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New Irish Design: Design Onion’s Belfast City Block

Ronan Lowery of Design Onion explains how the contradictions of having a map, yet still being lost, guided his cubic creation.


“My inspiration is always quite fluid – it could be as broad as the shape of a leaf,” says Ronan from his Lurgan workshop. “Yet my work is quite geometric – sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly.”

This combination of organic forms and mathematical shapes relates right back to his time growing up in Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal. “My dad, granddad and brother were all engineers so there was always a problem-solving element going on,” he says. Combine that with an architect for a sister and an artist brother, and you’ve got the perfect melting pot for an aspiring furniture designer. He considered the engineering route, but was drawn instead to the hands-on nature of wood. “It’s so much more tactile than metal or glass. You have to touch it to work it.”

Since graduating from GMIT Letterfrack and then Craft Northern Ireland’s Making It programme, he still enjoys the creativity to be found within tight boundaries, whether it’s getting inventive within a client’s restrictive brief or carving something exquisitely beautiful out of an ill-thought-of piece of ply, he enjoys the paradoxical nature of woodworking. “I like the unexpected elements of design, like creating a really high-quality piece that counters the idea that ply is a low quality material.”

It’s these juxtapositions that led the furniture designer to create the Belfast City Block – designed for an exhibition entitled Belfast. Ronan was still quite new to the city at the time. “To me, the city was about direction – finding my way around, looking at maps,
and trying not to get lost!” he laughs. But a two-dimensional map couldn’t aptly capture the real-life experience of the city.

“People don’t look at a city and see a street plan. I wanted to create something that you could walk around and view from different angles, while incorporating the idea of a map.” The result is an American oak cube with street inlays of walnut that radiate from the town hall, that’s centred on the cube’s top. “You can still trace your way around it, but you mightn’t be sure where exactly you started,” notes Ronan, “much like trying to navigate an actual city.”

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