Dublin, the city of Jonathan Swift and James Joyce to Sheridan le Fanu and Bram Stoker is Ireland’s literary heaven, full of effervescent bars, pubs and bottomless glasses of Guinness that have tempted the likes of Seamus Heaney in their time. To see Dublin beyond the world that is usually experienced, the Creative Quarter on the map is just blocks away from Grafton’s Street. “If you want to see the edgy, creative Dublin where home-grown Irish brands and eclectic designs are showcased, then this is the place to go,” says a Dubliner. “Falling rents and surplus commercial space have made entrepreneurs open hip galleries and swish boutiques that are removed from mainstream fashion retailers”, he adds. Adversity often leads to innovation, after all. Dublin’s Creative quarter is a stretch of renovated Georgian and Victorian buildings that lie between South William Street and South Great Georges Street filled with small boutiques, independent businesses bursting with fresh ideas and quirky cafes. This area was once Dublin’s original garment district, where specialist design thrived. Fashionistas of those days used to flock here to get their coats, gloves and dresses made.
Project 51 is housed in an old Georgian building, which is a unique design collective on South William Street. The Collective gives local designers space to display their creations as well as doubles up as an in-house studio and incubation space for some of them. Customers can choose from engagement rings to bridal wear, jewellery, evening dresses, and millinery and luxury leather bags. Jeweller Eoin McDonnell, a jewellery designer by profession, is the brain behind the project. Eoin says that Project 51 endeavours to fill the gap between designers who are creative and have a passion for their work but don’t have the means or knowhow to showcase it to the customers, and those who want to buy authentic and unique creations that are not mass produced. “All our designs are bespoke or one of a kind”, says Eoin. He adds that the place is not only for Irish designers but welcomes designers from all over the world, who are based in Ireland, and have a good idea or product to put forth to the public. It took him two years of research to start Project 51. Eoin talks about the history and evolution of each designer as he points to displays in his shop, leading to a greater appreciation of their work.
Project 51 is a very dynamic space, with different designers week to week. Project 51 also runs monthly exhibitions and showcases which are theme based like wedding design or by designers from a particular city or town in Ireland. I see an innovatively designed flyer for an exhibition for designers from Cork. Cork has the reputation of being the rebel city of Ireland and therefore the flyer is visualised like a visa with the words ‘People’s Republic of Cork’ printed on it. Many designers have seen their profile grow after joining Project 51: There is milliner Kate Betts who was the Finalist at Hat Designer of the Year 2012. Mc Donnell himself has grown as a designer through the design collective: he shows me a range of coloured rings called ‘Lucido’ that he has created by collaborating with another designer, out of anodised aluminium embedded with diamonds. The studio space that is provided by Project 51 is occupied by an eclectic lot— a maker of computer apps, a social media specialist and a shoe maker. He says that the downturn actually helped his enterprise with the rentals for space going south; he was able to get a 10 year lease on the building. Eoin shows me their space upstairs that is occupied by ‘Empower’-a stylish beauty salon with artists and photographers who do fashion photography and act as the back end of the fashion industry. There is one more surprise waiting at Project 51: a room that doubles up as an art gallery to showcase paintings and even quirky furniture like the ‘Sheepish Chair’ made from raw wood and fluffy yarn.
Up ahead on the same street is Powerscourt Centre, an upscale shopping centre that has converted another Georgian mansion into a row of independent shops selling art, craft and fashion as well as housing a bustling courtyard cafe. On the top floor is Loft Market, which brings together vintage collectors, fashion designers and artists. The ornate chandeliers, the winding staircase embellished with rococo give this shopping complex atmosphere: the building was once owned by a viscount and his attractive wife who to throw soirees here. The Victorian St George’s arcade with its red brick exteriors and wrought iron ceilings which sells everything from vintage advertisement posters to quirky hats is one of the oldest buildings on the street. There are tattoo parlours and swish cafes where you spend time people watching. I have spent a pleasant morning enjoying the eclectic range of the shops in the Design Quarter – from a shop that specialises in just ribbons, trimmings, lace and buttons to one that sells musical instruments and musical accessories or some that stock a large selection of beads. Seeing a city beyond its clichés always redefines the experience.