“The monks’ doodles and scribbles of poetry in the margins made them seem close to us”
As far as this city’s touristic culture is concerned, there is none more ubiquitous than the Book of Kells. Although pints of plain and packets of Tayto are consumed in Temple Bar pubs at an ungodly pace, these watering holes come nowhere close to matching the manuscript’s heaving crowds. The book’s universal resonance is far from misplaced, yet, with so much of our ancient and artistic heritage submerged in its weighty legacy, it takes a fresh set of eyes (or two) to inject some innovation into the subject.
For Dubliner, adoptive Milanese and multi-disciplinary artist Nuala Goodman, knowledge of 9th century Celtic manuscripts was once restricted to school days. Then, an innocuous trip to Trinity’s Old Library with some Italian friends sparked a new-found connection to the topic: “There was something very accessible and undated about [The Book of Kells], probably to do with the construction of the whole exhibition around the manuscript. The monks’ doodles and scribbles of poetry in the margins made them seem close to us. I’m interested in writing as an art form, and it occurred to me that the ornate lettering could be recomposed to make words that are used by everyone – uniting the ancient with the contemporary.” Breaking away from the text’s biblical language in favour of succinct, one-syllable wording, Goodman began exploring its design intricacies; finding clear, modern characteristics once taken out of their original context. Considering how often she weaves through a myriad of creative mediums – including furniture and portraiture – there were many possible disciplines to choose from. During a project designing vibrant rugs for the Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, however, Goodman fell for this entirely new canvas; one which would stimulate her painter’s eye whilst offering sculptural potential.
Around the time Goodman first dreamt up the rugs, she joined forces with a fellow creative maverick – jewellery designer Donatella Pellini – for Meditation On Plates, a 38-piece exhibition shown at the Casino in Marino. They had first crossed paths more than two decades prior, when Goodman “had a studio near her shop on Milan’s Via Morigi, so I would’ve passed by and chatted to her often… I had done some work for Paul Smith and he was a good friend of hers, so that might have been part of the connection as well. I remember hand-painting these swimming costumes at the time, some of which she bought and did a really nice window display with. Then she commissioned a silk coat with hand-paintings of all her jewellery on it… that was a long time ago! 25 years or so. She has it somewhere in her archives.” Hearing about Goodman’s conceptual rugs during the planning for Meditation On Plates, Pellini asked why she hadn’t thought of doing a show with them. That simple enquiry ultimately spawned a showcase during Milan’s Salone del Mobile furniture fair, coupling Goodman’s completed designs with Pellini’s masterfully-crafted resin jewellery. With a self-explanatory title – Rugs & Jewels – and an 18th century stables-turned-showroom as backdrop, spectators were brimming with praise. Yet Goodman states that, given the sheer volume of shows held during the Salone, full visibility was compromised over the course of its run: “there’s so much to see. Apart from the Fiera (the trade fair’s epicentre) there were a thousand other exhibitions on that week”. She retained the sense that Rugs & Jewels hadn’t reached its public conclusion – so the next logical step was to take it to Dublin.
Milan may be bursting at the seams with desirable buildings, but Goodman could not be happier with the setting chosen for the show’s Dublin debut: the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters in City Assembly House. Rugs & Jewels marks her first collaboration with the IGS, whose championing of the decorative arts makes for an ideal partner. Having the idea come somewhat full-circle, exhibiting a few streets away from where it was first conceived, has been a fascinating process, with Goodman open to all possible receptions – “I think there will be people who will love it, and people who won’t, because of where it’s coming from and because we’re so steeped in the Book of Kells, and in that history”.
Goodman and Pellini’s textural interplay is pure nectar for design “maximalists”: the former’s wool and silk rugs boast sumptuous colour palettes, while the latter’s statement jewellery, realised through equally-rich shades, would make quite the splash on Iris Apfel’s dressing table. The exhibition will extend over two storeys, showcasing in the Simon Vierpyl and O’Connell Rooms, with plans to bathe the ground-floor rugs in light so they may be seen from the street. “The people who are part of cultural Dublin would of course know the IGS. But, it’s such a lively part of town so many people wouldn’t necessarily bother to stop and look in the window. I’m always keen to engage people, not to have culture reserved for ‘high art’ – it’s about making things accessible to everybody.” Given how seamlessly the exhibition staggers both art and fashion spheres, it couldn’t be more fitting to have its launch night opened by Deirdre McQuillan; a doyenne of fashion journalism who has consistently framed her reportage through a cultural lens.
While drawing from various artistic mediums is second-nature in Milan, there is traditionally more reticence to do so in Dublin. With more shows of this genre appearing on Irish shores, however, it may be the very impetus we need to start dipping our toes in multi-disciplinary ponds.
Rugs & Jewels in running in the Irish Georgian Society, City Assembly House, South William Street from November 8-20.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady