Makers & Brothers is an online retail venture run by brothers Jonathan and Mark Legge, showcasing the best of Irish and international craftwork. We caught up with Jonathan to find out more about their “tiny department store,” Makers & Brothers & Others, which will be happily nestled in Dame Lane until this Christmas Eve, packed with stunningly-crafted furniture, knitwear, pottery, crockery and much more. Pop round to do a spot of Christmas shopping, enjoy a coffee, or simply gaze at the exquisite pieces on offer.
Can you give us a bit of an introduction into what you’re doing here?
Makers & Brothers was set up nearly two years ago, and it’s an e-commerce business. We set up that way so that we could bring Irish craft design to an international market, and operate at a really high level, and so that we had room to grow, rather than just having a corner shop. We also thought it was more interesting to start online and then look at doing physical versions of the shop. For us, it’s important that there’s no real barrier between the virtual and the physical versions of the shop, that they overlap and complement each other. We’re always online and people can find us there 24 hours a day, but then three or four times a year we’ll do pop-ups. We’ve done them in New York, London, and a few in Dublin. Our manifesto is to gather together the best craft and design we could find in Ireland; because we’re an Irish company, we wanted to support Irish makers, but it was important to us that we weren’t just Irish. We also brought in work from makers and producers from around the world. I’d say 60% of the stock is Irish, and the rest is from the UK, France, Canada, America…
There’s a very Irish feel to a lot of it.
Yeah, well it’s important to us that it does feel like where it’s from, but it doesn’t have to be overtly Irish. It’s sort of a modern version.
So no shamrocks.
Definitely no shamrocks! I like shamrocks, but Irish craft has gone through sort of a bad phase with a lot of that, which I think it’s emerging from now. There’s more quality design happening and people are being more respective of the craft traditions, and the designs and the processes.
So you think it’s a good time for Irish design at the moment?
It’s obvious from the creations you feature that you favour a simple, natural approach to design. What inspired your love for this kind of style – was this always your taste?
It’s always been our take on things. Like, when we were starting two years ago, the foundation stock we started with, a lot of it we would’ve grown up with. So it was like, plates we had from our grandmother’s house, or glassware our parents had, or stools we had by the fire. It was about going back into that, and if that person doesn’t make it anymore, then we’d find someone else who made something like it. I guess it’s an aesthetic we grew up with.
If you were to describe that aesthetic in three words, what would they be?
Three words? Simple, useful, beautiful.
I like that. So with that in mind, what do you look for when you’re selecting your makers?
I mean, there are boxes they have to tick, but it comes down to whether they’ve got that something that doesn’t necessarily tick a box, but it transcends all those things and makes it a really special piece. It is about their level of design, the production techniques they’re using, the way they’re working the materials, the finish on those materials, those things. Price point as well, obviously. There are aesthetic things too, like if it’s a wooden piece, we’ll watch right down to how they finish the wood, and if we don’t like how they finish the wood, we’ll ask them to change how they do it. Basically, we’re looking for well-designed,well-considered pieces that are from makers or designers working with their local industries and materials, who understand the value of what they’re doing and are really invested in their own products – because we invest in them as much as in their products. Does that make sense?
Yes! As you said, your set-up online promotes Irish crafts on an international level. Where are your products most popular?
We’re probably most popular in the UK and the US, but we also sell a lot to Australia, Germany, Japan… and South Korea. We sell a bunch of stuff to South Korea which seems odd, but if you look into it there’s a whole design thing happening over there, and has been for the last three years, so then it kind of makes sense.
So you have a background in furniture design, while your brother is more of a business head. Were you always planning this, or at what stage did you realise your skill sets complemented each other so perfectly?
No, we weren’t planning it. And there’s a massive overlap,it isn’t as black and… [drifts off] Y’know, they’re the roles we play, but strategically when it comes down to us planning things out, there’ll be a lot of overlap. His background is project management and business, and financially he’s stronger than I am. My background is design, and I’ve worked in the UK and London for ten years now.We come from a family of architects and designers, though, so it’s really all there.
Ah, so it’s in your blood.
So, food-wise, recent years have seen people go back to eating locally, eating Irish, and supporting small-scale food producers. Do you think this ethos has started to seep into the world of furniture design? Are people more interested in buying Irish these days?
Oh yeah. I think it’s a whole cultural shift. Things happen sooner with food, maybe because it’s tied up with the whole Slow Food movement which has been happening for a long time. And then there’s a recession, and people’s way of thinking about things shifts a little. Their value system improves, and yeah, it is happening. It’s happening in Ireland, and it’s a massive thing in the US as well. Same with the UK; it’s happening in lots of countries. It’s happening at a local level which is really strong, but I think it’s also true that “Made in Ireland” is important from an international perspective. It’s not just Irish people who want stuff that’s made locally, but also tourists who come here and want stuff that’s made here. By buying from us online, they’re investing in uniquely Irish pieces. So it’s important to a local market, but I think it’s equally important to a global market.
Is there a permanent shop in the pipeline for the future, or are you happy being based online and putting together the pop-ups?
Yeah, I mean the business model is based on an e-commerce business. Online works, and online allows us to have a lot more fun and to give a lot more to the customer, but the nature of what we sell can never be fully appreciated online.
Looking at the pieces in here is more tangible.
Yeah exactly, and you can never fully translate that online. Maybe if we found the right space… like, this worked because we had really good partners who came in to operate different parts of it. That’s why we’re calling it the “tiny department store,” because it’s not just us, we brought in different partners. Yeah, permanent would be interesting to do, but we’re not rushing into it. If we find the right space, then we’ll make it work, but … yeah. We’ll see. Hang on a sec. [Leans away] Mum, Mum! Dublin City Council is clamping your car, get out there. [Mum rushes comically towards the door. We try not to laugh.]
The opening event for your seasonal department store is tonight here in 5 Dame Street – what can we expect to see tonight and throughout December?
The opening event will be beautiful whiskey sours, made with Jameson Select Reserve, and this table will be full of Irish cheeses, and chutneys and soda bread. Whiskey and cheese.
Two of my favourite things!
Yeah, it should be fun. Throughout December, we have a lot more stock to come in, so what we have here will be evolving a lot over the next few weeks. The food section [gestures at the coffee bar, already laden with tiny cakes] needs to grow and grow and grow… there’ll be lots of chocolate coming from the UK, snowballs and teacakes coming from Scotland, lots of jam coming over from Clare, and we’ve got amazing Irish honey from Ireland’s number one beekeeper. We’ve got beautiful hazelnuts from County Wicklow, and our own blend of coffee from 3FE. So that whole food section will grow, and we’ll be doing craft and food hampers which will be coming out over the Christmas period.
Yeah. Things are going well. And we’re only just open.
Makers & Brothers & Others is at 5 Dame Lane until December 24th.