New York-based Irish designer Clodagh ‘can’t stand the word trend’

“It’s important that your house takes care of you, not that you take care of your house,” says the New York-based Irish designer, known simply as Clodagh. The Sligo-born interior designer, who has projects in 24 countries, has a design philosophy of ‘making people happy and comfortable around them’.

“I try to take the frustrations out of people’s lives. The best part about being a designer is when clients call you and tell you their lives have changed and family relationships have gotten better thanks to our work,” she says.

The Manhattan studio Clodagh Design employs approximately 20 people and has a portfolio ranging from homes to hotels, spas, restaurants, shops, offices, luxury yachts and private jets. Clodagh has worked for clients such as Robert Redford and Elizabeth Arden, completing projects including the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington DC, the luxury high-rise residential buildings in Caledonia in New York, the Avery Building in San Francisco and the Six Senses Douro Valley Spa in Portugal.

In Ireland she has designed a home on Dalkey’s Sorrento Terrace, the White Horses Spa at the Trump International Hotel and Golf Links in Doonbeg, Co Clare and a converted cowshed cottage for her son Tim O’Kennedy in Co Cork.

The Clodagh collection includes bespoke pieces used in design projects, but her studio has also developed ranges of outdoor furniture, rugs, fabrics, wall coverings, bathroom accessories and small sculptural objects. An early adopter of feng shui principles of celebrating the senses and representing all elements (earth, fire, wood, metal and water) in design, she describes herself as an environmentalist and has been vegan since the 1980s.

“I like sturdy and strong, sexy and tactile – things that last and don’t dance up and down for attention. I can’t stand the word trend,” she explains in a new documentary for RTÉ. Directed by Oda O’Carroll and produced by A Curious Dog Films Production, the program is a compelling look back at Clodagh’s colorful life, remarkable career and extraordinary work ethic.

Baptized Clodagh Fionnuala Maev De Sillery Phipps, she was raised as the third child of John Peddar Phipps and Anna Claire De Sillery Phipps in five different homes, including the Oscar Wilde family’s summer home in Cong, Co. Mayo and the home of WB Yeats’ uncle. She describes her family as “downward mobile” and sold the family silver so her children could attend boarding schools.

Recovering from a life-threatening fall from a horse on her flat back as a teenager, Clodagh decided to become a fashion designer when she noticed an advertisement for the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design while reading The Irish Times. Although her father disapproved of her career choice, her mother loaned her £400 to start her.

After completing the course, Clodagh set up her studio first on Dublin’s South Anne Street and later on Baggot Street and had her first fashion show at the Hibernian Hotel in 1956. With her Clodagh of Dublin brand, she became the youngest member of the Iren Haute Couture Group alongside Ib Jorgensen, Sybil Connolly, Neillí Mulcahy and Irene Gilbert.

Clodagh at the age of 18 at her first fashion show in 1956

In the late 1950s and 1960s, her meteoric rise as a young Irish fashion designer in Irish tweed, knitwear and crochet, exporting to Australia, New Zealand, the United States, France and Germany, paralleled her marriage to advertising executive Desmond O ‘ Kennedy and the birth of their three children, Tim, Stephen and Peter. By the time she was 27, she realized she was not happy in her marriage and because divorce was not an option in Ireland, she had to live with her husband for the next five years while awaiting a legal separation.

In 1971, a chance meeting with screenwriter Daniel Aubry in the glitzy city of Mojácar, Spain, sparked a relationship that would last more than 50 years. The couple first relocated to New York, where Clodagh worked as a fashion designer for a time, and their children visited them during the holidays while they attended school in Ireland.

Aubry then moved into real estate in Spain, where Clodagh began her career as an interior designer. In the documentary, she describes watching the sunlight seep through the dust as demolition of her new home began, as the moment she found her true calling. Living in Spain for the next seven years, she designed restaurants, pubs, apartments and houses.

When the couple returned to New York in the early 1980s, she and two colleagues opened the East Village design studio and small design shop, Clodagh, Ross and Williams. Vogue magazine described it as the “design store of the decade”.

Over the years, Clodagh has become one of America’s most accomplished interior designers with a wealth of accolades, including induction into Interior Design Magazine’s Design Hall of Fame. She was also named one of the top 100 designers in the world by Architectural Digest.

Now at the age of 82, she still works 11 hours a day in her design studio. Her husband Daniel Aubry describes her as a “force of nature”. Her youngest son, Peter O’Kennedy, who lives two doors down in New York with his family, is now artistic director of Clodagh Designs.

She has written three books on interior design, Total Design (2001), Your Home, Your Sanctuary (2008) and Life-Enhancing Design (2019).

“It’s important that your house takes care of you, not that you take care of your house.” Photo: Robert Wright

The four C’s

Speaking to The Irish Times via Zoom from her New York studio, she reiterates her four Cs as a starting point for designing your space. “Think about where you are now and where you want to go. Clean: Declutter mentally and physically (break the dread of antiques and old things you grew up with). Clarify: Make three lists—your must-haves, your wannabe nice ones, and something awesome (your wish list). And then: create,” she explains.

It’s there to get people jumping straight onto their wish list by putting a fountain in the hallway or buying something that really enriches their lives, like a beautiful piece of art or a particularly good TV or sound system.

Her passion for art, music, films, travel and cooking empowers her, she says, as does her personal tragedy (her middle son Steve died aged 23) and her own near-death experiences (a fall at a construction site in Portugal and some scary flights ) grounded them. “I’ve had some serious accidents that make you realize that life is beautiful and don’t dwell on the absurd,” she says.

Her commitment to the Thorn Tree project, which promotes the education of children from the nomadic Samburu tribe in north-eastern Kenya, is also very important to her.

An early interest in Buddhism has developed into a lifelong interest in astrology, minimalism and incorporating nature into design. She believes clutter can undermine serenity, but minimalism shouldn’t be self-denying. She asks everyone she meets what their zodiac sign is.

Sustainability is also a priority. “We have a ‘give-away’ bin at home for things we don’t use. Accumulation is dangerous. I like giving gifts every day,” she says.

Clodagh, a documentary about the life of the pioneering Irish designer, airs on RTÉ One on Thursday 5 May at 10.15pm

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