“When I said I was interested in unearthing the hidden gems of Irish modernism, by which I mean design, architecture, infrastructure, nobody believed me that Ireland had a significant modernist design legacy.”
Mining our past brings rich rewards. We meet Donal Fallon, Paul Guinan and Matthew Retallick, three collaborators who are putting their own inimitable time stamp on our past. Here Matthew Retallick talks to Richard Seabrooke about Irish design modernism, Retro-Futurism and bringing Irish history to life.
What’s your career background Matt? I see you’re down as a curator and writer based in Manchester, but it would be good to know more. What’s the Irish connection?
I am a modern and contemporary art curator, and I also write about the theme. In my career, I’ve worked in a wide range of cultural institutions, a mixture of large commercial, and public art galleries. Although I am from Cornwall, I am an Irish citizen, and my Mum’s side of the family are from Terenure. Therefore, Ireland, but in particular Dublin, is very close to my heart, and I have a deep-rooted interest and passion for Irish visual culture.
How long have you been doing modernist.ie? What was the motivation for it?
Well, modernist.ie, like so many things in life, started with a conversation in a pub. When I said I was interested in unearthing the hidden gems of Irish modernism, by which I mean design, architecture, infrastructure, nobody believed me that Ireland had a significant modernist design legacy. I think that’s because If you say Irish modernism, people immediately think of literature, maybe art, but rarely design.
I currently work for the Modernist Society across the UK, facilitating all things production. Their democratic approach to modernism has been a real inspiration, as is their devotion to the unassuming modernism of our everyday lives. Modernism doesn’t have to be about grand architectural gesture, although that often features on my Instagram, but instead a beermat, a book cover, or even a tea towel.
I love how your curated, considered content gives your audience a sense of our rich visual history and culture. Where do you find these gems, do you seek them all out or do people now send you on pieces of interest?
I get asked this question more than any other, and I think that’s symptomatic of people coming to terms with the breadth of Irish design modernism available. Some of the things I post are from my own collection, some have been sent by kind followers, and others have been found in old newspapers, magazines. Also, I’ve been lucky to have invites to collaborate with significant archives, for example the National Irish Visual Arts Library, who allowed me to have a rummage through their collection and share my finds.
Your top three posted pieces so far? Why are they of particular interest to you?
It’s such a hard question, especially as I have posted nearly 500 examples of Irish design modernism. It is of constant fascination to me which posts receive the most interest. My three most popular posts to date are: a 1958 edition of the Learners English / Irish dictionary, the optical, geometric design is remarkable for the time period, and seems to pre-empt the 1960s op-art of artists like Bridget Riley.
The second is a cover for a 1934 edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, designed by Ernst Reichl, quite simply flawless in its art deco simplicity. Finally, a poster for Guinness designed by Abram Games in 1956 – it is utterly timeless, you could paste it to the billboards of Ireland today, and it would still seem as fresh and as relevant as it did in the ‘50s.
Three future classics of the last few years in creativity, design, art, music or culture… what work being now will you be featuring in 20 years’ time?
I’m not sure I have three off the top of my head, but what I will say is that I am really interested the DIY approach to design. I am fascinated by the idea of Retro Futurism, a term often siloed to music, but is becoming more relevant to contemporary design – this looking back to go forward is a key motivation of my project. I mention this a lot, but Soft Boy Records merchandise is a good case in point. The designs sit somewhere between the 1990s and the present day, there is something tantalising about design that can’t quite be pinned down to a specific time period.
I think it’s this contemporary bootlegging culture, for example the merchandise produced by Three Castles Burning or DBLNR in Ireland, or Sports Banger in the UK, which will be looked upon as a significant trend in 20 years’ time, and encapsulate a time where we had to do things for ourselves. It’s like a more polite and tidy form of punk.
With the likes of 100 Archive and other organisations documenting recent creative work of note, is there an opportunity for you to create a similar archive of work previously lost to the winds of time? A digital record would be awesome, as would a critical but brilliantly printed tome.
There is indeed. This is something that I am trying to raise money for at the moment. Really, the Instagram account is just the start, and it has become bigger than I ever imagined. I am talking to a great designer at the moment, and we are considering our options for the creation of a website that will be devoted purely to expanding knowledge on Irish design modernism and putting these designs into wider socio-political and historical context. I would love to produce a book at some stage, and if there are any Irish publishing houses interested, let’s chat.
I’m a huge fan of you, Three Castles Burning, Paul Guinan and others in bringing life, colour and interest to the stories of our past. Why do you think it’s important to keep these tales alive?
I think it is hugely important that Irish history is brought to life. I hope my project is a springboard for the new generation of Irish designers, one that allows them to take ownership over their modernist design heritage.
I always say that the majority of Ireland’s design modernism hides in plain sight; I receive messages from followers all the time who are digging stuff out of their homes and looking at their finds in a new way. History is not just about looking back, it’s a platform to build upon, to inform and push forward with new ideas.
Do you think Covid has ignited an even more engaged interest in our past as we sit in a holding pattern vacuum awaiting our next cultural and creative adventures?
I think the COVID restrictions have made us more inventive out of necessity. For example, we have probably become more in-tune to what’s around us. The restrictions this year led to a surge in submissions for my project. People are revisiting their possessions, whereas usually you work 9-5, and are often at a distance from the objects of your life. Our homes have become the sites of new cottage industries, and I am sure that cultural institutions will be clamouring to make sense of it all when the world is back to normal.
I’ve been working at The Modernist Society and Modernist Magazine in the UK for the past 18 months on a funded project. I’ve been taking responsibility for things such as exhibitions, events – all things production, and I think production is a key word in my life. I always seem to be producing something, whether that’s an exhibition, a magazine article, merchandise, a zine, a talk, the list goes on.
Pink is an exciting new curatorial project based in central Manchester where I was invited to be Associate Curator, over the next couple of years at least we’ll be making exhibitions and other projects that will research new approaches for expanding curatorial practice. Time is something I find I lack more than anything, especially as on top of all of this I am researching for a full-time PhD looking at Cornish modernist painting. Working in the cultural sector I of course never have money, but the need to produce is a compulsion I suppose, it’s all I know.
How have your recent moves into merchandise and encouraging Patreon support been received? Are these simply to fund your continued output or is there a bigger idea in terms of giving people access to well-designed goods underpinned by great stories?
The move into merchandise and encouraging Patreon support is to raise money for the next phase of the project – getting a website up and running, and to afford to take time to write about Irish design modernism. It’s a slow and steady climb, but I am eternally grateful for all those Irish modernists who have already got behind it.
I couldn’t have achieved my merchandise without Paul Guinan, who I feel is one of the best designers working in Ireland today. He has this knack of building upon the aesthetic of modernism and making it relevant to a contemporary audience. His designs are absolutely retro futurist. I hope to collaborate with him more in the future, all the merchandise so far has sold out in just under a couple of days, which is wonderful.
Words: Richard Seabrooke
Our interview with Eddy Rhead and Jack Hale of The Modernist Magazine is here.