TV architect Catherine Crowe likes to keep her walls white or grey, but her bold use of colour elsewhere is an inspiration. Edited by Mary O’Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin
The Design Doctors is only on our screens a few weeks, but already viewers will know that colour is a passion of architect Catherine Crowe who, with fellow architect and business partner Denise O’Connor, presents the weekly interiors programme.
We have tended to associate modern architects more with minimalism and clean lines, rather than with splashes of bright colour, but Catherine is one of a growing band of young practitioners who believe they are not mutually exclusive. She’s particularly keen on the use of bold, bright art pieces to enhance a home — and her own lovely home in Dublin 8 is full of such pieces. It’s not surprising, perhaps, considering that she once contemplated studying art and was given her first painting when she was just a little girl. “My dad was always interested in art,” she says. “When I was eight, he gave me my first watercolour. Ever since then I’ve collected.”
Catherine was good at art and applied to the National College of Art and Design, but changed her mind after talking to an architect friend of her dad’s. “He said if I did architecture I could always do painting as well and, at the last minute, I changed my mind and went to UCD. I’m glad I did. Architecture is very hands-on, making models, drawing, a lot of studio time, doing stuff by hand; I was happy doing that. I still like doing stuff with my hands,” she says. Catherine worked hard, but also managed to fit travel, experience of other cultures and fun into her student days — all eventually informing her interesting ideas around the creation of living and working spaces.
After three years in UCD, she did an Erasmus year in Aarhus in Denmark, then a year in Barcelona. “Anne Marie, the girl I went to Aarhus with, was going on to Barcelona. I had never been in Spain and I had no Spanish, which was ridiculous, but I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go too’. I did everything from cleaning bedrooms and waitressing to handing out leaflets, then I got on a Leonardo programme, which is similar to Erasmus and was quite good at Spanish by the end of it.” There was a Spanish boyfriend in the mix for a while. “These things happen when you’re 21!” she says.
The Spanish fling played itself out before she came back to finish her studies in UCD, which was just as well, as she met her now husband, Gavin Wheatley, also an architectural student in UCD at the time, almost immediately.
After she finished her studies, she worked for four years with the Office of Public Works (OPW), which provided invaluable experience. “It was around the time they had lots of money. They took on around 18 graduates and they were very much ‘throw you in at the deep end’, which was fantastic,” Catherine says. “One of the projects I worked on was the Customs House in Cobh in Cork. We got an Opus Award for that and I did the riding school at Collins Barracks; I was the site architect. It was very hands-on, it was great.” She moved from the OPW to HKR, a corporate firm and from there to Mahoney
‘Architects build these amazing white boxes and walk away and people come in and go, “How am I meant to live in this?”’
Architecture, which she enjoyed, but she realised she wanted to work for herself.
“I met Denise at her sister’s hen party. I’d always got on very well with Denise. When she was in fifth year in UCD, I was in first year and we used to chat in the morning going to lectures. Actually, it was because we always missed our first lectures and we’d end up in the cafeteria together! At the party, she told me she had an idea for what she wanted to do. I thought it sounded really interesting and we decided to go for it together,” Catherine recalls. They started their practice in 2006, in Denise’s bedroom in her parents’ home. Three months later they got an office, and seven years on their practice is thriving.
What bonded them was their love of interiors, colour, and paint, but they’ve evolved a lot. Despite the recession, they’ve been busy. They started in commercial, then went mainly into residential and created a package called Optimise Home, which gives people a design package at a fixed price. It includes ideas, and a list of sources and tradesmen. It doesn’t include the services of an architect beyond the initial ideas. As the many house projects on their website show, it’s been a huge success with cash-strapped homeowners wanting to improve their living spaces. They are now finding that as well as residential projects, there is again a demand for commercial.
Another challenge was the filming of the TV series The Design Doctors, in which home owners who wanted to improve their homes were selected to experience the services of Catherine and Denise, and be filmed while doing so. “It’s interiors-based. It’s about the psychology of people and their houses, why they love them, or hate them,” she explains. “It’s all about people, and fusing architecture and interiors. So much of the time, architects build these amazing white boxes and walk away and people come in and go, ‘How am I meant to live in this?’ The idea is about the individual and how they can use the space and use it better.”
Catherine and Gavin, who married in 2006, use the space in their own home really well. It is compact but cleverly designed by both to maximise light and the functions of the rooms. When they first bought the house, a red-bricked terrace house in Portobello, it was not a
pretty sight. “It had been derelict for about 20 years. No one had been in it and you could see the piles of woodworm dust. There was a clapboard extension, the ground floor had fallen in and there was an outside loo,” Catherine recalls.
They were both heavily involved in the new design, but did divide up some of the tasks; Gavin looked after issues like insulation, while Catherine did most of the interior design. While there are two small living rooms to the front of the double-fronted house — one is a music room and the other a sitting room — the main living area is the kitchen/dining room at the back. The rear of the house was dark, so the couple lightened it with white walls, white porcelain tiles and floor-to-ceiling glass doors opening on to the courtyard planted with ferns and bamboo. “I wanted the look of a rainforest,” Catherine explains.
Upstairs there are three bedrooms, one of which is en suite, and a bathroom. The main bedroom is at the back while one of the front bedrooms is used by her 17-year-old stepdaughter Caoimhe and the other by her daughter Isabelle, four, and son Arthur, 15 months.
Though Catherine loves bright colour, she uses it mainly in accessories — she confines the colour of walls to white and different shades of grey. But every room has its own splashes of colour; in the music room, she majors in orange, while yellow is a theme in the sitting room and there’s lots of blue in the kitchen.
When Catherine and Gavin bought the house, they intended to sell it after doing it up but, six years later, they’re still there because they love both the house and the neighbourhood.
Obviously the medicine this design doctor used on her own home worked.
Top right Art works are a big feature of the living room, including sculptures by Catherine’s uncle, the noted sculptor John Coll
Middle right One of the rooms is devoted to music ‘Gavin is in a band. Caoimhe is a fantastic musician and she is in two bands,’ Catherine notes
Left The white units in the kitchen are from Ikea. Catherine adds interest with a wooden worktop and the touch of blue in the Le Creuset casseroles on the shelves Above Catherine in the dining area of her kitchen/dining room. Her grandmother gave her the money to buy dining-room chairs, but was slightly taken aback when she saw that they were plastic
Bottom right The main colours in the kids’ room are green and red