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From California to Kilkenny via Paris: A master craftsman on learning his trade

Eric Phillips’s work includes not just fine furniture and interiors, but also wooden water-based craft

It’s a long way from the surf and sunshine of the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles to the cooler, tranquil waters of the river Nore in Kilkenny, but that’s been the journey of Eric Phillips, a designer-maker from the US now working and living in Ireland.

Phillips is the recipient of the inaugural David Shaw Smith Legacy Award, initiated by basket-maker Joe Hogan (and implemented by the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland), for his outstanding craftsmanship and contemporary design.

“It was a great honour to get recognition from one’s peers and the €5,000 will be invested in research,” he says, from his workshop and showroom, a former creamery in Bennettsbridge.

Phillips’s work is all encompassing and includes not just fine furniture and interiors, but also wooden water-based craft – canoes, paddles and surfboards. As a boy growing up in California, he inherited woodworking skills going back to many generations of carpenters in his family, “and we always had tools around the garage so if we wanted to build something, we just got out there and did it ourselves”, he says.

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Later, he decided those building skills could enable him to travel, and so he took off for Paris intending to spend a year there, joining a friend studying art history. “Everything was new to me and I fell in love with it, with access to so much art, design, science, history and culture in such a small, dense city.” He ended up working with different carpenters and architects and eventually set up a successful design and build company, “so that one year became 25″.

His many projects in Paris included architecture for domestic and commercial spaces, but also his own top-floor apartment, with a roof terrace in an old aluminium foundry, to which he added a further floor and roof terrace. It was a major structural challenge that took him nearly two years to complete, having applied for planning permission seven times before it was approved. And no mean feat at a time when he was then married to his Irish wife and with two small children.

A year later in 2014, however, a bad motorbike accident put him out of action for eight months and that, combined with other difficulties and the terrorist attacks in Paris, led him to close the business and move to Kilkenny with his family where they had friends and had spent many enjoyable holidays. Since 2016, home is Inistioge by the river Nore, with a workshop nearby in Bennettsbridge, which allows him “to concentrate more on what I want to do and scale down because woodwork is my passion”.

His furniture collection – spare, elegant and deceptively simple – relies on expert, tight joinery composed of small sections of wood more demanding in technique and skill than bigger pieces. It has what he calls the Conversation Chair, made in oak and Cushendale tweed (he was responsible for the new showrooms in Cushendale Woollen Mills); the Bruges Chair in sapele hardwood; the lovely Nore Bench in cherrywood, for which he does the Danish cording himself; and various writing desks, coffee tables and stools.

His wooden water-based craft – paddles in cherry and ash and surfboards in western red cedar, fibreglass cloth and ash – are all finished with five coats of linseed oil. His own beautiful canoe, which he paddles along the Nore, was fashioned from western red cedar, Irish ash, fibreglass cloth and epoxy resin. “Having grown up with the Pacific Ocean swimming and surfing, I now combine my love of woodwork with my love of water and moving from France to here, the connection with nature inspired me to work more with wooden water-based craft,” he says.

His supply of wood comes from two companies: Inch Sawmills in Kilkenny, which is run by the Brett family since the 19th century who “work with storm-felled trees which are then air and kiln dried – oak, beech, sycamore, ash and cedar”; while the western red cedar is sourced from Abbey Woods in Dublin.

He plans to start working again in France, where he has kept the Paris apartment, with a trip to meet friends and makers exploring new computer-operated techniques for cutting wood.

“It’s another tool in the development of furniture-making to upgrade production while still maintaining handcraft,” he says. In the meantime, he loves the lifestyle in Kilkenny and “you hear people looking forward to retirement, but retirement to me is when I cannot use my hands anymore”.

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