Meet the New York-based Irish designer known only as Clodagh
“I always felt in my head that I was going somewhere, I always feel the same. I never felt I had arrived – ever. I always thought there was a lot to do.
So says the interior designer known in the industry simply by her first name, Clodagh.
Hailing from the west of Ireland, Clodagh began her fashion career in the 1960s in Dublin.
She moved into interiors in the 1970s, in Spain and New York, and designed spaces in a range of disciplines, from private homes to hotels, spas, boutiques, bars and restaurants across the world, as well as yachts. and private jets to multi-family buildings and landscapes.
Clodagh will be the subject of a documentary broadcast on RTÉ this Thursday, May 5.
Its story began at Moytura House, once Oscar Wilde’s summer residence, in Cong, Co Mayo.
But how did the chapters unfold thereafter to see Clodagh become one of the world’s most sought-after interior design gurus?
A riding accident as a teenager forced Clodagh Phipps to take time off from her Dublin boarding school to recuperate at the family home.
“So I lay on my back for months,” she says.
While recovering, she spotted an ad in The Irish Times. “He said, ‘Why not be a stylist?’ I thought, ‘Why not?’ So as soon as I could walk, I confided in my mother and she said she would help me.
“I didn’t dare tell my dad and when the time came to tell my dad he kicked me out of the house; he said, ‘No one in my family has ever traded “.”
Armed with £400 from her mother, Clodagh launched her first fashion design business on Dublin’s South Anne Street.
“I went for six weeks to the Grafton Academy of Dress Design, there was a little opening show featured in The Irish Times. Somehow I was operational,” she adds.
“All kinds of people were my clients.”
These would include singer Marianne Faithfull and later, when she moved to interiors, movie stars like Robert Redford, for whom she designed a penthouse in New York.
But it was an escaped client who instilled in Clodagh a lifelong aversion to discussing the subject of age.
A woman came up the stairs [to Clodagh’s Dublin atelier] and asked: ‘How old are you?’. I told him I was 17. She said “I think I’ll come back when you have more experience”. She disappeared.
Clodagh and her first husband, Desmond O’Kennedy, had three sons, Tim, born in 1960, Stephen, born in 1963, and Peter, born in 1964.
During the 1960s, his designs, including crochet and tweed, were exported to Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
But Clodagh was unhappy in her relationship. “I asked for a separation. I was 27 years old,” she says.
The couple later divorced and Clodagh met her second husband, Daniel Aubry, who worked in the film and real estate industries in Spain.
“I had the kids over the holidays and they would be living in Ireland with my ex-husband and his new wife,” she says.
Her first interior design project was renovating a farmhouse and townhouse in Spain for Daniel and herself.
She was working with an architect when she says she “had an epiphany” and knew she wanted to become an interior designer.
She describes seeing sunlight filtering through the dust as the demolition of her first project – her own home in Spain – began as the moment she found her true calling.
“I changed husband, country and career in 1971,” she says.
They swapped their home in Spain for a brownstone in New York, and it was in New York that Clodagh’s interior design empire began in earnest. “I love the energy of cities,” she says.
Clodagh was a believer in biophilia, green credentials, wellness and sustainability ahead of her time.
“Wellness is always top of mind for me,” she says, adding that she hates the word “trendy.”
“We got a lot of publicity because we were doing something other designers weren’t necessarily doing, we were working with wellness and fengshui and bio geometry and healing arts and chromotherapy [colour therapy].
“The word biophilia came later, but I never thought about having green things around me and a garden because biophilia was just having the garden around me.
Seeing people happy in the spaces she has created is essential, she adds.
“I try to take frustration out of people’s lives,” she says. “My clients will call me to tell me that their lives have changed because of what we have done. I love when they tell me they feel happy in a space we’ve designed.
“My design philosophy is to make people comfortable and happy in their surroundings.
“I like rugged and strong, sexy and tactile and durable, and also not dancing up and down for attention.”
Tragedy and loss have also influenced his approach to life and design.
Clodagh lost one of his beloved sons, Steve, when he was just 23 years old.
“You realize that we have quite a short time on this earth and we better make the most of it,” she says.
“I’ve always wanted to heal people; I’ve always wanted people to feel good, that’s what motivated me.
Referring to a Buddhist belief, she adds: “If you meet someone on the street that you know, that person should feel happier to have met you; I’ve always wanted people to feel good and I think that’s what drove me.
Clodagh loves travel and what she calls “sleeping” – trying out different hotels and rooms and figuring out what those using them really need.
“Everyone should be as pampered as a guest in their own home as they are in a fine hotel,” she says.
Her camera is her favorite accessory when she travels and in 2019 she had her first solo art photography exhibition,at the Cheryl Hazan Gallery, Soho, New York.
“I left school at the intermediate level [level] and I started my own business, so I don’t know much at all — so since I don’t know the rules, I can break them all the time,” she says.
“My logo is earth, water, fire. I make sure all the elements are represented and all the senses are celebrated.
Clodagh has also written three books on design and, a vegan since the 1980s, she is also currently writing a vegan cookbook.
She lives in New York with her husband Daniel, with children and grandchildren nearby and scattered around the world.
“I’m very interested in so many things, I could change careers — I mean, I don’t want to do it now, but I could change careers,” she says.
- broadcast at 10:15 p.m. on RTÉ One on Thursday 5 May