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Our Story

Our Story

Note: The following article first appeared in Issue 3 of Faire Magazine. Words by Jo Anne Butler of Superfolk. Photography by Superfolk.

 

Husband-and-wife team Gearoid Muldowney, a craft designer, and Anne Butler, an artist and architect, have a strong sense of purpose with Superfolk. They want people to feel inspired to be creative, to want to design and make their own work through the work that they do, whether it’s Gearoid’s trivet range or Jo Anne’s nature-inspired washi prints made with an ordinary, well-worn kitchen spoon. They see playfulness and a sense of joy in making as a sign of respect and mastery, a sign of affection and appreciation in your relationship with your materials and your world.

 

 

Our home is Mayo, a county on the west coast of Ireland where the landscape feels very alive and present. I inherited a love for this little part of the world from my parents and I hope to pass that same feeling of pride of place, language, and culture to my daughters. Gearoid and I have a strong sense of purpose and know what we want to create with Superfolk. Part of this can be attributed to the strong sense of place we have as a brand. Being based in the west of Ireland is very much part of who we are.

Gearoid and I met when we were both studying at the same university, the National College of Art and Design. At the time I was studying Fine Art Sculpture and he was studying Craft Design. I then went on to do a second degree and master’s in architecture in University College Dublin and in Aarhus in Denmark. A lot of the work in both courses was self-directed, which I loved. I learned how to learn, how to research, plan, experiment, refine, compose, to self-assess and simplify and sometimes start afresh. Through art, I learned how to look and find the right questions to ask. In architecture, I learned sequence, planning, process, and refining. 

 

 

The beginnings of Superfolk

Superfolk began with Gearoid designing and making furniture that he exhibited at the Stockholm Furniture Fair. From this, he began to receive lots of recognition and also lots of orders. He had a small workshop space and was making furniture and shipping it all around the world, working with architects and designers who were creating restaurants and cafés. Some of that furniture is still in use in the café at Somerset House in London. Though we are not making these pieces now, we still get inquiries about them from customers.

When we decided to work together full time, we also decided to move back to the west of Ireland full time. I remember we shipped a large piece to Japan and before we closed up the container we stood looking at all the empty air in the box. It just didn’t make sense, environmentally or from a business point of view. We decided there and then that the next time we shipped a large box to Japan that it would be filled out with smaller products that were designed to suit international shipping and wholesale distribution. 

 

 

Our favourite designs

Not long after this, Gearoid decided that he should try to make something from the offcuts of the furniture legs. He had all these small pieces of round dowel left over from making the first series of tables and stools, and because they were leftover waste materials, he wasn’t afraid to play around with them. He wanted to create something that had no glue and no drying time. From these offcuts, our series of wood trivets was born. Now, when people pick up, hold and play with the trivets, I think to myself that you can still feel that sense of experimentation, testing and playing with materials all these years later in the trivet range we now have in production.

The seaweed print series was inspired by snorkelling. I love that moment of dipping under the flat, calm of the surface and seeing all the vibrant, rich colour and life of seaweeds and fish gently swishing and swaying underneath, almost like a secret waiting to be discovered. I love the sound of my own breathing and my own stillness as the waves gently rock me about. This is the ultimate in mindfulness and meditation for me.

 

 

Nature

I think of my relationship with the natural world as a constant, one of the things in my life that doesn’t change. Bluebells in a hazel forest in April, elderflower in a hedgerow in June, rowan berries weighing down the branches in August. Nature is a constant cycle. Over time, as we get older, we layer more memories onto these cycles, like the first snowdrop in January after my father’s death, small country ditches brimming with wildflowers at my grandmother’s funeral in June, fields of dandelions during Ireland’s first lockdown. As time passes we can add layers of knowledge and meaning, but I think the relationship remains essentially the same. To be outside exploring feels like the most natural place to be. 

 

 

I try to explain to our five-year-old daughter that we are nature. We are just one tiny part of nature, not something separate. Through our journal, our products, our social media, and our newsletter, we aim to share our love of nature. We all know that we need to change our attitudes, our habits, and our behaviours towards our environment, but it can all be a bit overwhelming and depressing. We focus on beauty and learning over statistics. We believe in the idea of know, love and protect – this is the idea that first we will come to know our natural environment, then through this knowing we will grow to love, and when we love we will be moved to protect our natural world. Like our followers and customers, we are enthusiastic self-taught nature lovers, not experts. We always try to use language that is accessible and imagery that is both beautiful and interesting. We have written a number of ‘guides’ to things like seaweed and mushroom foraging and lichen hunting. This is something that Gearoid and I are both really passionate about. 

 

 

Simplicity

I think the simplicity of how we make our prints is what allows people to connect with them. People feel that they could almost have made these prints themselves – and they probably could. A lot of design and craft in the past has been about the demonstration of mastery, doing almost impossible things and the hours spent in production. This is not the type of work that we do. We really want people to feel inspired to be creative, to want to design and make their own work through the work that we do. 

I am drawn to things with a sense of ease, playfulness and humanity – things that are not severe and do not take themselves too seriously. I see playfulness and a sense of joy in making as a sign of respect and mastery, a sign of affection and appreciation in your relationship with your materials and your world.

 

 

“It’s almost embarrassingly simple, though I realise now that this simplicity and tactility are what allow people to connect with them. First I draw the image I want onto the lino block, then I cut this away with a lino cutting tool. Once the block is created, this is the same block I use each time I make a print. When making the print, I build layers of ink onto the block using a number of small rollers. Then I place the page on top of the block and rub the print in from the back using a kitchen spoon. I only use specific handmade papers from Japan, particularly water-based inks and my preferred type of roller”

 

Creative process
A lot of the work I do day to day in Superfolk is designing and producing prints on washi, a type of fine handmade Japanese paper. It’s not lost on me that after all those years of education, I spend most of my time doing something that I learned at a summer art camp when I was nine years old and that the most-used tool in our print workshop is a very ordinary and now well-worn kitchen spoon. 

The prints I make are very simple. I’ve designed them to be this way – simple and enjoyable to make. I wanted to create something that was crisp, clean, clear and bold, as though you are snorkeling and encounter dillisk seaweed floating in the water, sunshine filtering through it and the waves gently swishing it about, or you are standing underneath the canopy of a great old beech tree, sheltering from the rain, and lookup.

 

 

I believe that when something is enjoyable to make, this sense of enjoyment and care in making lives on in the object. We choose natural materials as these are more enjoyable and less toxic to work with because we enjoy how natural materials will age and develop a patina over time and because they are less harmful for our environment. We also have a responsibility as designers to make better choices. Thankfully, this is becoming more possible over time as we refine our materials and our supplier choices. For example, our trivets are now made using FSC-certified timbers, as this is how we can guarantee to our customers that the wood we use is coming from sustainably managed forests. This is what our customers want and it is only right. 

Work and life

When I studied and lived in Denmark, I was really taken by how people prioritised family time within their professional life. I remember an architecture tutor telling us he would not be in the next day (midweek) as it was his son’s birthday and how much he was looking forward to it. This would never have happened in my course in Dublin. There were many occasions like this, where people set clear, defined boundaries between their family time and their professional time. I decided then that this was how I wanted to live and that I was going to figure out how to continue in design and do this. I realised fairly quickly that this would mean setting up our own studio.

Now that we have children, this has come to pass. We have a strong dividing line between work life and home life. We try not to bring work home with us too much or have our work time leak over into family time. In November and December this is hard as we get so busy, but for the most part, for the rest of the year we stick to our boundaries. 

 

 

“The best advice I have been gifted is ‘life is a marathon, not a sprint’. In my twenties and before I had children, I worked too hard and burned out. When you burn out, you fall out of love with your work and are no longer able to apply yourself to it. I have learned this through both community activism and entrepreneurship – if you want to make a difference and keep making work, you need to learn to pace yourself. ”

 

 

Inspiration

We are obviously very inspired by our natural world, but I should say that our work is also inspired by other designers. I am most inspired by people who plough their own furrow and create work that is distinct and almost a bit stubborn. As a sculpture student, I loved the work of Eva Hesse and still do. I love how Ilse Crawford has brought a new way of talking and writing about design as a verb, not a noun, and how the French architect Anne Lacaton talks about sustainability, adaptability and reuse. In Ireland I am particularly inspired by people working in food – there are really great things happening. Food, like design, is sometimes just the chair you sit on or the sandwich you grab in a hurry, but it can also be the peak of our art, our culture, and create a sense of community and place. 

 

 

The importance of stories

Everyone’s experience of the pandemic has been so different, but I have never been more aware of how important stories are. How we tell and share our difficult and positive experiences with friends is normally how we process what happens in our lives and I can’t stop thinking about all the untold stories all around the world. Moments of birth, bereavement, joy, loss, separation and pain that have passed without being shared and self-narrated. I think so many of those emotions are still hanging thickly in the air now, unnamed and untold. 

And yet this has also been a moment of clarity. It is clear what matters, what is important and what we need to do next. We will all have been changed by this time, but I think we are all still too close to it to fully appreciate how profoundly altering this time will prove to be.

 

Note: The following article first appeared in Issue 3 of Faire Magazine. Words by Jo Anne Butler of Superfolk. Photography by Superfolk.
Huge thanks to Ruth Ribeaucourt for editing and shaping our words so beautifully and for giving us permission to reproduce this writing here. Please go check out Faire Magazine

 

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