Architects and interior designers use materials the way painters use colour.
You might pick a material for its appearance, or for qualities such as how it wears, its warmth or ability to reduce noise. But some materials are chosen because they remind us of who we are – a small island nation on the western seaboard, green, lush and wet. All the qualities we find in Connemara marble.
Quarried on the west coast, Connemara marble dates back 600m years and is one of the rarest stones in the world. The beautiful bands of colour are formed by crystals of green serpentine, diopside, chlorite, calcite and dolomite.
Its rarity makes it pricey so it’s usually used to make small items such as broaches, earrings, figurines or accessories that are designed to slip easily into the suitcase or carry-on luggage of a tourist.
Lately, however, bigger options have been appearing – coasters and cheeseboards, beautiful simple bowls – and they give a better idea of the extraordinary depth of the colours in the stone. It looks as if something moving was frozen. Unlike Carrara marble, its smoky and neutral-coloured Italian cousin, the Irish stone is like an alien liquid or gas trapped behind glass.
I’ve had an interest in Connemara marble ever since I was a student architect and experienced a vague haunting when I visited the family home of Ronan Browne, the famous uilleann piper and son of Dr Ivor Browne.
Ronan wasted no time in warning me about the bathroom. He wasn’t letting me in without telling me to be prepared for the toilet. He was right to warn me. The walls were covered floor-to-ceiling in enormous slabs of the dark green and mossy coloured marble. It was shocking and stunning. And left a strong impression and I wasn’t sure I liked it.
But you don’t find this marble often in interiors. It was out of fashion for many years as the unruly green is a big statement and interiors have been very neutral for the last 20 years.
So to find that the latest design magazines are featuring green marble as baths and sinks sculpted out of our native stone is a challenge to the idea of it as a stone particular to the Irish sensibility. It seems to have left the country and gone all designer on us.
In London, Campbell-Rey are a young design duo who work with Bulgari, Assouline and 1stdibs, and are listed among the 200 most famous influencers internationally by Architectural Digest.
The latest addition to their design line? Marble-topped coffee tables with slabs of Connemara and terrazzo. Connemara marble is being used for its own qualities not just for what it says about being Irish.
And it hasn’t just attracted international designers. Joseph Walsh is the acclaimed Irish designer whose extraordinary fluid wooden sculpture appears in the National Gallery foyer. His piece Exilumen I uses Connemara marble and resin like stalactite legs in a table.
It’s also been included in countertops in the new east lounge at Dublin Airport designed by Dynamo.
Green marble has become the thing to have – but remember, a little goes a long way.