a thing doesn’t necessarily come from hammering continuously at a problem and trying to make it work. I don’t know how to say it exactly but it has a lot to do with that idea that actually it’s in the moment of shutting off that you solve the problem.
"But more than that they taught us how to look."
M&B: You have both spent time in Scandinavia - Gearoid you in Norway and Finland, and Denmark for you Jo Anne – has this influenced your designs? Embracing the “patina of time” as you say on your site, definitely feels like a Scandinavian attitude however that said fundamentally it is an attribute of any good design. Maybe I have cancelled my own question there…. Have your travels influenced your work?
Gearóid: I think all cultures have, at some stage, had the same appreciation of materials that is sometimes most evident in classic Scandinavian design and I think that the exciting thing for me was that 20th century Scandinavian design is massively influenced by vernacular culture. So when you come home and look at your own culture then you realise it is not all old things that are useless but actually there’s a wealth of material heritage here, to understand and to discover. So the thing for me was that they showed a little bit that all cultures could respect and understand what has come before.
I think that would be where my time in Finland influenced my work or at least my thinking.
"So the thing for me was that they showed a little bit that at all cultures could respect and understand what has come before."
Joanne: Can I answer too.
M&B: Of Course
Joanne: What I found very interesting in the time I spent in Denmark, we did tours in factories and I saw all these things been made, I saw all these iconic pieces of Danish furniture broken down into their parts but what was deeper than that was to realise how easily furniture gets mythologies when removed from its developmental context, when removed from the factors that created it and the environment that influenced it. Sometimes when you see the furniture removed from context it can seem like some kind of impossible magic.
But when you see where the furniture’s beginnings were, when you realise what the designers might have been looking at when they were developing the work you realise that the work is really just their observation and way of looking at the world. It then allows you, gives you the confidence, to apply that same process to your own work.
M&B: So you might say the travel demystified things a bit for you.
Joanne: I think a lot of what we do is learning how to look, learning how to look at the world around us and look more closely and observe things and how things behave.
"Sometimes when you see the furniture removed from context it can seem like some kind of impossible magic."
M&B: Do observations lead to material exploration? A favorite material? Is your pallet restricted by what you can currently process yourselves out the back in the shed?
Joanne: We haven’t run out of ideas with materials we are working with so I don’t know.
Gearóid: Tree derived materials is what is best to us.
Joanne: Do we expand and plan beyond the mediums, yes we do.
M&B: Stone, I’m waiting for you to do something in stone, that’s primarily coming from your instagram feed. Personally I really want to do a project about the stone of Connemara and base it on Tim Robinsons maps. They are such beautiful maps and the geology is so local you could do this amazing study of different corners of Connemara.
Joanne: Have you read the way that they went? You should read it.
"We are very aware of what’s underneath us."
Gearóid: Fishing for fresh water brown trout is very dependent on geology and the geology on lakebeds and riverbeds and the amounts of nutrients in the water. We are very aware of what’s underneath us.
Back to materials and making stuff, I have kind of struggled, as we have been open to all types of ideas of making at the moment and the sustainability of digging up the earth and polishing it, it jars me slightly. With what we want to do but at the same time, there might be a way that we can use some aspects of materials that are not sustainable but to be more like the icing on a more sustainable cake. The entire jacket doesn’t have to be made out of gold but the buttons could be, but it has to be a balance. Materials that can only be dug up once are a really dirty and difficult or invasive.
M&B: What made you decide to settle in Westport?
Gearóid: We thought they’d have good coffee here.
Joanne: We were wrong. Why Wesport, here you have easy access to many mountians lakes and sea. Lot’s of people live in the town and there’s life on the street in the town. There’s energy. There’s a positive attitude, people are open and I think there are lots of interesting sustainable projects underway here.
M&B: It gives you a way to live and explore the things you want to explore but you are connected enough to everything else. Is that what you are saying?
Gearóid: Yes, there is good access to the environment here where there is little access in rural areas; you can’t walk on the roads you can’t go for a cycle. Because there is so much coastline here, there’s lots of no mans land, which is accessible to everybody.
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M&B: The linocut poster series, they are very much linked to food and forging. How did the series emerge? Linocutting, was it a process you wanted to explore, is it something you had done in the past and wanted to bring up again?
Joanne: I suppose it’s a repeatable process. Something that suits batch production, if Superfolk were to print it would be lino or wood, by hand anyway.
Gearoid: It’s imagery made by hand.
M&B: Beyond the series, foraging and food is that a big part of life in Westport. Do you both cook?
Joanne: Yes of course, we both cook, I couldn’t imagine not cooking I think it connects you to what’s around you and you look more closely at what’s around. You can just walk in a forest noticing what time of the year it is and noticing that there’s sorrel growing up and that the sorrel is coming up because it needed to before the canopy of the trees leaf come out and so its connected to understanding those rhythms.
M&B: Food is a strong element in your work. The collection is very much about what's around the table. Looking back to the mugs, and carafes, the trivets, now the posters all about foraging, gathering around food is part of all of that.
Gearóid: It's not by accident.
Joanne: It also came from, I keep thinking it came from a backwards understanding why is it that we're so naturally drawn towards say seasonality, its wanting to be connected to the rhythm of the seasons and wanting to have that type of connection. The place where you live and the time of year that you're in. I think humans naturally are drawn towards that.
Gearóid: "Start where you are, use what you can". It would be dishonest for us to do an entire project about diamonds or birch ply because we're not living in that or around that.
M&B: Going forward how do you see yourselves and your work evolving? You've mentioned that you're designing products where production can be delegated, which definitely shows that there are nice ambitions there. What are the ambitions?
Gearóid: Ambitions isn't really the word. The word is awareness. To be aware of potential production and the scalability. Just like the name Superfolk, how it can be used or how it can't be used. If something is designed to the way that somebody else can make it, and still have the DNA that we put into it at the beginning it's ok. Maybe it's ambitious to think that there will ever be enough demand for any of the objects that we're working on.
M&B: So how do you want to move forward? What are the plans, or do you know?
Gearóid: Right now we are going to continue like this until we..
Joanne: Reach breaking point!
Gearóid: Until our range is…. until we have a few things happening that make sense together. We're maybe a third of the way there or something like that.
Joanne: I think of it like first we're going to describe the outline. And then over time you get to fill in between the gaps a little bit. Slowly might be the other answer.
Gearóid: Yeah slowly is really important.
Interview by Jonathan Legge
Photography by Superfolk