'This feller came in looking for a traditional 1840s Irish coffee table. When I said I didn’t have one, he asked if I could find one for him. I told him I couldn’t, that there wasn’t such a thing, but he insisted that’s what he wanted and that’s what he was going to get. Eventually I had to tell him that if there had have been such a thing as a traditional Irish coffee table in the 1840s, they’d probably have eaten it.'
The anecdote is Patrick Bradley’s. He has recently opened a new shop, Beyond Redemption, in Derry-Londonderry. He has been in the antiques business for many years, and Beyond Redemption is his latest venture. But it’s different from what he’s done before. Northern Ireland – particularly in the North-West, according to Bradley – suffers from a shortage of stock when it comes to antiques. The lack of industries that produced furniture and pottery and the like, combined with the widespread poverty of the past that narrowed the market for such goods, means that it’s difficult to find antiques to sell.
And then there’s taste too. 'Antiques are a thing of the past,' says Bradley. 'Antiques fairs are pretty dead. It’s all trinkets and knick-knacks and bits of lace gathered in charity shops and sold at the weekend as a bit of a hobby.' He has seen the market shifting, and so he’s shifting to cater for that market. 'It’s the younger people buying now, and what they’re buying is retro. That’s the look that’s in.' It’s a taste that extends to clothes, too, so Bradley’s plan is to stock a combination of mid-century homewares and vintage clothing. “I can sell loads of Ben Sherman shirts, and much cheaper than new. Thank God for Skins.'
It’s a different story, however, at Ross’s Auction House in Belfast, according to auctioneer and valuer, Jonathan Esdale. 'As far as antiques are concerned, we tend to deal mainly in 18th and 19th Century items. The furniture – the sideboards, tables, chairs and such – is not as abundant as previously, but it is out there, and there is a demand for it.'
Ross’s, one of four auction houses in Belfast, has been in business for nearly a hundred years, and has seen many changes in tastes and demand. Jonathan Esdale, who has been with Ross’s for the past 30 of those years, has noticed the most recent shifts. 'We’re seeing fewer younger people now. Customers tend to be in their 40s and 50s. They’re a mixture of collectors and dealers. The collectors are looking for functional pieces, things they can actually use, while knowing they’ve got something of quality and beauty which will appreciate in value.' And they’re looking for different things. 'There’s less emphasis on things that make clutter, if you like – crystal, figurines and so on. We can sell those things, but others may struggle.
People are looking for smaller items of furniture and I can see a growing demand for Georgian and Regency pieces. They’re flamboyant but restrained. They’re ‘less’ but still beautiful and delightful.'
One thing that has struck Esdale is the influence of television. 'People come in and describe something they’ve seen on Mr Selfridge or Downton Abbey and say they’re looking for something similar. And the dining room is coming back. People enjoy formal dining again now, and they want dining tables and chairs, and good dinner services. You can see it in the numbers bidding, six hands will go up rather than three.'
Esdale sees Ross’s as a Belfast institution, one to which people will come in their lunchtime to view the saleroom, local office workers, as well as the dealers from Greyabbey looking for stock. They’ve recently added a cafe to add to the experience. Another development has involved online display as well as auctions, boosting the sales of porcelain and jewellery. While the way people look has changed, and while tastes will always shift, Jonathan Esdale firmly believes that people essentially want what they’ve always wanted: 'It’s all about quality, function, story, and investment.'
If Ross’s represent the traditional antiques business, and Beyond Redemption a more fluid market, there is perhaps a third way, as shown by the emergence of such businesses as Atelier, ReFound, and Oscar&Oscar, all Belfast-based, all recent developments.
Oscar&Oscar is run by two fully qualified architects, Orla Maguire and Martin Barrett. The business has grown organically since it was founded in 2011. Both Maguire and Barrett collected mid-century furniture, lighting, and homeware as a hobby. They trawled auctions, charity shops, and skips looking for things they loved. When their houses became too small, and circumstances allowed them time, they took a stall at a Frock around the Clock fair, a new venture dealing in vintage and handmade items.
Barrett and Maguire sold furniture, lighting, and crockery, with enough success to make them want to continue. So it was back to the auctions, charity shops, and skips again, but this time searching for things they could sell. 'We look for things that are well-designed and well-made, mainly but not necessarily 20th Century,' says Barrett. The crucial criterion is, 'We must like it ourselves.'
Towards the end of 2011, the business took on an extra dimension, as a previous client of Maguire’s asked them to design a restaurant, Il Pirata, in Belfast. 'We were asked to design it before we were actually a design company,' says Maguire. Il Pirata were looking for something different. 'They wanted something a bit more edgy,' says Barrett, 'something distinct from what was already here.'
Oscar&Oscar sourced and supplied everything bar the tiles – furniture, flooring, wall coverings, crockery, and gave the restaurant an industrial edge bare concrete and bare bulbs, everything pared-back, with some softening touches. Their work was shortlisted in the stand-alone restaurant category of the Restaurant and Bar Design Awards of 2012, and Barrett and Maguire found themselves part of a growing movement in Northern Ireland, where food, coffee, culture, furniture, and design go hand-in-hand in a desire to create a more sophisticated lifestyle.
One design commission led to another, but Oscar&Oscar didn’t ditch one function as another came to the fore. “We offer a multiplicity of services,” says Maguire. 'We design, we sell individual items, we’re architects, we source specific items for people who can’t find them themselves. And we do salvage too – timber panelling, lighting and so on.' They have a wide network of contacts and can find most things they’re looking for on the island of Ireland.
They are new dealers. Rather than simply sell stock at fairs, or solely take on design commissions, they offer a menu of services from which customers can take their pick. More design work is planned, and so are more fairs and pop-up shops.
They have used social media skilfully, creating interest through Twitter and Facebook. 'We can show our stock, we can create a buzz, and show the progress of jobs. It spreads the word. Our recent pop-up shop was promoted only on Facebook and Twitter, and plenty of people turned up,' says Maguire. Their typical customer is older than Patrick Bradley’s and younger than Ross’s, between 25 and 35, often young professionals who have come back to Northern Ireland after working in Britain and who are looking for the clean mid-century modern lines they saw there but couldn’t afford. And they are increasingly getting enquiries from England, where prices for mid-century goods has soared in the past couple of years. Thank God for skips.
By Dominic Kearney