Design Perspective: Emmet Kane

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From the IAR Archive

Emmet Kane is inspired and fascinated by the extraordinary characteristics of wood. His work to date is an exploration of form and texture. After leaving school in the late 1980s, Kane was encouraged by his father to experiment with woodturning. His early work is stylistically his most humble. The integrity of his small bowls and dainty vessels reflect the slow shaping of daily life and a quiet heroism of the domestic realm. This work epitomises the classic ideals of woodturning – extreme simplicity, the soft, engrained patterns of wood, taut and thin walls and good proportions.

From early in his career Kane’s father nurtured his son’s interest in the archaeological heritage of his native Castledermot. During the 1990s the archaeological forms in his work created a subtle allure which echoed Irish heritage, yet Kane dealt with them in a contemporaneous manner through rich, textured grain, and by creating pieces on a larger scale. With such pieces Emmet often consolidated his ideas whilst working directly with the wood. Through discovering unusual grains or an imperfection, his design or idea changed to take advantage of any opportunity in a particular piece of wood to create his forms.

Self-taught, Kane drew inspiration from a group of pioneering American woodturners from the 1970s and 1980s especially David Ellsworth, whose thin-walled, hollow forms defied the difficulties of the medium and whose use of colour is more readily associated with ceramics or glass. Like Ellsworth, Kane shares a heightened sensitivity to the complexity of the wood. With the arrival of the new millennium Kane’s work radically evolved. Through extreme texturing, ebonising, gilding and the use of bold colours, Kane created a series of abstract forms with coloured spikes, hollowed forms with folds of wood, and abstract large-scale sculptural pieces, formed without a lathe. His sea-urchin type pieces create a trompe-l’œil effect as the inherent, tactile nature of the wood invites touch yet the sharp spikes heed a warning.

Kane distinguishes himself from others through his penchant for innovation as he continually strives to challenge himself, exploring a variety of techniques, materials, and forms. His current body of work explores two extremes. With the recent acquisition of a giant lathe, Kane is producing monumental pieces which contrast sharply with his delicately thin-walled, small scale, hollow vessels with narrow openings. In the past year Kane has been inspired by the lacquer work of Irish émigré Eileen Gray – combining smooth, sumptuous red lacquer and textured, Irish burr oak in his vessels. The pale tempura, gold paintings of the late Patrick Scott have also had a profound influence as Kane produced a textured, circular form in bleached Irish burr oak, off set with a geometrical form in gold leaf. Kane’s retrospective at the National Museum of Ireland until July promises to delight the eye and nourish the mind.

Jennifer Goff is Curator of Furniture and the Eileen Gray Collection at the National Museum of Ireland.