20th Century Furniture

Explore twentieth century Irish furniture and modernist design in Ireland from 1900 onward.


The history of 20th century furniture design is a controversial one, marred by long periods when few industries recognised the commercial importance of good furniture. Factories did not have trained designers; rather designs were copied from neighbouring countries.

Ireland was slow to adopt new ideas. All attempts at modern interiors were greeted with suspicion. Modernising the home by employing the services of an interior decorator did not catch on until much later. In an Irish Times interview, in May 1953, a furniture manufacturer said of contemporary furniture, “If there was a demand for that sort of stuff, we’d stock it. Don’t blame us for those depressing little furniture suites, blame the public taste.” Despite this, the 20th century reveals a number of movements, designers and craftsmen, working both here and abroad, which significantly contributed to the canon of Irish modernism.

Brendan Dunne (1916-1995)

By the late 1940s and 1950s the Irish Times reported that there was a great deal that was good in contemporary furniture design. A number of designers such Brendan Dunne, John Maguire and Barney Heron made a great effort to be modern and with considerable success.

Dublin born, Brendan Dunne was a musical prodigy at an early age, eventually becoming a professional composer and occasional conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra. Self taught in furniture design, in 1951 Dunne set up a large factory workshop with his partner Michael Mc Mullin, another music enthusiast. Producing modern furniture for the modern home, their work, with simple lines and tapered legs, was Scandinavian inspired.

Dunne compared woods to musical notes. Oak suggested the key of c major and his oak dining suite he called the ‘C major suite,’ while a mahogany bedroom suite is called the ‘A minor suite.’ He said, “Designing furniture is like composing music you must bring to each a sense of rhythm and line and good workmanship.”

James Hicks (1866-1936)

The work of James Hicks, from Dublin, is the antithesis of modernism. Renowned for his use of exotic woods, astounding marquetry and a profound interest with Chippendale, Adams and Sheraton styles, Hicks opened his workshop in 1894. Worldwide royal patronage followed and the firm won many famous commissions.

Early furniture reflected the 18th century Palladian style featuring decorative shells, acanthus leaves, laurel swags, and heavyset cabriole legs. Later work was classical in style and refined.

Hicks won many awards notably the Aonach Tailteann in 1928. This satinwood display cabinet won a silver medal at the Royal Dublin Society Spring show in 1934, and the satinwood table dating 1929 was one of several pieces, which represented Ireland’s craftsmanship at the New York World Trade Fair in 1939. The President and Chairman of the fair sent a certificate to the Hick’s firm conveying their appreciation of the substantial contribution which Hick’s exhibit had made towards the success of the fair. Hick sadly died in 1936 never gaining the opportunity to receive this accolade in person.

Frederick Mac Manus (1903-1985)

During the 1920s and 30s many Irish designers and architects studied, worked or trained abroad. Art Deco and International Modernism slowly filtered through into furniture design. Frederick Mac Manus from Dun Laoghaire Co. Dublin had a successful career as an architect designing social housing and modest furniture.

Initially training in Ireland, then New York he finally came to prominence with the firm Tait and Lorne in London in 1927. Designed to complement the quilted veneered maple dressing table by English designer Betty Joel, Mac Manus created this bedroom suite in 1933 for his London home.

The bedside cupboards have pink cellulosed recessed tops. The wardrobe doors have a detailed matt chrome escutcheon lock. The six drawer unit has chrome plated drawer handles. The veneered fireplace houses an old Ferranti electric radiant heater. The tubular steel stool was made by the firm PEL. The chrome bedside electric wall lights with pink pleated buckram shades were designed by Oswald Holman in 1930. The floor rugs designed by Norah MacManus were inspired by the work of Edward Mc Knight Kauffer. Mac Manus donated his bedroom suite to the National Museum in 1984.