Widely recognised as a leader in the green design movement, Clodagh’s holistic approach to life is captured in a new documentary airing on RTÉ One this week …
WHO: “I create experiences and design the frustrations out of people’s lives”, explains Clodagh, talking to THE GLOSS via Zoom. Having started her career in fashion design in Ireland during the 1950s, she switched to interior design, setting up her Manhattan-based design studio in 1983. Her signature style is the creation of mindful, quiet and timeless spaces. “Most of all, I want my clients to feel happy in the spaces I create,” she says. To achieve this end, she and her team have always used “a whole tool box” of practices including Feng shui, chromotherapy, bio geometry, and biophilia as well as sound and light engineering – in retrospect, prescient and completely in tune with contemporary ideas of wellness, sustainability and authenticity. “There’s a huge musicality to the way we work and I always say my team are like chamber musicians.”
Her impressive portfolio includes spas, hotels, offices, yachts, private jets and apartments such as Robert Redford’s home in New York. “It reflects him and the world he lives in – capturing the expansiveness of the American West and the sophistication of New York and is very comfortable.” The principles of her design and projects, routinely listed in round-ups of the world’s best designers, are detailed in three books: Life-Enhancing Design; Your Home Your Sanctuary and Total Design – she is currently working on a fourth, to be published later this year.
Photograph by Robert Wright
WHY: Clodagh has led a colourful life – the subject of several documentaries by the BBC (in 1966 and 1989). The latest airs on RTÉ One on Thursday, May 5 which documents her background and family life.
She was brought up (as Clodagh Phipps) in Moytura House, Cong, Co Mayo, once the home of Oscar Wilde, before moving to the home of WB Yeats’ uncle. “I followed the poets,” she says, describing a happy childhood filled with nature walks and music. Her strict parents had mapped out a classical education at Trinity College Dublin after boarding school at Alexandra College. These ideas were derailed by an accident: Clodagh broke her back while horse-riding when she was 15 and spent almost a year in hospital. While recuperating she read a feature in The Irish Times about becoming a dress designer and as a result applied to The Grafton Academy. Her motto has always been “Why not?” On completion of its six-week course, she participated in a fashion show, borrowed £400 from her mother and opened her own fashion house, Clodagh of Dublin, on South Anne Street. In the process, she became the youngest member of the Irish Haute Couture Group which included Sybil Connolly, Neilli Mulcahy, Irene Gilbert and Ib Jorgensen.
Photograph via Irish Photo Archive
At that time, she was part of a glamorous social scene, and as a household name in Irish fashion, she exported all over the world and counted Marianne Faithful among her celebrity clients. “I was totally spoilt,” she says, “I was a model size so I could go to the rack and wear anything.” Now she admits, she hates shopping and lives in her signature style of “50 shades of black” accessorised by sturdy, oversized jewellery.
HOW: “A home cannot be truly beautiful unless it functions in harmony with who you are,” Clodagh declared in the preface of her book Total Design. This could apply to her own life. As an ambitious and independent designer in her 20s she felt increasingly unhappy in her first marriage (in the often poignant documentary she returns to her former marital home in Dublin). Unable to divorce in 1960’s Ireland, she asked for a legal separation. Clodagh had to live with her husband, Desmond O’Kennedy for a further five years. On separating, a trip to Mojacar, Spain presented a life-changing meeting with Daniel Aubry (pictured above), an American screenwriter and photographer. This led to a move to the US. Clodagh is often quoted as saying she “changed countries, careers and husbands in one year” – that being 1971.
WHAT: It was while renovating a farmhouse and townhouse for Aubry in Spain that Clodagh discovered her passion for and intuitive approach to interior design. Clodagh and Aubry moved to a brownstone in New York from where she started her eponymous design business. Her logo, comprising the symbols of earth, fire and water, reinforces her belief in celebrating the senses and incorporating the elements in her designs. “I’ve never planned my career,” she explains, “I’ve always been open to seeing where things go. I do furniture, lighting, even logos for corporations. I’m like water – I like to flow everywhere.”
Clodagh has always loved the diversity of her work and the travel it involves – her projects have taken her all over the world. Currently she has projects in Argentina, Portugal, Florida, Nevada, New York and Hyannis Port. “We believe in hurling ourselves into each project. All are very different,” she says when asked of a favourite. Her project in Ireland, The White Horses Spa at Trump Doonbeg, Co Clare was designed to capture “the warmth and invitation of an old Irish house”. The design team worked closely with the project architect (pre-Trump era) to create a space, filled with all the elements, to soothe the senses. One of the design challenges was to make the cellar-level public spaces feel luxurious and illuminated, while creating a quiet refuge in the treatment rooms.
Another project is the Six Senses Douro Valley Resort and Spa in Portugal. With incredible views of the Douro River, the driveway winds through working vineyards to a cypress-flanked entry. The property is a serene retreat – featured in THE GLOSS May issue – incorporating a spa and wine library created by Clodagh which works like a village town square, and is a place for tastings and tapas, created using tactile materials.
Clodagh often returns to Ireland, where one of her sons, Tim, is based in Cork. Clodagh designed The Cow House, available to rent on Airbnb, and recalls happy family reunions. Clodagh’s youngest son, Peter, lives (almost) next door to her in New York and is artistic director of Clodagh Designs. Sadly, her son Stephen died when he was 23.
If family is important (she is grandmother to eight) so too is giving back. Clodagh co-founded The Thorn Tree Project non-profit organisation in Kenya which focuses on providing education to the nomadic Samburu tribe. The project celebrates its 20th anniversary on June 15 and so far has built preschools, elementary schools, as well as dormitories, and educated more than 1,500 children of the Samburu tribe. Clodagh also works with the Azama Project, which provides schooling and healthcare for the isolated town of Azama, Ecuador, and Ape Action Africa, which supports one of the largest primate sanctuaries on the continent.
WHEN: It’s hard to believe given the diversity of Clodagh’s interests and enthusiasms (she is curating an exhibition of ephemera she has photographed), that she has always suffered from imposter syndrome. She’s one of Ireland’s most successful designers whose remarkable career and invincible spirit make for fascinating viewing.
WATCH: Clodagh, RTÉ One, Thursday May 5 at 10.15pm; www.clodagh.com.
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