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Jill

Jill O’Neill: ReFound

03/04/14

Belfast's upcycled homewares business and its owner are offering new options for artists and designers to be showcased

Built in 1830, 7 Wellington Place, in the centre of Belfast, was originally a family home, before being converted into offices for a firm of city solicitors. When they had finished with it, it was left to fall into disrepair, until the building was rediscovered by Jill O’Neill, who saw it as perfect for the next stage in the development of her business, ReFound.

Jill O’Neill worked in advertising and for music magazines in New York before returning to Belfast to take up posts with Arts and Business NI and Business in the Community, operating in the worlds of social enterprise, arts development, and the creative industries. Drawing on that, and on what she’d seen happening in New York, O’Neill began ReFound as a sideline, running it as a series of pop-up events before it grew to the point where permanent premises were required.

ReFound is a shop where you can buy vintage chairs, tables, sideboards, mirrors, jewellery, lamps, desks, and back boards from old bus routes. But you’d be wrong to think of it as a shop that simply sells upcycled furniture and work by local craftspeople dabbling in decoupage. You’d be wrong to think of it as just a shop, in fact.

On the first floor of this four-storey, multi-story building is an exhibition, the ReFound Forge Project. On display are lighting prototypes by three Northern Ireland product designers – Nastasija Andrejeva, Stuart McIlwaine, and Emmet Rock – and two Northern Ireland manufacturing firms – Delta Packaging, of Belfast, and Whale, of Bangor. 

This exhibition – according to the promotional material, an 'exercise in exploring the links between artistry and industry and the possibilities within' – encapsulates the aims and philosophy of ReFound. It is not about upcycling, although such products are available. It is not about craftwork, although some evidence of that is on display. And although you can a Herbert Terry Anglepoise or an old school desk, it is not about the current craze for all things midcentury. What ReFound is, in the words of staff member, Georgia Pink, is a 'platform for artists to expand their reach into homeware and furniture, an agent of creativity, where artists, designers, sculptors, and producers can bounce ideas off each other in the pursuit of the beautiful and functional.'

Jill O’Neill’s vision is to provide artists with the opportunity to create and promote their work on a different level – that of homes and lifestyles. Through ReFound, they have an alternative route for their creative ideas, they have new networking and business opportunities. And the customers who come to ReFound can find new ways of bringing original works into their homes. 

The Longford-born, Belfast-based Irish artist, Frances Ryan, has had several solo exhibitions as well as contributing to numerous group shows. Her work is concerned with memory and the effect of painting on the process of remembering. You can buy an original Frances Ryan at Refound. Not a painting you have to hang on the wall, but something handy you can put a cup of tea on – a trolley onto the top of which Ryan has sealed a lumen print. The trolley was found by Jill O’Neill, and then found in O'Neill’s stockroom by Frances Ryan, and then refound by her when she applied her ideas to the materials. That’s the process. It costs more you might pay in Ikea, although not much more, but the world and his wife won’t have the same thing, and as well as a table, you’ve got yourself a story, one you can wipe coffee rings from with a damp cloth.

ReFound operates on three pillars: collaborate; create; curate. The business works in collaboration with local artists and designers, facilitating creativity using new and unexpected materials, allowing customers to curate their homes with personality and individual stories. In the case of both the materials and the creativity applied to them, provenance, heritage, and a local focus are vital ingredients. 'We aim to champion creative design talent and artisanship in Northern Ireland,' says Georgia Pink, 'as well as waking people up to support the quality of our heritage here. There’s a great creative community here in Northern Ireland, but it can be difficult to sell and many artists and designers have to go elsewhere. We’re trying to keep it alive here.' 

Jill O’Neill is not in the business of preservation. Just as the building itself has been reimagined for a new use, so is she looking to achieve growth from the discarded or dismissed. ReFound’s ethos is very much design-led, with an emphasis as much on new technology as on reclaimed materials or furniture. The premises have seen history, but they are living into the future, a hub now of new things and new people. There is a core collective of artists and designers with whom O’Neill works, but there’s also a steady stream of new makers coming in and wanting to be involved in the process of facilitation, exchange, promotion, and opportunity.

ReFound is a shop where you can buy good furniture and homewares, useful things that allow you to create a home. And it is a nexus of artists, materials, new ideas, designers, technology, processes, bespoke designs, and customers. It offers new options.

By Dominic Kearney