Go West: Conor Clarke – Design West

Posted June 14, 2019 in Design

Design West is an international summer design school located in the beautiful village of Letterfrack in Connemara. Conor Clarke, Founder and Course Leader of Design West and a Director of Design Factory, explains the origins and realisation of the concept.


Where did the idea for Design West come from?

The idea for an international design summer school started forming during my time as Acting Head of Visual Communication at NCAD. I was always interested in taking design education beyond the college walls and connecting with the wider community. We did a lot of design gigs and workshops around the city during those years with people like Hamish Muir, Max Kisman and Russell Mills, and I always enjoyed that mix of students, educators and professional designers meeting to discuss work and have a bit of fun, usually continuing on to the pub for more banter and refreshments.

One of my colleagues at NCAD, Kate Brangan, suggested I read The Experimenters: Chance and Design at Black Mountain College, which I duly did. It was a gripping story — in 1933, Black Mountain College, an unaccredited art and design school, based in the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina, USA, became a vital hub of cultural innovation. Practically every major artistic figure of the mid-twentieth century taught there: Josef and Anni Albers, Walter Gropius, John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Alan Ginsberg…the list goes on.

The Black Mountain College concept fascinated me, and I got hooked on the idea of getting a group of critically acclaimed international designers and students together in a remote Irish location. After a lot of searching, and a series of happy coincidences, I ended up in the village of Letterfrack in Connemara, a beautiful remote location that just happened to have a brilliant studio and workshop facilities. Perfect. It even had its own mountain, Diamond Hill, overlooking the stunning GMIT campus, which is the National Centre of Excellence for Furniture Design and Wood Technology, designed by O’Donnell + Tuomey Architects.


How long did it take from that initial thought to actually opening the doors?

It took two years, initially collaborating closely with Dermot O’Donovan, Head of Department at GMIT Letterfrack.


What was your guiding vision for the school?

A number of things inspired the vision. Last year I was invited by artist Martin Wright to create a visual identity for ‘Building 98’ in Marfa, a project of the International Woman’s Foundation, which has operated an artist-in-residency programme since 2002. Marfa is a small desert city in west Texas, USA which is known as an arts hub. Again, it is an example of a vibrant creative community in a remote location. The Chinati Foundation, founded by artist Donald Judd (1928 – 1994), displays his huge indoor and outdoor installations there. It’s a very cool place and it’s very remote. They have a saying: ‘Marfa. Tough to get there. Tougher to explain. But once you get there, you get it.’ I feel the same way about the Connemara landscape where we are holding the Design West Summer School. You’ve got to go there to really understand what an amazing landscape it is.

During the same period, I read The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald which got me interested in the idea of ‘walking as research’. It deals with themes that interest me — time, memory, identity — and was a big influence on the concepts and ideas behind Design West.

And, of course, the Black Mountain College experiment was definitely an inspiration — education in a remote communal setting, where traditional hierarchies between faculty and students were blurred. The school had no grades and no tests, with the emphasis on creativity and experimentation.

Our guiding vision at Design West is to create an environment where we can get back to the reasons we became designers in the first place, experimentation and play — away from the pressures of deadlines and 24 hour connectivity — and have ‘time to make’.


If you had to write three rules you would like people to live and work by during the school what would they be?

We don’t have any rules, but our guiding principles would be ‘Work, Learn & Play’. We encourage participants to step out of their comfort zones, to challenge themselves, have fun and enjoy being away from the humdrum of the everyday.


Has it been difficult convincing the best Irish and international designers and creatives to travel to the wild west of Ireland to take part in this?

Not that difficult. People are hankering for an escape, an opportunity to switch off and recharge. In fact, I think it’s easier to get top designers like Artur Rebelo, Isidro Ferrer and René Knip to a place like Connemara than it is to get them to Dublin. Photographs of the location don’t really do it justice. I remember bringing Noelle and Colin from Unthink down for their first visit to see the location and the workshops, they were amazed. You really have to go there to appreciate it. And the people at GMIT Letterfrack are so positive — nothing is impossible.


What’s a typical day and week like for your school attendees?

Although we meet on campus every morning, every day is different. There might be a presentation by a leading international designer, a demonstration in the workshops by one of the amazing GMIT technicians, one-to-one tutorials with participants, group discussions on project briefs, an impromptu gig by a visiting musician. Afternoons are generally about excursions and field trips — Inishbofin, Killary Fjord, Diamond Hill, surfing at Ballyconneely, visits to artists’ studios and local food producers — there is so much to do. Evenings might include a screening at the beautiful AV Theatre in Connemara National Park, an exhibition opening, a barbecue on the beach, conversations in the pub. We work towards producing a small exhibition at the end of the two weeks and it’s astonishing to see what can be produced in this inspirational environment.


What are the habits you’re looking to break or the new skills you’re trying to nurture in each of the participants?

To fight the impulse to reach for your laptop! Experiment a little at first with found materials, wood, paper (remember that?) and then go back to the computer if you need to. When doing your research go for a walk or a cycle, talk to people, talk to the amazing designers who have come to work with you, pick up the local produce, make a mark in the sand, get out of your comfort zone and make something new.


What have been the biggest challenges in getting your idea off the ground?

Again, I’ve been very lucky here. I’ve had tremendous support from the creative community both at home and abroad, from practitioners and educators. My core team have been nothing short of brilliant — GMIT Letterfrack, Core, Unthink, Or Studio, Design Factory, National Print Museum, Ken and BK at Pentagram, Martin Wright — all passionate and enthusiastic about the concept. The only real challenge is to keep up the communications and the quality of the experience. A pleasure so far.


Your most memorable moment so far?

Standing at the crossroads in Letterfrack on the opening night and meeting the people arriving at our summer school from Japan, Uruguay, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Germany, France, Belgium, Poland and all around Ireland… it was incredible. Over the two weeks, twelve countries were represented between tutors and students. The world came to us, a nice feeling.

Driving renowned designers Artur Rebelo (Porto) and Isidro Ferrer (Spain) along the Sky Road from Clifden to Letterfrack was also special, incredible views — not a word out of them, just big grins, followed by an Irish coffee in Rosleague Manor Hotel. Awesome.


Design West runs from Saturday June 22 to Friday July 5.

International speakers include Dutch designer René Knip, Japanese Art Director and Designer Yuki Sugiyama (Hakuhodo Inc.) and Ken Deegan and Brankica Harvey, Associate Partners and Designers at Pentagram New York.

The fee for the full two-week programme is €1800 which includes the opening and closing reception meals, accommodation, tuition, presentations, excursions, access to workshops and technicians, screenings and social events.


Words: Richard Seabrooke


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