“As the Inagh Valley rises up around the meandering road and sheer mountains peppered with wild sheep and goats frame every vista, you can’t help but understand you’re going somewhere far from familiar.”
Design West is hard to explain, in words on a website or in conversation, because the experience is far more than anything you could articulate without being there. Richard Seabrooke aims to unpick some of what makes it so unique and special.
“Too often we race to the answer before we truly understand the questions being asked of us these days.”
Design West is an international creative summer school, created by Design Factory’s Conor Clarke. A serendipitous trip to Letterfrack lead to him falling for the village and surrounding areas and following some conversations with the team in GMIT Letterfrack, and other locals, Design West was born. After two successful events, Covid scuppered the third event in 2020, but rather than humour another fallow year in 2021, the decision was made to condense the usual two weeks down to one and welcome only locally-based students to the event.
Everything went off without a hitch, even the recent tumultuous weather came good, and I was fortunate to be there. Design West is hard to explain, in words on a website or in conversation, because the experience is far more than anything you could articulate without being there. The following aims to unpick some of what makes it so unique and special but, really, once we’re out of this unique challenge, it is best experienced first-hand yourself. Here are only a few reasons why.
Location, Location, Location
Leaving Dublin fully laden with family, and dog, and all our trappings for the first time since March 2020 was an odd experience. Finally going beyond city, county and provincial borders fuelled a sense of excitement we had longed for since the pandemic hit. As we got closer to the west though, our excitement shifted once more, into a state of decompression and openness for the adventure that lay ahead. Passing Galway and heading into Connemara, you really get a sense of our place on this isle, and your scale and (in)significance on this earth. As the Inagh Valley rises up around the meandering road and sheer mountains peppered with wild sheep and goats frame every vista, you can’t help but understand you’re going somewhere far from familiar.
Driving into Letterfrack is a welcoming experience, a village set around a crossroads with a pub on two corners, a café/gallery on another and the GMIT campus on the other. Look one way and you see valleys and the looming Diamond Hill, look another and it’s the Atlantic and scattered islands, look the other and you see the wildness of the Connemara National Park. All are calling you to explore them more, but it’s time to get stuck in and discover what Design West is all about.
It Takes A Village
The location is a unique place to host an event like Design West, but it also couldn’t happen without the commitment and involvement of the team at GMIT. A world class centre of excellence for Furniture Design and Technology, they welcome, facilitate and aid the students each year in every way possible. They open their doors, facilities and experience to everyone who wants it, and they do this generously and wholeheartedly.
This has a powerful effect on everyone participating, reassuring that anything they conceive and want to do is not only possible, but encouraged and even willed to go beyond what was thought possible. Their care and enthusiasm set the scene for big thinking and equally ambitious doing, and this optimistic spirit is infectious. They help set the vibe and that vibe travels through the village, the whole local community feeling the collective effect both socially and economically, albeit on a limited scale this year.
There Is Inspiration Everywhere
Following an opening night of great local food, some social drinks and warm, animated conversations, early the next morning the whole Design West contingent are off. Not to a classroom but to the ferry, to Inishturk in fact, where they spend the day navigating this rock just off our island, connecting with the environment, investigating the rugged wildness, stepping on to the pitch of one of the world’s most unique playing fields nestled amongst the rocks, and being shown around by an enthused, engaging local guide. This is learning and inspiration, Design West style.
After the day on the island, the tone is set. The classroom is no longer where you think it is, it’s everywhere. From the splendour of Kylemore Abbey, to a hike up Diamond Hill, to the masterclasses and workshops with local luminaries to internationals dialling in to inspire, to much more besides. Sunday to Wednesday is all kinds of everything, and what may have seemed linear briefs to the students before they arrived in Letterfrack has now shapeshifted and transformed in their minds. The inputs and inspirations of these days now inform and challenge the outputs and outcomes that were maybe considered set in stone.
Too often we race to the answer before we truly understand the questions being asked of us. At Design West, the insistence is to slow down this approach to perhaps get to a better answer faster, or actually end up in an entirely different destination altogether. This is borne of conversation, challenge, collaboration, co-creation and constant interactions with people who shape and shift all the time.
Seeing few computers throughout the week, especially given these were our tools of creation and connection for the last 18 months, was reassuring; in their place were humans interacting and solving challenges through conversation, craft and companionship.
To see people relying on themselves and their human skills and abilities was poignant and inspiring, a reminder of what we are capable of and a beacon for what we hopefully can all do again, once we’re through this mess.
A Return To Craft
Everyone involved in Design West is committed to their craft, and to the craft within their craft too. Over the days I am inspired by the likes of Ciarán Ó Gaora from Dublin design agency Zero-G who epitomises taking personal work personally, Super folk proving their creative endeavours in the wilds of the west are not only viable in Ireland but of interest to the wider world, Porto based Oupas and R2 Design beaming in their brilliance in utterly different ways, and many other inspiring architects, artists, makers and other creators all bringing something special and unique to the event.
And that’s just in the classroom. Rumour has it drawing charcoal is being made in one spot, we spend a lunch beside Killary Fjord learning the craft of the local shellfish producers (and enjoying their delicious spoils), the students are raiding the village hardware store as their ideas are too big for their notebooks, and much more besides.
Sunday to Wednesday is all about the thinking, Wednesday to Friday shift to the doing. The GMIT technicians mobilise and fire up their onsite machinery, the Design West collaborative partners of Unthink, Studio Or (riso printers), The Salvage Press (letterpress), Together We Create and others all get to work to bring the students ideas to life through everything at hand. Here is where ideas formed over the last few days turn into products, prints, flags, zines, furniture and so much more.
Mark Making That Makes Its Mark
Everyone who comes to Design West arrives as one thing and leaves a little different. What could be seen as an academic excursion is proven to be so much more. Forcing people, albeit with a soft hand, to think differently about how they approach their work, by midweek conversations are shifting to the effect of the event, activities and interactions are impacting on a much deeper level.
Vocations are being affirmed, career courses are being corrected or challenged, what was thought improbable is now more than possible. This week away stands the chance of lasting a lifetime, and changing life paths too.
A World Class Event At The Edge Of The World
In three editions, even with the tiny matter of Covid, Conor and his committed team at Design West have delivered a unique international event at the edge of the Atlantic. They’ve done this through focusing on care, warmth, generosity, community building, ambition, collaboration and bringing everyone who wants to be part of it into their collective journey.
As 2021 closes and they look to 2022 and the possibilities the future could hold, I am reassured that upon this bedrock, anything is possible, and with Conor, GMIT and their team at the helm, what can be, will be.
Words: Richard Seabrooke