It’s not paradise, we definitely have our moments,” laughs Bryan O’Sullivan, referring to his marriage and working relationship to husband James O’Neill who is also commercial director at his studio BOS Studio, in London.
“But there’s great synergy between us and we always have each other’s backs and joint best interests at heart.”
Plus, he tells me, James has an incredible eye and isn’t afraid to tell him when something ‘looks horrendous’.
“He’d never get offended,” says 35-year-old James.
“Unlike some designers, Bryan isn’t protective of his vision or solitary in his design approach — everyone on our team has a voice and input.”
It helps that the couple share the same design aesthetic.
But asked to describe their style, a long pause ensues.
“Compelling, elegant, timeless,” pipes James. “Oh, that’s so vague.”
Eventually, they settle on an approach: one that aims to bring a calmness and functionality to a space.
They are not given to flashes of fads or trends but instead bring a fresh perspective to each project, designing much of the bespoke aspects for which their studio has become known.
“We tend to look backwards,” explains Bryan.
“We’re classical in our inspiration but probably more contemporary in our execution and never like to repeat our work. We lean towards the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and that timeless French and Italian architecture but strip it back to a more simplified version.”
Their respective career history blend — 38-year-old Bryan trained under the eye of the late Irish interior designer David Collins and Swedish interior architect Martin Brudnizki while James worked in the music and fashion industry before joining the firm — is paying off, it seems.
In January, Bryan was named Elle Décor Interior Designer of the Year, a hugely prestigious accolade in the industry.
Their ascent up the interior industry ranks since Bryan opened the studio in 2013 has been deft and assured with a roll call of prestigious clients and international commissions that include a refurb of the new bar in London’s The Connaught and The Berkeley hotels, a historic house in Paris and a Fifth Avenue apartment in New York.
The townhouse in Paris, while both agree was an incredible experience, was also the most challenging, liaising with over 45 trades people with just basic French.
“It definitely gave us a few grey hairs,” laughs James.
The recent refurb of the five-star Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara, however, was a much calmer affair and one close to their hearts since it was the location of their wedding last summer.
The Irish connection is one they credit for much of their inspiration. Wherever possible, downtime is spent in Bryan’s native Kenmare in Co Kerry.
“Getting home does wonders for your creative brain,” he says.
In fact, it was a trip home that inspired the palette for a residential ski chalet project in France — the autumnal colours on a hill walk of the Kerry mountainside setting the whole tone.
Ironically, the couple’s own home is unfinished, thanks to the “apocalypse of Covid-19”.
Having purchased and finalised the design plans in February, they were forced to just “move in” which, they agree, in hindsight has been far more rewarding.
“We’ve had all this time to sit in the space and consider it,” says James.
And what can we expect from the design duo’s own abode? An apartment on the 39th floor of the Barbican Centre, it promises stellar views of London and plenty of light and that’s what they hope to harness.
“We have to respect much of the architecture but it’ll be light and airy with plenty of bespoke details.”
No moody rooms, then? “Absolutely not,” says James.
“It’s an interiors trend I really don’t enjoy. How light impacts has a huge effect on our mental health and dark walls are so depressing.”
As for Bryan, he’d like to see the back of ceramic wood tiles. “I just can’t do fake,” he groans.
And for those who are struggling to find their style, they encourage playing the field.
“Always trust your gut and try to source as much from various different places; the last thing you want is for your home to look like a showroom. It’s much nicer to live in a space that feels unique and original.”
‘Superyachts are fun to design but a little trickier than a house’
Like many Irish in Australia, interior designer Vera McElroy and her husband, architect Andrew O’Connell, had intended to stay just one year – that was 1987. Fast-forward 30 years and the couple and their three children are firmly “bedded-in” with a hugely successful design and architecture practice (ID/AI Studios and Altis Architects) in Sydney and a range of projects that span the gamut from residential and commercial to super yachts. Not so surprising when I learn McElroy redesigned the family kitchen at the age of 15 while her mother was on holiday. Her dad, a race horse trainer from Kildare, clearly trusted her talents.
“I’m not sure if he thought I was courageous, stupid or brilliant but he let me do it and I ripped everything out, including the plumbing. Thankfully they both loved their new kitchen,” the 58-year-old laughs.
A job with a developer gave her the chance to hone her skills before they set up their company in 1989, which has since gained serious traction with commercial and residential clients.
“I think being Irish helps,” presses McElroy, modestly. “We’re not so different to the Aussies; what you see is what you get and our clients and suppliers seem to like that.”
McElroy’s interior flair is all about classic looks with a contemporary twist: think antique chairs with soft linen sofas, bright cushions and modern woodwork. “As a European, you’re exposed to the most beautiful architecture and, in particular, Georgian Dublin with all those high ceilings and huge windows, ornate details and brickwork. I like to think my style is elegant and classical but with a homely element.”
But Australia is all about outdoor living and it’s an aspect that has moulded her design direction. “The outdoors plays a huge role here, and light modulation: those spaces like terraces, that sit between inside and out and the seamless integration between both,” she explains.
Her pet peeve is house designs that overlook orientation where living areas are north-facing instead of south-facing. Light, apparently, is everything. Her latest project is a part-subterranean property on Sydney harbour that faces north-west, giving the clients long days and beautiful sunsets. But the fundamental axiom of her design – whether that’s for a hotel, a house or a boat – is the actual role of the interior and meeting those needs. Together with her husband, they plan intimately around the client and the way they use the space. The outcome more often than not is contemporary to maximise space and light but with intricate detailing it always has a layered, arty feel that pays homage to her European roots. The exception being super yachts.
“They are a lot of fun to do but a little trickier,” she laughs. “You have to consider weight as some of these yachts travel at 36 knots, for example, so you can’t have a 40ml-thick marble or you might lag behind.”
Artwork plays a seminal role in a home for McElroy, creating points of interest. Once she’s finished building and designing their new home, and if the budget permits, it’ll be spent on supporting some emerging artistic talent closely followed by a great living room and fireplace. “Maybe it’s an Irish thing,” she muses, “how traditionally people gathered around fireplaces to tell stories but, for me, a house isn’t a home without a fireplace.”
She enjoys putting the final styling touches at the end of the project. “I love the very end, when you can look at the whole project and see how everything talks to each other. And, when you get a spin in one of those super yachts, it’s even better.”
‘My love for interiors was moulded in France, but it’s definitely an Irish thing’
There’s not much to thank Covid-19 for but for Irish designer Eimear Ryan, slow living afforded an opportunity to realise one of her design dreams. As founder of creative design studio Argot, she had always explored the concept of space and the objects we put in them, and during isolation made use of her time at home to develop the ‘Sustainable TEN project’ – an idea very much on the backburner until lockdown. Using 10 Argot chair designs, she set about pairing them with weird and wonderful materials, from fish scales to mushroom wood, using her unique 3D printing method. The response was so positive that they are now being manufactured for sale. Ryan’s star is very much in the ascendant.
Landing a job with interiors company Clive Christian when she first moved to Paris six years ago exposed her to large high-end projects, but she soon felt the need to explore her own style. “I was always talking about being an interior designer when I was a kid and used to regularly raid my auntie’s house for the latest Laura Ashley catalogue,” the 29-year-old designer confesses.
Argot began as a side-hustle using Instagram to showcase some of her work until big-name brands started to take notice. Although her career has segued into product design, she still taps into her interior and spatial design skills when projects overlap to combine both requirements. Her use of strong structural shapes and forms contrasted with soft aspects set her apart, never straying too far from her iconic ‘wave’ as seen in her vases and sculptures and using organic material such as corn and shells and the process of 3D printing.
“I think design should really enhance your life and be representative of you as a person and the lifestyle you live. For me it comes down to contrasts but there’s always an organic element and that stretches to how I dress and how I furnish my apartment. I like to mix a vintage blazer with something everyday, for example. My apartment, while far from being finished, is a mix of vintage and classic: a 1960s teak table paired with metal industrial chairs.”
Living in Paris must be a hotbed for creativity; elegant, yet never too curated or perfect, exactly, I’d imagine, how she likes it.
“Paris is so unbelievably beautiful and timeless and doesn’t give in too easily to trends, which is what I love about it and I’ve tried to incorporate that into my designs. But I like travelling further into the French countryside to all those fantastic brocante markets for inspiration.”
But it is her native Ireland – particularly where she grew up in Co Down – that roots much of her work. Although her designs take sharp forms and interesting shapes, it’s tempered with a warmth and softness: strong shapes but made from oak, for example, that are tactile with a soft, natural finish or a vase that may look solid and futuristic but light to touch.
“When people think 3D printing they often expect pop colours and plastics. You won’t find anything neon in my designs,” she laughs, quick to press the sustainability element of her work. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere surrounded by forest. I took that for granted growing up but now I see how it informs much of what I make. I’m really intrigued by the relationship between nature and design and what’s coming next in terms of sustainable homes and spaces.”
What’s next, at least someday, is a sustainable cabin in the Irish countryside. She misses the Irish people and the good manners. “Paris is beautiful and incredibly inspiring but it’s harsh sometimes. I struggle with how people treat each other here and I often find it hard to conduct business as a result. The Irish also seem more house proud and willing to invest in their homes, unlike Paris. Perhaps it’s because most Parisians live in apartments and so there’s less value placed on homes and interiors; they’re just not as attached to their homes. I’m happy to say my enthusiasm for design and interiors, while moulded in France, is definitely an Irish thing.”
‘I don’t want perfection; spaces have to feel genuine and unpretentious’
There’s something Suzie McAdam is coveting. It’s a postmodernist ‘Carlton’ bookcase and she’ll have to sell a car to buy it, she tells me, but it’s on the wish list. I’ve no doubt it won’t be long before it’s sitting pretty in her new home, such is the fervour with which she works.
As we chat, her four-month-old baby Seb is sleeping on her lap and she’s busy pulling together plans and fabrics for projects with the help of her team. You could say the 33-year-old’s foray into interior design was in the stars after her architecture plans took a detour ‘south’.
“I’m technically what you would call a college ‘dropout’,” laughs Suzie, referring to her ‘failed’ architecture attempt. “I come from a family of engineers but I had this creative streak from a young age so I was definitely the black sheep.”
She recalls afternoons of papier-mâché crafts at home in Limerick and holidays that involved visits to galleries and castles which threw her into the world of beautiful buildings. “I’ve always appreciated architecture but it felt too constricting for me, evident by the fact that I didn’t do very well,” she laughs.
Given her success, one can only conclude that the ‘failed’ architecture attempt was, in fact, a triumph. Her business, which she set up in 2011, now employs a team of six and boasts a portfolio that proves she’s no one-trick pony, with projects that both riff on classic refined style and those that appeal to the risk-takers with bold choices and a non-conformist approach.
“My style is very piece-led,” explains Suzie. “I start with something beautiful or the silhouette of a couch, for example, and I layer things around that to create a space. I do love historical and classic interiors but there may only be a hint of that somewhere. I try not to repeat historical spaces as that can become clichéd. Instead it’s really about making small references and creating interesting palettes.”
A quick glance at some of her work and you might be forgiven for thinking her love of Italian and French interiors takes precedence, but on closer inspection it’s clear her Irishness informs a lot of her style; there’s decadence but there’s also a humility and warmth to her work.
“I do still love that layer of dust,” she smiles. “I spent a lot of my childhood in my great granny’s farmhouse in Co Louth and I love that ruggedness to a space. I don’t want perfection; spaces have to feel genuine and unpretentious.”
McAdam is not afraid to splurge, budget permitting. Her own house, she admits, was both the most challenging and rewarding project to date.
“I do love beautiful things but I did have to limit myself.” A pink onyx stone in her bathroom is her biggest spend but, she admits, it’s not for everyone.
And what about a ‘good’ room? “Call me old-fashioned but I do love a ‘good’ room,” she laughs. “Mainly because I love beautiful fabrics. It’s definitely not child-friendly but I think a great home is about being comfortable and durable but also having areas of joy. The highlight for us is a tiny bar we designed as part of our sitting room; that definitely brings us lots of joy especially as sleep-deprived new parents.”
At the heart of her design is sustainability in the guise of repurposing existing furniture. She favours antique and vintage and loves when a client has existing items they want to keep.
“It’s a good foundation from which to start. Unlike fashion, interiors have to last a lot longer and isn’t it lovely to think you can pass on a table or chair to the next generation and that it might still be around 50 years from now?”
Picture: Ruth Maria Murphy
‘The fashion industry is so toxic – but it taught me about having a unique direction’
Everyone has their own narrative and for Dubliner Sara Swan it all tells in her eclectic retro-chic interiors store The Swan’s House in Tarrytown, New York – a vibrant melting pot of unusual, colourful, creative and, above all, ‘cool’, concept pieces and vintage aesthetics. Here you can get your vintage-loving mitts on an iconic Murano mushroom lamp, a teardrop swivelling coffee table by DIA (Design Institute of America), an Italian brass and glass nesting etagere by Morex, or a custom-made resin ‘melting’ mirror circa 1985 – items you won’t see in many homes.
A few minutes into our conversation and it’s clear there’s no better person suited to breathing new life into old treasures. Sara is a natural ‘collector’, and recalls the store’s rocky start, her love of vintage and her determination to make it a success. Together with her husband, Chicago native Arthur Gandy, they opened The Swan’s House in October 2019 but had to close the following March due to Covid-19.
“It was terrifying at the time but we immediately set about launching a website.” The response has been overwhelming. Having worked in the fashion industry for 10 years, the 37-year-old is accustomed to the essential elements of building a successful brand.
Design and interiors has always been on her radar, back when netted curtains and pleats were merely a twinkle in her savvy eye and she’d watch as her mother rearranged their family home for the umpteenth time.
“My dad owned a clothing company and used to let me loose on some of the designs and my mum always had a great eye for interiors.”
When she first moved to New York 10 years ago, she managed to penetrate the thick fashion-industry pelt, cutting her teeth with designer Zan Posen and retail giant Rag & Bone, but the shine soon wore off. “It was an incredible experience, I was working on gowns for the Oscars and the Met Gala; I learnt a lot about having a unique direction but the fashion industry is so toxic,” she admits.
Her experience of the interiors world has been the complete opposite. “To come from an industry where you’re made to feel worthless to this incredible feeling of encouragement and support is so motivating.”
It is, however, as demanding as the fashion world, made considerably more challenging by the fact that they have a two-year-old son, Clark: the work-life juggle is very real. The couple are working “around the clock” seven days a week sourcing for the store. “It’s a competitive market so we’re kept constantly on our toes – sourcing, delivering, merchandising and hunting for new pieces to stay ahead of the game.” And while she assures me it’s exciting when you find that “diamond in the rough”, you can’t rest for a second.
Being in New York must be a constant source of inspiration: the architecture, the creativity that seems to seep from every corner. “I’m constantly in awe of this city,” she muses. “From those huge beautiful bridges to a 40ft-graffiti mural on the side of a building, there’s inspiration everywhere and our design aesthetic is fun and playful so New York really caters for that.”
The allure of their ‘brand’ lies in its combining of different design eras to create something unique, from Hollywood Regency and Art Deco to Danish modern and mid-century pieces and in New York, you’ve got it all at your fingertips.
“Quality over quantity every time,” says Swan, when probed on her advice when buying interiors. “The beauty of vintage is that it’s made to last and far superior to the generic mass produced pieces so readily available. And, take your time,” she adds, having made the mistake of ‘panic buying’ when they bought their home back in 2017. Her due date was two weeks later and she was desperate to have a ‘home’ but she’s excited to change it all up again.
“One of my irks is when a home looks like the pages of a catalogue. It should be an expression of who you are. Fill the walls with your favourite art, add plants to give a sense of life and don’t be afraid of a little colour; your home should really be where your heart is.”