Clodagh on the Twist & Turns of Her Extraordinary Life & Career


Interior designer, Clodagh, grew up in the Irish countryside running barefoot through the woods, riding horses, and rebelling. A near death experience lit a fire in her to pursue fashion and she opened her first shop at age 17. After a career pivot and 50+ years of designing spaces that make people feel good, she’s considered a true pioneer in biophilic and sustainable design, and a living legend.

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Clever is hosted & produced by Amy Devers, with editing by Rich Stroffolino, production assistance from Ilana Nevins and Anouchka Stephan, and music by El Ten Eleven.

Amy Devers:   Hi everyone, I’m Amy Devers and this is Clever, Today I’m talking to the legendary Clodagh. Born in 1940, Clodagh grew up in the Irish countryside (in what was once Oscar Wilde’s home.) She embarked on her first career chapter as a fashion designer, when at the young age of 17, she opened a couture salon in Dublin. She jokes that In 1970s she changed husbands, countries, and careers when, after having 3 children, achieving global success in the fashion industry, and getting a hard-won divorce, she moved to Spain, remarried, and found her true calling as an Interior designer. She moved countries again in the 1980’s setting up her own studio in New York city. Now, having been a design powerhouse for 50+ years she’s completed projects all over the world, including multi-family residences, hotels and spas, yachts, private jets, and more…A renowned pioneer of sustainable and biophilic design, she’s always cared most about how her spaces make people feel, and as such she’s earned a reputation for being somewhat of a healer by way of design. And she’s been vegan since the 80s. As the subject of 2 separate documentaries, she’s led a remarkable life – full of ups, downs, twists, turns and near death experiences… It’s a wild ride, full of grit, heart, wisdom and humor… here’s Clodagh

Clodagh:         My name is Clodagh; I live upstate New York and I work in Manhattan where I have my studio. I’m a multifaceted designer. Not an interior designer, I design anything that’s handed to me to design. (Laughs)

Amy:    That is a special, special talent, very fluid. Let’s talk about how you got to be this multifaceted designer and to do that I would love to go all the way back to the formative years. Can you talk to me about your childhood in the West of Ireland.

Clodagh:         I was born in the West of Ireland, County Mayo. Brought up in Oscar Wilde’s country home, Moytura House, the banks of Lough Corrib. I had an interesting family, there were actually in the end three children, I’m the youngest from a mother who actually was quite avant-garde in her way because she drove a sports car. One of the first women actually to drive in Ireland. She had an art show and she rode fast horses, side saddle in cross country competitions. This was before I was born she did all these things. No, by the time I came along she was actually very quiet, a very different person.

Amy:    Was her avant-garde spirit an inspiration to you?

Clodagh:         Well, I didn’t know she was avant-garde until I was much older (laughs)…

Amy:    She had settled down.

Clodagh:         She had really settled down, yes, she was very quiet. My father really did nothing very much at all, he didn’t have a job or anything like that. We were basically downwardly mobile, country gentle people. (Laughs)

Amy:    Okay, I don’t have a lot of reference for that in my life.

Clodagh:         No, most people don’t. My father bred dogs. He had what they called a ‘gentleman’s farm.’ We would row out to Lough Corrib to an island and have a picnic with a row dog swimming behind us with their noses making Vs in the water. We had some cows and we had neighbors, we’re near Ashford Castle, which is one of the most beautiful castles in Ireland. We used to go over there sometimes as a huge treat. And then because we were downwardly mobile, we changed homes and went to a smaller one in Sligo. That was my first time going to school.

Amy:    In living in Oscar Wilde’s country home, did you sense the history, did you feel his presence?

Clodagh:         I was too small to feel Oscar’s presence, but I felt it later, because my brother and sister were older and my brother gave me a book called the epigram of Oscar Wilde when I was about eight, I think. And I have lived on his quotes (laughs) for the rest of my life. I collect quotes like other people collect jewelry and stuff like that, we even have a quote wall in our studio. I’m very inspired by words. Always been inspired by words.

Amy:    So what kinds of things captured your youthful imagination?

Clodagh:         I was a very wild child, not on drugs or anything like that, just wondering around the woods and…Very much on my own, very much on my own. I didn’t have any friends until we actually went to Sligo when I was sent to school

Amy:    How old were you when that happened?

Clodagh:         I think eight.

Amy:    That’s a long time to be on your own in the woods.

Clodagh:         (Laughs) Well, the woods actually brought me so much, the changing light and shadow, [0.05.00] the mossy floors, the changing light in Ireland. The sheen on the horses and the cows, you know, I got my first horse in Sligo, I didn’t get a horse, I actually adopted a horse in a field. It was grazing there. And just jumped on his back (laughs).

Amy:    That sounds amazing. It also sounds to me, tell me I’m wrong, but growing up like that, you would have become very attuned to the cycles of nature and just the sort of natural rhythms of the earth, maybe more so than somebody who is brought up in a more sort of noisy, city type of area?

Clodagh:         Oh, very much so. I didn’t wear shoes in the summer, my mother would yell at me, so I’d take them off when I was out of sight. So I was doing early earthing, you might say right? They have little patches now where you can earth. The seasons were very important to me. Also roaming around the fields, you found wild blackberries and wild raspberries and nuts and stuff like that. I was an early forester you might say. Then my father had his organic garden, if you even mentioned the word ‘chemical,’ he went up in smoke, so I was also very early green.

Amy:    Okay, this is all checking out in the research I did on you. (Laughter) Tell me about your teenage years, you have this avant-garde mother, but you didn’t really know she was avant-garde. You described your family as downwardly mobile and you as a bit feral. So I’m wondering if you had a mind of your own, if you had a rebellious streak? If your creativity was manifesting?

Clodagh:         When I went to my first school in Sligo, I was a pretty defiant kid because when they moved me from the class, from kindergarten to the first class, they said I was the youngest kid in the class and they wouldn’t move me. So I rebelled and I stormed home and said I wouldn’t go back to school anymore. (Laughs) I walked the whole way home and in the end the headmaster came out and apologized to me, so I went back. I always remember his name was Mr Blackburn and he must have been about 10 feet high to me, but probably over six feet. I absolutely rebelled.

Amy:    Wow, leadership skills were getting forged early on.

Clodagh:         Well, rebellion certainly. (Laughter) Since I was the smallest child, it’s not fair, wait for me, until they wouldn’t keep up.

Amy:    When you did rebel like this, did you have the backup of your parents, did you feel supported?

Clodagh:         Well my mother had, if I had one of my ‘it’s not fair’ rages and slammed the bedroom door, would make toast and tea and leave it outside the door, and scones, to mollify me through food, like a little dog. (Laughter) But they didn’t know how to talk to me, no. They were both brought up in a highly non-communicative households. And the story behind it and the reasons why nobody talked that much is that my father actually eloped with his son’s fiancé, and they got cut off from both their families. (Laughs) We were the children of that…

Amy:    So there was some scandal underscoring the whole family unit?

Clodagh:         Yeah, but we didn’t know that, not until a lot later.

Amy:    So does that mean you were sort of disconnected then from your extended family?

Clodagh:         Absolutely, yeah.

Amy:    So you also had a pretty epic horseback riding accident [0.10.00] in your teenage years and you broke your back in three places and it laid you up in bed for months. I’m interested in this time in your life. I mean it’s usually pretty pivotal when someone faces their own mortality like that at a young age. But also I know this is also a time when you kind of made a choice about your future. So can you talk to me about this time?

Clodagh:         Yeah, I actually was a child who got into horrible accidents even before that happened. I cut my wrist when I was about five, I fell on a glass bowl and my nanny left me bleeding, she was so frightened, and I nearly bled out.

Amy:    Oh my gosh.

Clodagh:         I had a burst appendix when I was three and nearly died. (Laughs)

Clodagh:         My father gave me a horse and he was saddle shy, it meant he didn’t like a saddle being put on him. And I was supposed to lunge him when I came home from boarding school. And I didn’t, I got up on him, and I put the saddle on and got up and he just flew and started bucking like you’ve seen in the rodeos. And he actually snapped the leather straps that hold the girth to the saddle and the saddle and I flew onto hard ground. I was lying there, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the breath knocked out of your body, you kind of can’t breathe.  I was lying there and there was a kind of seer, I suppose you could call him, called Old John who used to wander around the country fields, would give you jars of nettle things and stuff if you were sick. And he came along when I was lying on the ground and he looked down at me, not even offering to help me to get up. He said, “If you live until you’re 24, you might die at 24, you will be a healer, but not in the medical sense.” And with that he actually walked off. (Laughs) And I managed to get myself up somehow and crawl down to the house. But that always lives on in my mind.

Amy:    What a prophecy, that is wild, and you had never met this person before?

Clodagh:         Oh I had, I’d seen him wandering around the fields, he’d sometimes come to the house with yellow liquids for my mother, who had problems with her health. But I’d never talked to him. But he just stood and looked down and he said that, and it was really quite a strange moment for me.

Amy:    Did it resonate, did it ring true? Did you have some sort of knowing that it was accurate or did it worry you that you were going to die at 24?

Clodagh:         Well, yeah, the dying at 24 resonated plenty. I married my first husband when I was 21 but I told him, I said, “You may lose me at 24,” (laughs) so when my 24th birthday came up, I was kind of wondering. But as you can hear and see, I’m right here.

Amy:    With this potential short timespan left to live, do you think you maximized the life you did have? Did it put some urgency into your decisions?

Clodagh:         Well, he said if I didn’t die at 24, I’d live quite a long life. But I had previous accidents and I’ve always felt life is tenuous and you should use every minute.

Amy:    Okay, well, while you were laid up you saw an ad in the Irish Times that said ‘why not be a dress designer,’ and you thought to yourself, why not. So you set your sights on becoming a fashion designer, but you also knew this would be a really controversial choice in your family?

Clodagh:         My father’s brother who was still talking to the family, had more degrees than anybody else in the world in Trinity College, Dublin. So my father had decided that since I was studying Latin, and I was very good at mathematics, that I would become a professor in classics and mathematics at Trinity College like Uncle Charlie. And he decided what my brother would be and my sister would be, our careers were mapped out. None of us did (laughs)… none of us followed. So I was lying on my back and my mother decided to keep me at home rather than put me in a hospital for five months. I saw the Irish Times, it was the only newspaper we were allowed to read. Our reading was very edited also and I was lying on my back and I saw an ad saying, ‘why not be a fashion designer.’ And I don’t know why, but I thought why not? (Laughs)

Amy:    Clicked.

Clodagh:         Maybe it’s my motto, ‘why not,’ amongst others. (Laughter)

Amy:    So… I mean that was the spark, but you still have to go through with what you know is going to be a controversial decision, defying your fathers map for your career and maybe going into a career that he’s not as excited about. How did you sort of rally your motivation to rebel once again?

Clodagh:         Well, what happened was that I had to go in and tell him and he was always seated at a roll-top desk, something I do remember (laughs). And when I told him he said, “Nobody in our family has ever gone into trade,’ saying TRADE in capital letters. (Laughs)

Amy:    Ah, so it was a class thing?

Clodagh:         Oh totally yes, totally. I don’t want to see or hear from you again if you’re going to go on with that.

Amy:    Oh wow, that’s a rejection, that must have hurt?

Clodagh:         Well, I was sort of already fairly immune, my mother on the contrary said, “I’ll help you.” She said, “I’ll give you some money and we’ll help to rent you a flat in Dublin and see how you get on.” The ad was from the Grafton Academy of Dress Design and they were offering a compressed course. And she said, “I’ll pay for that and I’ll give you some money.” She gave me £400 and off I went.

Amy:    Knowing that you were to be estranged from your father forever more?

Clodagh:         Knowing that he didn’t really want to see me again. But then what happened was, when I had my first fashion show, it was in the Irish Times…

Amy:    Yes? Yes!

Clodagh:         With a nice headline and suddenly…I was back home again.

Amy:    Oh, you were welcomed once you were acknowledged by the Irish Times?

Clodagh:         Exactly, exactly.

Amy:    You did find success in fashion almost immediately. Did you also find that your creative passion was ignited and you enjoyed the process of garment construction and draping and textile choices and all the science and artistry of fashion?

Clodagh:         Oh, I loved it and I opened my tiny atelier with the courage born of total ignorance. No idea what I was getting into. I mean it was so bad that when my bank manager called and asked to see my books, I said, “Mr Mooney, why do you want to know what I’m reading?” (Laughter) Because money was not spoken about in our family. (Laughter)

Amy:    Did Mr Mooney set you straight, did you help you?

Clodagh:         He set me straight, he was very kindly.

Amy:    And you’re 17 years old at this time?

Clodagh:         I’m 17, yeah. And the first client who walked up the stairs because I had hung out my shingle, said, “I’d like to meet the designer, I want to commission an overcoat.” And I said, “I am the designer,” and she said, “You look very young. How old are you?” I said, “Seventeen.” There was a long pause and she said, “That’s too young, come back when you’re a little older and have some experience.” And with that she walked down the stairs leaving me knowing that I would never tell anybody my age ever again because I’d either be too young or too old. (Laughs) And she came back, she did come back.

Amy:    She did?

Clodagh:         Yeah, I got a lot more publicity, she came back, I made her an amazing white, mohair coat, made her a ballgown (laughs) and we laughed about it. She came back about three years later.

Amy:    So starting off so young and self-admittedly naïve, I guess, about running a business…

Clodagh:         How about ignorant. (Laughter)

Amy:    What do you attribute your entrepreneurial spirit to and your business acumen? It wasn’t just sheer creative genius, I’m sure there was a fair amount of that, and hard work, but you did achieve quite a bit of international success and acclaim and that means you have to not go out of business?

Clodagh:         Well, what happened was actually, at my first fashion show there were some buyers in from the States and they’d heard about me and my fashion show. It was a fundraiser for the Irish Cancer Society in a very smart hotel. They ferreted me out and gave me some business. I started to export. And the Irish Export Board at that point was very supportive and helped me. When they had the shows in New York, they shot me over and they paid some supplementary money to the designers. Then of course we helped exports, because we used Irish tweed and Irish linen.

Amy:    That sounds like a pretty sweet relationship. So you got some wind in your sails…

Clodagh:         Right and then you got deposits on the orders, on the purchasing from Lord & Taylor and Bonwit, all of the big department stores. And then we’d export it to Australia, England, all over. It happened very fast actually, it was nice.

Amy:    Were you growing your studio as well, like hiring employees and…

Clodagh:         Yeah, I had a couple of employees immediately. Then I had a sewing team, but also I licensed, I licensed to a tweed company from Germany, the suits were made in Ireland to a jersey knit company. (Laughs)

Amy:    Well, during this chapter of your career, when you were growing your fashion design business and brand, you also married and had three children.

Clodagh:         That’s right.

Amy:    So that’s a lot! And while your children buoyed your spirit, your marriage started to feel like a trap and I know from your documentary you described this time in Irish history as leaving women very disadvantaged when it came to divorce law.

Clodagh:         There wasn’t divorce law.

Amy:    So you had very few options for reclaiming your life in a way that also allowed you to retain custody. So this was a hard decision. But you worked it out and got a legal separation and you’ve said in the 70s that you changed husbands, countries and careers.

Clodagh:         That’s exactly what I did! (Laughs)

Amy:    That’s big! And it also is the precursor to you finding your calling as a multifaceted designer of not just fashion, but interior spaces as you say, anything that anybody puts in front of you. So I wonder if you can talk to me about this really pivotal time in your life?

Clodagh:         I wanted to put my unhappiness behind me. I had a lot of publicity because being very young and being Irish, it helped for publicity internationally and presumably the clothes were reasonably good too. So I had a huge trunk full of press clippings and magazines and places where I’d appeared in. When I decided to leave Ireland, I got my legal separation, which meant I could have joint custody of the children. I had, it was a store warehouse [0.25.00], where they stored furniture and so on. I had this huge trunk there and I went to the warehouse and I said to the guys, “Would you take the trunk out please into the garden.” I said, “Do you have a match?” I flambéed all my press clippings and everything. It went up in flames and it felt great. (Laughs)Some people burn their boats, and I burned my publicity. (Laughter)

Amy:    Why did you need to shed that?

Clodagh:         I don’t know, you could have asked me then, I might have known, I don’t know now, but it felt great, and it still feels great.

Amy:    What happened after that? You made a clean break, it sounds like, both spiritually and geographically, with your fashion career and your ex-husband, where did you go from there and how did you find your gifts as an interior designer, among other things?

Clodagh:         Well, what happened was my husband had a house in Spain and…

Amy:    This is your second husband, Daniel?

Clodagh:         Yes, yeah, we got married and he had a house in Spain and he also had an apartment in New York and so I went to New York first and the boys joined us, we had a townhouse and we had a good time in New York, but then Daniel decided, what he really wanted to do was go to Spain. And I had nothing holding me in New York. I’d had my last fashion show in Ireland, which of course was all black, what else would it be? (Laughter) So that last fashion show was,, was like burning the trunk, it was a little element of mourning I suppose in it too.

Amy:    It sounds like it, a little bit of dark humor, a little bit of grief, a little bit of mourning…

Clodagh:         My kids are very funny and we all laugh a lot, so can’t take anything too seriously. My husband decided he wanted to stop his career, which he was a screenwriter and go to Spain, go to live in Spain. So I said okay. We found a townhouse in this old city of Almeria, one of the last Moorish outposts of Spain, with a huge Alcasava and so on. And we bought a townhouse and we found an architect and I said to Daniel, “I don’t speak a word of Spanish,’ because he’s multilingual and it was embarrassing. I said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll take care of the house, and you go off doing what you’re doing and I’ll try to learn Spanish while I’m doing it.” That’s what I did. And I found the architect and he didn’t know how people live. (Laughs) He was all about architecture and not about living and I kept saying, Antonio this and you can’t do that and no, you can’t put the kitchen at the end of that, you can’t walk through the living room from the dining room to get to the kitchen, stuff like that. I kept drawing over his drawings and then when the time came to… we were ready to move in, I was literally standing in the living room and these huge shutters were open on the old square. The birds were singing outside and a light came in and hit my shoulder and I realized what I wanted to be.

Amy:    You’ve had some real moments of life defining clarity.

Clodagh:         I had no doubt in my mind.

Amy:    Wow.

Clodagh:         So I said when he came back, I said, “I need the places on the streets, the studio that’s on the street, for retail space, I want that, and I’m going to start a design business.”

Amy:    Hot damn! So I’m going to ask you, you’re older than 24 at this point, so you’re safely assured that you’re going to live a long life?

Clodagh:         Yes, I’m older than 24, the 24 happened with my first husband. I’ m already early 30s.

Amy:    So backing up a little bit, when you passed the 24 mark with your first husband and you knew you were going to live a long life, did that also escalate the feeling of being trapped

Clodagh:         Once I got over 24 I didn’t think about how long I’d live, I just got over that thought. The 24, I must admit, the night before my 24th birthday I was thinking, is this it? (Laughs)

Amy:    Oh my gosh! Okay, so you throw up your shingle as an interior designer in Spain, still learning Spanish and…

Clodagh:         I didn’t say ‘interior design,’ I said ‘design.’

Amy:    Design, okay, you’re deliberately agnostic about all of your offerings.

Clodagh:         Exactly.

Amy:    So what were the first few projects like and how quickly did you, get your rhythm and feel your confidence in this new area of practice?

Clodagh:         Well, the first thing that happened was, I hung up my shingle, this happened very much as when I was in fashion, there was a ring on the doorbell of the house and I went down, there’s this gorgeous Spanish guy standing there and he said, “Are you the English designer? I heard about you.” And I said, “No, I’m the Irish designer,” and he said, “Well, that’s close enough!” And he actually spoke English, he said, “Would you do my English bar in Roquetas de Mar, which was about 40 minutes drive away. I said, “Of course!” He said, “Can you come down tomorrow?” Yes I can. And then I went upstairs, my husband was upstairs and I said, “I think I’m out of my freaking mind!” (Laughs) And he said, “Just do it.” (Laughter) So the imposter syndrome was sitting on my left shoulder during this, but I did get into the car and go down and see the bar and decide what to do with it. The architect liked me and he gave me one of his houses to do and it kind of went from there. I’ve always felt that I should hire people who are better than myself because I realize I’m very untaught, I’ve had no real formal training in anything, just my few weeks pattern cutting design at the Grafton Academy before I opened my fashion business, that was weeks. So the imposter syndrome comes and sits on my shoulder and says, “Are you really up for this?” (Laughs) But then my t-shirt says, ‘Why not’ (Laughter)

Amy:    Has the imposter syndrome gone away now that you’re 50 years into it, you’ve clearly proven yourself?

Clodagh:         No, it never goes away. The imposter syndrome is terrific because it sits on my shoulder and says, each thing you do you have to be better than the last thing than you did. We really work incredibly hard to make sure that every aspect of design is addressed in everything we do.

Amy:    Well, so that sounds like it not only keeps you on your toes in terms of getting better and better and better, but it also keeps you hiring really high standard individuals on your team, if your policy is to hire people who are better at something than you are.

Clodagh:         They’re probably better at everything. I have an incredible team. I have the most incredible team.

Amy:    That is amazing and I’m really happy to hear that and we all know that doing the volume and scale of project that you’re doing, you can’t possibly do it alone. But I think the way one cultivates a culture and a team and mutual success for everyone is a really important part of the practice and it sounds like you feel that way too.

Clodagh:         Well also they’re my teachers in a sense. The first architect I hired in Spain, she was taking a year off from Liverpool University and she was studying environmental and solar and wind energy. (Laughs)

Amy:    Cool!

Clodagh:         A native plants (laughs), I mean literally the first person who sat down at the table with me to discuss design. [0.35.00] I think the first time I used the Scale Rule was with her there.

Amy:    The universe has brought you some amazing people.

Clodagh:         It really has.

Amy:    You’ve been in this chapter of your career for over 50 years and your practice is global in reach with projects all over the world and very broad in scope in terms of the types of projects and objects and products and spaces that you do, multi-family residences, hotels, spas, yachts, private jets. You can tell me more, I’m sure there’s even more than that. I’m wondering after all of this under your belt now, what has remained consistent and what would you say has evolved?

Clodagh:         The consistent thing is that I’m dealing with people, people the same senses, passions, affections…

Amy:    Yeah, the humanity.

Clodagh:         Humanity, humanity has certain needs and that hasn’t changed. So when I was in fashion I was very careful when I was designing my clothes that the clothes moved carefully with people, they were comfortable to sit in. You didn’t sit down and it was too tight, your skirt or something like that. I did a traveling wardrobe for the wife of the president of Ireland and she went to Africa, and to integrate heat and I studied what she could wear that would make her most comfortable. And that’s the vision and mission I carry on, whether it’s… whether it’s your bed, your furniture, the way your door opens and closes. (Laughs) I want to make people feel good.

Amy:    That makes a lot of sense.

Clodagh:         And that’s the nicest thing somebody can say to me when they move into their place or move into their multi-family residence and I see people are looking happy and using things the way they should be used.

Amy:    Because it means they’re in rhythm, they’re feeling at one with the space.

Clodagh:         Exactly, yeah, exactly, we work with all the senses because your senses inform your emotions. So we check all the senses and we hope they feel well in our spaces, balanced and happy, they can breathe easily. It’s very important.

Amy:    It is, it’s very, very important. So I appreciate that about your philosophy and your practice. What would you say has evolved or what were the unexpected surprises along the way? I’m wondering if there’s anything you found you were getting into that you had to shed or that you had to actively stop doing or if there’s some aspect of your own talent that was uncovered, that you didn’t know you had?

Clodagh:         Maybe a talent to be bossy. (Laughter) When I got my first big job here, you know, I remember sitting in a conference room with like 20 people, men in suits (laughs) and I realized I couldn’t be sucking my thumb there and being shy. So I learned that I could speak up.

Amy:    I like it. Okay, I would love for you to help me understand your creative process. I’m fascinated by what you’ve talked about already, about how you make sure to appeal to all of the senses and make sure to design emotional comfort into the spaces. You’ve said that you’ve always been a champion of techniques like feng shui, chromatherapy, biogeometry, biophilia, which I think is wonderful. You really are a healer, just not in the medical sense. Your modality is design. Can you get granular on that with me? What does the step-by-step start with in terms of implementing all of this?

Clodagh:         Well it depends what it is because we also help people to brand and to interpret their brands. So in a sense we’ve become chameleons to the brand. (Laughs) It’s very important to us… we’re working with individuals and private residents, you’re working very tightly with a family or you know, a couple of whatever it is, or a single person. And you’re interpreting, you’re kind of an interpreter, you’re a listener, I liken it almost to being a good travel guide. A good travel guide takes you to places that you’ve heard about but then they take you to places that you haven’t heard about, that they want to show you. And I feel we’re kind of travel guides.

Amy:    Yeah, but it’s all informed by having done the active listening and observing, so you’re taking them some place they may not know about but that you intuit that they would want to go to.

Clodagh:         Exactly, exactly, exactly. When we’re traveling, if we’re going to a new job that’s out of say Manhattan, or a big city, we do what we call ‘dry sponge/wet sponge’ in the studio. We get on a flight and we fly over dry sponges, and we soak up the environments and soak up everything and come back wet sponges. (Laughs) And then squeeze that onto the work. (Laughter) If you’re doing a hotel, for instance, in a country, you want to get the contextual references, everything, the music, you listen to the music, go to Portugal, we listen to Fado, we go to the museums, we go out on a farm, so we are trying to get it. What is this? It’s a hotel, somebody is traveling there, you don’t want to dump down a box, a perfectly functioning box that doesn’t relate contextually to the country it’s being built in. We rootle out weavers and painters and we do art consulting, so we try to get local artists honored by putting them in the project.

Amy:    That’s beautiful,. And in a way I’m just thinking about this, it makes the… maybe even the hotel feel porous and I mean porous in that it is breathing with the locale.

Clodagh:         That’s a nice way of putting it. Often at an opening, we have the artist, the local artist come and stand in front of their work. We did a spa and hotel in Pennsylvania where we did that, each artist stood in front of their art.

Amy:    That’s so lovely. I’m happy to hear that, that’s beautiful, I have a real affection for artisans and crafts people of all calibers. You mentioned that you’ve buried buckets of crystals in the earth on job sites, can you tell me a little bit more about how you assess that the land or the site needs a bit of energy healing?

Clodagh:         I try to use feng shui, a feng shui master, a biogeometrist on each project.

Amy:    What’s biogeometry?

Clodagh:         It’s an ancient Egyptian method of assessing what the waves are coming from the earth, what’s toxic or non-toxic. But it’s the same as feng shui, really it’s all about energy. I’m very often, not very often, but I walk into a place sometimes and I don’t feel it’s a happy place.

Amy:    Yeah, I know that feeling, it’s awful. It’s very claustrophobic.

Clodagh:         Yeah, sometimes there’s a darkness that comes and since I’m open to everything, I guess I pick it up. I remember we were given a basement to design for somebody and I could barely breathe in there and it turned out that three people had hanged themselves in there.

Amy:    Oh wow.

Clodagh:         That’s when our feng shui master came in and you could actually feel the energy peeling away, it was lovely to actually experience that. It’s happened to me on a couple of jobs where I’ve been there when the ceremony was happening and the items were being put in and it’s tangible. I think what I’m trying to say here, we’re trying to make the invisible tangible, the invisible, the air, the energy, good energy tangible.

Amy:    I hear you, that makes sense and it’s something that because it’s so ineffable, it’s something that a lot of people don’t know how to put words around. But I’ve definitely been in spaces where I could tell there was a darkness, a real heaviness, a real uncomfortable energy and I didn’t have a reason for it because it would be like one hotel room in a whole hotel. And so I’d switch to a different hotel room and the energy was different. And so I’m wondering, conversely, I’m sure you’ve been in spaces where the energy felt magical or where there was a deep sense of most sacredness baked into the site or even the walls of a longstanding structure. Are there times then when you seek to preserve energy as well, or not disturb it?

Clodagh:         It’s just there, yeah, exactly. (Laughs) I don’t have to do anything. I’d still have my feng shui master or a biogeometry guy just assess some of the areas around it. But I’ve gone to places that I’ve really felt incredibly happy.

Amy:    Has that informed your decision not to move walls and things or no?

Clodagh:         Sometimes, it does sometimes.

Amy:    With so many projects and so diverse in terms of their output from branding to commercial to residential…

Clodagh:         And also we have a licensing division and art consulting, yeah.

Amy:    I’m wondering how do you and how do you in the studio, how do you measure success? How do you know when you’re onto it and when it’s going to turn out the way you want it to or even after the project is completed, you can measure the impact?

Clodagh:         Well, we’ve been told that some of our multi-family buildings, the units sell and rent much faster than what they call the ‘competition.’ I don’t believe in competition, I’m like Rudolf Nureyev, he said, “What is this I’m always trying to dance better than myself?

Amy:    Is it on your quote wall?

Clodagh:         It’s on my quote wall, yeah. (Laughs) I have one quote that I try to read at least once a week. “The ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions. Their answers would determine whether they could continue to their journey in the afterlife. First question was: Did you bring joy? The second was: Did you find joy?” That always makes me teary when I read it.

Amy:    I felt that.

Clodagh:         It’s like that little monk Tich Nhat Hanh said, if you meet somebody in the street and you feel happier after you’ve met them, they’ve handed you some happiness, it’s like that.

Amy:    It also really, really prioritizes the most important thing, doesn’t it, just so clearly, is being in the giving and receiving cycle of joy.

Clodagh:         Exactly, exactly! One of my mottos is to give something away every day and it sounds difficult, but actually it’s very easy. There’s always something (laughs).

Amy:    What have you given away today?

Clodagh:         I’m giving my time to you.

Amy:    Yes! And sharing your story with me, this is joyful. (Laughter) If you don’t mind, I would love to ask you a few questions that are not work related, but are a little bit more about the wisdom that you have, having lived your exceptional life. You had a father that sounds like you weren’t very close with and who was willing to cut you out of his life. Two husbands, one who sought to rein you in, or maybe of a more conservative mindset. And then another one that, a long glorious marriage, it sounds like, proved to be an ally in your self-actualization. And you’ve raised three sons. Not only that, but you’ve built careers during times when it was still considered very trailblazing for women to be as entrepreneurial and head of the shop as you were, and are. And famously, Clodagh, with no last name, no surname that’s attached to a man.

Clodagh:         I can explain that one. When you have your exam, when you’re leaving pre-college exam, but you do it in a hall, in this case in Dublin, were students from various schools who are there for the exam, the leaving certificate, are sitting all around you. There was a balcony in the hall, which some teachers were sitting up there, people who were running the show for the exam and monitoring it. And they called out our names and they said, “Put your hand up when your name is called.” Are you ready for this? Clodagh Fionnuala Maev De Sillary Phipps. I resolved there and then I would only have one name for the rest of my life, that was it! I could feel my blush now. (Laughter)

Amy:    Okay, so my question around all this sort of… all these male figures in your life. I’m wondering if you’ve given much thought to how your personal and professional spirit, and success, and all of the volume of work and joy that is in the wake of all that you’re doing, all of your creativity, I’m wondering if you’ve given much thought to how it’s rippled out through the patriarchal framework of society and reorganized it a little bit or made lasting impacts?

Clodagh:         I think it’s hard to say. I do deal with…many or more male clients as I have female clients. I think it’s all shifted and changed in the States, particularly. I was brought up Irish Protestant, nothing is more uptight, you know. (Laughs) I think the guys are a little daunted sometimes by female success. That’s changing. I feel that men are more respectful of financial success. I would go as far as to say that…

Amy:    More likely to listen to you and take you seriously and maybe even take orders from you. To give you the credit of your credibility.

Clodagh:         But maybe I just invented that, I don’t know.

Amy:    I love the guys (laughs)…

Clodagh:         I had all boys, you know.

Amy:    That’s one of the things why I brought that up is because it’s not a love it or hate it kind of situation. It’s much more glorious and complex, the sort of movement of the universe and the dynamic of male/female dynamic, trying to seek balance.

Clodagh:         And we’re the production units of society, production units of humanity.

Amy:    Does it feel safe to claim your feminine power and legacy? You’ve certainly earned it. Does it feel safe?

Clodagh:         Totally. I don’t feel that I have to claim them, I think they’re just there. I do think a lot about women being the production units of humanity. The amount of time that it takes to make a baby, then bring up the baby and you know, all that stuff. There’s that secondary line of work that women have that men don’t have. They have part of it, obviously, but the babysitter isn’t all the stuff we go through.

Amy:    Do you have grandchildren?

Clodagh:         I have grandchildren and I’ve got a great-granddaughter. My youngest son married very young and I have a great-granddaughter in Australia actually, she’s three.

Amy:    How wonderful.

Clodagh:         I had all my babies before I was 27, so I was a very young grandmother.

Amy:    You’ve taken a lot of leaps of faith throughout your life. Some of them you’ve said were out of sheer ignorance…

Clodagh:         Yes. (Laughs) You laugh, but it’s true.

Amy:    No, I believe it. Some people don’t have the same instinct as you do, to leap without looking. And I’m wondering what you attribute that to. Like deep down, does it sort of come from a kind of faith or a kind of intuition or trust in yourself or are you actually maybe even running from something and need to escape?

Clodagh:         I think that when you’re the smallest child and you’re a child of older parents, you’re on your own a lot. So you have to figure it out on your own basically.

Amy:    You just got really comfortable figuring things out? That makes a lot of sense to me.

Clodagh:         Yeah, I really didn’t have any option.

Amy:    Yeah, but when you have that sort of mindset and toolkit, then I think it would build trust in yourself that you could get yourself into situations and still figure it out.

Clodagh:         I would love to design a prison, because I think that we would help society a lot if we made prisons more healing spaces.

Amy:    I 100% agree. Clodagh, you have to do that!

Clodagh:         I would love to.

Amy:    I think that’s amazing and I think we need it, I think especially… I don’t know about any other countries, but the incarceration system is not humane.

Clodagh:         It’s not humane and I think that we could heal people while they’re in jail, there’s ways of doing things. I’m doing dog training with my tiny dog at the moment and it’s all about treats and joy. (Laughs) It stops her chewing up things.

Amy:    No but seriously, if incarcerated folks were… their humanity was honored, their places were designed for comfort and to appeal to their senses and to acknowledge that their comfort and care matters and that they’re worthy of that, I think that the prison system could honestly have a much better impact on you know, redemption and helping people find real purpose in their life after prison. And it could be very healing. I wish that I was president and I could put you in charge of this right now. (Laughter)

Clodagh:         I do think it’s a good idea, because if you’re not acknowledged, if you just become a pawn in a system, something has got to go wrong.

Amy:    Have you ever had an inkling, do you know what you will be in your next life or what you’d like to be in your next life?

Clodagh:         I haven’t… I’m so busy in this one! (Laughter)

Amy:    Well maybe you’d like to take more breaks in the next one! (Laughter)

Clodagh:         Yeah, I do think that I would change the schooling system a bit and the prison system in my next life, given the chance. And actually teach… I think that people aren’t taught at school that there’s all the dirty words, they’re not taught sex properly and then suddenly you can’t have an abortion, they’re all the dirty words that people don’t use, they’re not taught about their system or how necessarily nutrition… I think we could have a happier, healthier society if all this stuff was taught to you when you’re still little, when you can really take it in. So somehow teaching, I think, would be part of my next life, ideally, some type of teaching. Not me teaching, but helping a system.

Amy:    Designing a more fruitful and generative and healthy education system, I can see you doing that.

Clodagh:         Yes. Make people laugh more often.

Amy:    Yes! (Laughter)

Clodagh:         It’s very important.

Amy:    Well, I can honestly say in this conversation that I found joy and you brought joy and so thank you so much Clodagh for sharing your story and your life with me, this has been really, really rich, thank you.

Clodagh:         Thank you. I’ll meet you on the other side of the computer screen one day.

Amy:    Why do you think you have so many near death experiences?

Clodagh:  I don’t know, somebody is trying to tell me something.

Amy:  Maybe it’s the spirit world trying to commune with you for a brief moment.

Clodagh: I don’t know, I’ve actually left my body and looked at myself.

Amy: Have you?

Clodagh: Yes, and actually it’s very informative, that you realize that… it’s very immediate, you should do everything that’s good now, don’t think about doing it next week.

Amy: When you left your body and looked at yourself, what was your consciousness like? Did you feel really cognizant of…

Clodagh: Yeah, it was lovely. (Laughs)

Amy: Really?

Clodagh: It was very, very nice, I was in a nice place.

Amy:    And upon recovery, were you able to maintain the wisdom that you gleaned in those moments?

Clodagh:  Yeah, it’s absolutely… it’s the same wisdom every time, that life is very frail.

Amy:  How many of those out of body experiences have you had?

Clodagh: Five.

Amy: Five? Clodagh!

Clodagh: But they were great and I came back.

Amy: Yeah, clearly you did and you came back with a lot of gusto. I’m just thinking you really are living this human life with one foot in the spirit world.

Clodagh: As the Irish say, one foot in the grave and one on a banana skin! (Laughter) Have you heard that expression?

Amy: I have, yes (Laughter) I do think it’s interesting that you’ve sort of moved into these different spaces of consciousness so frequently and through accidents. I wonder, if you were going to decide that there was some greater purpose to you having these near death experiences, what would you…

Clodagh: That’s just what I said, that life is very brief and one should make the absolute best of it and give everything you have to make other people’s lives better. It’s easy. (Laughter)

Amy:    Well, you make it sound easy, you certainly do. I’m going to try to take that wisdom and absorb it to the depth of my core without having to have a life threatening accident. You are a magical force and I feel blessed to have shared this time with you, thank you so much.

Clodagh: Thank you. Thank you.

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Amy Devers

Amy Devers is a designer, fabricator, educator, and media personality on a mission to reveal the humanity behind the design that shapes our world.

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