Writer: Amy Guttman
John Galvin has come a long way from the small Irish beach town of Youghal, where he grew up in County Cork. The furniture designer known for crafting chairs, lamps and other pieces in a style best described as a fusion of Scandinavian and Shaker, followed his older sister to Glasgow at the age of eighteen. Three years studying at the College of Building and Printing in the city who’s most famous designer was Charles Rennie MacIntosh left an impression on Galvin, leading to arts and crafts inspired designs.
But even before Galvin left Ireland for Scotland, his mother encouraged an appreciation for good design and well-made pieces of furniture through her passion for restoring and collecting antiques. And the sense of building came from one of the world’s most beloved toys.
“I loved building from a very young age and my favourite toy was Lego (and still is). I would spend hours and hours up in my room, creating multi-coloured sculptures.”
From brightly coloured plastic pieces, to richly textured woods, Galvin’s medium has grown much deeper.
“Timber is an amazing medium to work with; no two pieces are the same. There are so many different species and the colours and textures really are endless. Unlike other materials, wood gets better with age and every piece has a story to tell.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint just one outstanding piece of Galvin’s work, though if he can be identified with anything; it’s the award-winning Manolo Lounger. It is an aesthetic and mechanical triumph, incorporating more than five different jointing techniques, without a single 90-degree angle. Beautifully hand-carved edges follow the curve of the splayed back legs, with front legs which mirror each other with twisted details. Galvin’s inspiration was two-fold, first was his admiration for chair designers Hans J Wegner and Finn Juhl, the second inspiration was from a master in feminine grace and style.
“I stumbled upon a beautiful sketch of a high heel shoe designed by Manolo Blahnik. The elegance of the thin stiletto heel and feminine curve of the shoe inspired me to start sketching chair designs. The back legs of the chair are therefore loosely based on this sketch. The ‘Manolo Lounger’ is without doubt the most challenging but satisfying piece I have ever attempted to produce. “
The most challenging, but also the most high profile of Galvin’s pieces, it’s been given pride of place in the uber-trendy Saatchi Gallery and will be displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in November. The lounger and other Galvin masterpieces will also go on show in New York as part of a Craft Scotland exhibit.
But while the Manolo Lounger has been a huge success for Galvin, it didn’t happen overnight. Galvin spent seven years learning from various cabinetmakers, toiling away at a range of projects, fulfilling briefs and working towards other people’s goals before setting up his own shop.
“Going out on your own is daunting. You need to put in many hours of hard work. It’s not only the talent, you also need the drive, passion and the resilience to pick yourself up and keep on trying even when things are tough.”
Galvin could be describing most start-ups, but the hard part about design is name recognition and, Galvin says, networking is key. It’s part of the reason is four-year old business is thriving. That, and works of art like the Jacaranda Cygnet Lamp.
Launched at the Saatchi gallery in May 2011 as part of the Collect exhibition of world class craft, the lamp was also short listed for the World Architecture News lighting design of the year. Originally made from Purple Heart, but now produced in Ash, Oak and Walnut, every element of the piece is hand made from the turned shade and light pendent, down to the brass dimmer switch and lamp support. The aesthetic is of three dark wood coils spaced to let the light through. The Jacaranda Cygnet Lamp wouldn’t be out of place on the set of an Ibsen play, with its vintage Nordic look.
The lamp was created as a companion for the Manolo Lounger.
“I was looking to create a set of pieces and wanted something elegant, but visually striking. People are always struck by the natural beauty of the timber.”
Galvin was commissioned by Scottish practice, Nord Architects to produce other bedroom furniture for The Shingle House, part of the Living Architecture project. Set on the spectacular shingle beach of Dungeness near Romney Marsh in Kent, the vast coastline portrays a quintessential maritime scene, with fisherman’s huts and lighthouses. Galvin’s designs, subtly carved in wood, match the mood perfectly.
Like most designers on the rise, Galvin doesn’t limit himself to big pieces. He’s also created an exclusive presentation box housing Highland Park’s 50-year old single malt whiskey, launched at Harrods, with a price tag aimed at Sheikhs and footballers. A limited production of just 275 bottles, going for £10k each, meant the packaging had to be just as special as the liquid inside. Galvin used sustainable Scottish oak, keeping a nautical theme, with a small porthole on the front.
Whether it’s a private commission, commercial, or an object meant for the production line, Galvin feels a strong tie to each of his creations.
“When you design and make something from scratch you have a connection with each place. They all tell a story but each one different. But if I had to choose, my favourite is the soldier table because of its artistic edge and the fact that it reminds me of my childhood. “
Galvin’s flexibility to take inspiration from boyhood toy soldiers to 50-year old whiskey boxes, to the subtle, but sexy contours of well-made stiletto, may be the secret to his stand-out success. With his designs, he taps into timeless memories and fantasies.