Irish Examiner - Magazine - - Home Contents - – CAROL O’CAL­LAGHAN

The dis­creet charms of Zelouf + Bell — the cou­ple who make di­vinely beau­ti­ful fur­ni­ture

THE great things in life hap­pen by chance — es­pe­cially for an Amer­i­can liv­ing in Rome and a Belfast man on a busi­ness trip. That chance meet­ing re­sulted in a fur­ni­ture de­sign and making busi­ness in Co Laois which is 25 years old this year. Michael Bell was pass­ing a night club when he heard singing which drew him in­side. There he met the chanteuse, Su­san Zelouf, a na­tive New Yorker who worked for an Ital­ian film com­pany — and that, as they say, was that.

The cou­ple moved back to Belfast, and while ren­o­vat­ing their house, Michael’s love of making things truly be­gan and Su­san be­came what she de­scribes as the ghost de­signer. This was then fol­lowed by a re-lo­ca­tion from Belfast to de­velop the busi­ness.

“We found that the De­sign and Crafts Coun­cil of Ire­land was sup­port­ive,” Su­san ex­plains. “So we de­cided to move down, and found a cot­tage within fif­teen miles of Dublin.”

Lo­cated in the grounds of Emo Court in Co Laois, it’s where they still live and now have their work­shops, too. Pub­lic ex­po­sure came ini­tially when they were in­vited to ex­hibit at the Fur­ni­ture Gallery on Dublin’s Par­lia­ment Street.

“It was an amaz­ing con­cept for art fur­ni­ture,” says Su­san, “and gave us a start with ‘Wood For The Trees’, which was our first show.

Two and a half decades later, the as­ton­ish­ing level of imag­i­na­tion and skill in the pieces the studio now pro­duces, makes it hard to be­lieve Michael has no for­mal train­ing as a fur­ni­ture maker. De­signs have evolved dra­mat­i­cally, with an em­pha­sis on fine art dec­o­ra­tive fin­ishes and lux­ury ve­neers, to ap­peal to the col­lec­tor and those who want some­thing ex­traor­di­nar­ily spe­cial for a house. Given it can take any­thing be­tween three and four months to make a cab­i­net, the client gets as much in­volved in the com­mis­sion as Michael and Su­san.

But for all that, they are an artisan busi­ness oper­at­ing in a costly coun­try, and hav­ing to com­pete with oth­ers of­fer­ing cheap labour and over­heads. It prompted them to go the other way and tar­get the high-end buyer, to build an Ir­ish and in­ter­na­tional client list.

It’s al­ways in­ter­est­ing to ask mak­ers if they have a favourite piece — like ask­ing a par­ent to choose their favourite child. They both cite the el­e­gant Span ta­ble.

“It was in­spired by a bridge over the M50 on the way to the air­port,” says Michael. Another is a ta­ble made with a steel beam which came out of Port­laoise Prison, and the Power Line coat stand which is still in pro­duc­tion. Both were made at the start of the re­ces­sion when Michael and Su­san had a de­lib­er­ate fo­cus on making things us­ing found ob­jects, in a cre­ative nod to what were strait­ened times. In­spired by elec­tric over­head wires in California, Power Line is made from wenge wood punc­tu­ated with old Amer­i­can cash till keys to form hooks on which to hang hats and coats.

They’re in stark con­trast with the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the cur­rent wave of drinks’ and cock­tail cab­i­nets.

Now as­sisted in the work­shop by three mak­ers, Michael cre­ates and over­sees as well as de­sign­ing. He qui­etly sketched as I spoke to them, while Su­san weaved the story of their per­sonal and pro­fes­sional part­ner­ship to­gether. He ad­mits to pre­fer­ring a back­ground role, leav­ing the vi­va­cious and en­gag­ing Su­san to be the pub­lic in­ter­face for the busi­ness. He also draws by hand and has taught him­self to gild while con­tin­u­ing to be hands-on in the work­shop — even making the crates to trans­port fur­ni­ture to ex­hi­bi­tions which this year in­cludes the Ar­chi­tec­tural De­sign Show in New York; House at the RDS in Dublin and Decorex Lon­don. High-end prices re­flect the labour-in­ten­sive na­ture of what they do: “It’s ex­pen­sive, yes,” says Su­san, “but there is no com­par­i­son in be­spoke cus­tom work, made one at a time from start to fin­ish, and fac­tory items made in vol­ume with au­to­mated pro­cesses.”

Fur­ni­ture de­sign­ers and mak­ers, Su­san Zelouf and Michael Bell of Co Laois-based Zelouf + Bell. They have been work­ing to­gether for 25 years. The Hen Pheas­ant drinks’ cab­i­net is made from fig­ured ma­hogany, rip­ple sy­camore, bronze sha­green, mar­quetry...

The Spy­glass cham­pagne cart is in­spired by the Art Deco pe­riod and is made from black bo­li­var with black­ened brass as a com­mis­sion for restau­ra­teur, Pa­trick Guil­baud.

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