The major part of the Archive consists of photographic material – photographic prints and negatives, 35mm slides and large-scale transparencies – which document all aspects of the Kilkenny Design Workshops. Eleven of the series are devoted to images of KDW designed products; one series documents non-KDW designed products sold in the KDW retail outlets; and two record the people involved in KDW as employees, suppliers, or as part of the Designer Development programme. KDW related exhibitions and events are recorded in one series and the various premises used for KDW activities in another. The Education series mainly contains images used as research material, documentation of seminars and conferences, and slide presentations produced by KDW. The material in the Views of Ireland series may have been collected for promotional or educational purposes. A small number of design drawings and printed ephemera are included in some files.
The Photographic Sample and Index of Record Sheets series documents to 26 volumes of information about the photographic material. The quality of the information is variable and often incomplete. There are no record sheets available for some of the series, e.g. ceramics. The Press-clipping series catalogues 31 volumes of press material covering a wide range of design and industry related subjects. The Public Relations series catalogues 4 volumes of scrap-books containing photographic and press material relating to KDW events and products. There is some degree of overlap from this material with the Exhibitions and Press-clipping series. The Related Material series includes selected items connected with KDW from other NIVAL collections.
The Kilkenny Design Workshops were founded in 1963 by Córas Tráchtála, the Irish Export Board, in a radical move which in effect established a state-sponsored design research and development body tasked with improving the design of Irish products and thereby increase exports. Córas Tráchtála had been concerned with design, packaging and marketing since its inception in 1951 and as part of the national programme for economic growth full responsibility for design in industry was transferred from the Arts Council to the newly reconstituted Córas Tráchtála in 1960.
Under the leadership of William H. Walsh the former stables at Kilkenny Castle were acquired and converted, opening in 1965 with five workshops - silver and metalwork, textile weaving, textile printing, ceramics, and woodworking. Designers from across Europe were employed as lead designers and mentors, producing prototypes which were offered on a royalty basis to industry. Initially the emphasis was on craft-based industries but over time the workshops expanded to include industrial and product design. KDW provided an interdisciplinary environment for individual designers who produced designs for goods using various materials and techniques, and for different market segments. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s KDW moved more overtly into the area industrial design.
In addition to the objective of improving the design of Irish products KDW also had an educational role. KDW organised exhibitions which celebrated traditional Irish crafts, e.g. patchwork, which were toured in Ireland and Europe. In the late 1970s KDW instigated a designer development training scheme providing twelve recent graduates annually from the country’s art schools with a six-month residential placement at the workshops. Schools competitions and annual design awards also offered opportunities for aspiring designers. KDW made access to good design available to the public through its retail outlets – the first KDW shop opened in Kilkenny in 1966, a second was opened in Dublin in 1976. These shops stocked examples of the craft-based products designed by KDW and also goods produced by other Irish craftspeople and manufacturers. The Dublin shop included an exhibition space which hosted design related events open to the public.
In the mid-1980s KDW instituted an economic plan aimed at making the organisation totally self-sufficient. One component of this involved increasing income from the retail part of the business and partly to this end a KDW shop was opened in Bond Street in London. Unfortunately a drop in retail income combined with the effects of the recession led to financial difficulties and in 1988 state support was withdrawn and KDW ceased operation. The London shop was closed and the shop premises in Kilkenny and Dublin sold to cover debts.
The Kilkenny Design Workshops Archive was donated to the National Irish Visual Arts Library by the Crafts Council of Ireland in 2001. The material was given to NIVAL with the understanding that the collection would be made available to the public for research purposes and, depending upon funding, the collection would be catalogued to an institutional standard.
Dating of photographic material: please note
The material has been dated based on the KDW Record Sheets, when available. The date generally refers to when the product was designed, or work on designing the product was begun, depending on the information available. Where no Record Sheet exists the dates have been estimated based on available records or later publications.
Dr Una Walker, KDW Principal Investigator, Donna Romano, NCAD, Acting Head Librarian, May 2015