Art College is a waste of time, right?

Not so: The National College of Art & Design is really punching above its weight and is intent on disproving the lazy stereotypes about art students. Its annual showcase has become an art and design highlight in the city, featuring painting, product design, sculpture, fashion and more. Meanwhile, its fashion students have been awarded top prizes both here and abroad and the college is climbing the QS world college rankings. Luncheonette, their basement café, happens to be one of the best lunch spots in the city, and it’s open to the general public. And the students bring a vital creative breath into Dublin city, especially around the historic Liberties area. What’s the secret to their success?

We have had lots of opportunities to showcase our work outside the college

Colin Burke, a final-year fashion student at NCAD, won the prestigious student designer of the year award in 2016. “We have had lots of opportunities to showcase our work outside the college, including a knitwear project with the Design Craftwear Council,” he says. “My hand-knit work progressed through and took top honours. It’s really made my experience here even better. The atmosphere in the college is great, though we do work really hard, and fashion can be quite intense with deadlines every few weeks. Now, the fine art students do have a bit more leeway, but there are good rewards for all of us. There’s a good vibe in and around the college; I’d recommend it as a place to study.”

We don’t just teach the students about art and design; we also teach them how to survive and thrive in the industry

There have been big improvements at NCAD over the last few years, and it’s now ranked 17th among Europe’s art and design colleges. Angela O’Kelly is NCAD’s head of design for body and the environment, covering fashion, textile surface design, jewellery and metalwork. “There have definitely been big changes. We don’t just teach the students about art and design; we also teach them how to survive and thrive in the industry and broadly apply their knowledge. We have a strong emphasis on collaboration with the design community. This is because you can’t really work by yourself anymore, and it is important to collaborate with industry and with social partners. Within the college, for instance, we have students of medical device design. They are working with companies and hospitals to design and make new user systems and products.”

One of the most significant of NCAD’s partnerships is with Brown Thomas, Ireland’s best-known department store. “We run a competition with them where they award a bursary, including financial support and mentorship, with the fashion students,” says O’Kelly. “A recent winner, Aideen Gaynor, was awarded a prize and had her work showcased in BT; she went on to win Mittelmoda, a major international fashion prize.”

Another way in which the college helps its students get a foothold in the competitive art and design industry is through the Clancy Quay studio artist residency award which, in collaboration with real estate firm Kennedy Wilson, provides a free studio space for a nine-month artist residency in the city.

We are training people to be creative and to change society

A personal highlight for O’Kelly is the NCAD fashion show which, in 2016, was organised with Dublin’s prestigious Westbury Hotel. “They have been big supporters of the college. We completely transformed their carpark, painting their pillars and the grounds. Their pastry chef then went on to design five cakes based on five different student designs, including streetwear, sportswear and couture, and this influence was seen in the hotel’s afternoon tea throughout the summer season. We have also worked with their visual director, John Redmond, on a ‘gallery of found art’, which featured sustainable art pieces that were showcased in their window display.”

NCAD graduate Garreth Smith

NCAD hosts an annual graduate showcase, a nine-day programme of events that includes work from fine art, design, education and visual culture, embracing themes that include sustainability, mental health and the migrant crisis. In 2016, works included sustainable fashion inspired by Dublin’s Botanic Gardens, a ceramics and glass project exploring childhood anxiety, a range of folding furniture inspired by adventurous pursuits in nature, a 3D-printed prosthetic arm and sanitation essentials for people in Europe’s migrant camps. The annual exhibit is open to the general public and includes organised tours.

Also in 2016, four of NCAD’s industrial design students received recognition in the UK’s RSA student design awards; Alan MacFarlane and Mirna Maye collected the RBS award for their creation “Watercolour”, which uses playful furniture, installation and workshops to help people de-focus their minds from the everyday mundane and spark the creative flow.

Some of the success stories to emerge from NCAD are quite unlikely, such as graduate Garreth Smith’s Bruscair Boards, using unrecyclable crisp packets to make skateboards.

“We’re growing, we’re learning, we’re improving,” says O’Kelly. “We are training people to be creative and to change society. There is always a great atmosphere and presence on Thomas Street. It’s an exciting time to be here.”

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Peter McGuire is a freelance features and news journalist. He also works a researcher and editor. He is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and the Huffington Post, and has also written for the Irish Examiner, Sunday Business Post and Irish Independent.

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