What you can expect studying at NCAD

Art College is a waste of time, right? Not so. The National College of Art and Design on Thomas Street 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.

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

Meanwhile, its fashion students have been awarded top prizes both here and abroad. The Dublin art college is climbing the QS world college rankings too.

Its students also bring a creative breath to Dublin, especially around the historic Liberties area. Their presence also means that local bars, cafés and studios are flourishing. So what’s the secret to their success? We spoke to staff and students to find out.

Hands-on experience

Colin Burke, a former fashion student at NCAD, won the prestigious student designer of the year award back in 2016. He spoke to us during his final year.

“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.”

Today, his brand Hand Knit Always has received rave reviews in The Irish Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Business Post.

“The atmosphere in the college is great, though we do work really hard and fashion can be quite intense with deadlines every few weeks,” he says. “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.”

Industry-focused education

There have been big improvements at NCAD Dublin over the last few years, and it’s now ranked 46th 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.

We also teach them how to survive and thrive in the industry.

“There have definitely been big changes,” she says. “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.”

According to O’Kelly, NCAD has also put a strong emphasis on collaboration with the rest of the design community in recent years.

There’s a good vibe in and around the college.

“This is because you can’t really work by yourself anymore,” she explains. “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.”

Highly fashionable collaborations

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. This ‘Designer to Watch’ award has supported NCAD students since 2014.

colourful mannequins in brown thomas window

In 2016, NCAD graduate Aideen Gaynor was awarded the prize and had her work showcased in Brown Thomas. She then went on to win ‘most creative collection’ at Mittelmoda – a major international fashion awards. Today, she is a designer at a New York fashion company.

More recent winners have found success too. Heather Gilroy has since launched Prints of Ireland, while Ala Sinkevich was also a finalist at the Mittelmoda Awards.

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 Residency Awards which, in collaboration with real estate firm Kennedy Wilson, provides artists with a free studio space in the city for a year.

We are training people to be creative and to change society.

A personal highlight for O’Kelly is the NCAD fashion show which, in 2022, will be organised with Dublin’s prestigious Westbury Hotel.

“They have been big supporters of the college,” she says. “[In 2016], 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.”

NCAD graduate Garreth Smith

Speaking ahead of the 2022 show, O’Kelly says: “NCAD’s annual Fashion Show continues to be one of Ireland’s leading fashion events and a true cultural highlight… NCAD is renowned for producing strong industry talent, with fashion alumni including Orla Kiely, Simone Rocha and Alan Taylor”.

Nurturing and showcasing the city’s changemakers

NCAD courses include the likes of product design, fashion design, graphic design, visual culture, painting, sculpture and much more.

And the art college’s annual graduate show displays work from across all of these diverse disciplines. Every year, it embraces important themes, such as sustainability, mental health, the impact of Covid-19 and the migrant crisis.

In 2021, works included a sustainable fashion collection inspired by adventures with the scouts, comic zines commenting on problems with Ireland’s sex ed curriculum and paintings of fear and hope inspired by the pandemic and nature. The exhibit runs nine days of events and is open to the general public.

It’s an exciting time to be here.

Some of the success stories to emerge from NCAD are quite unlikely. Graduate Ian McWhinnie designs and develops medical devices. Then, there’s Síofra Caherty who directs the sustainable design studio Jump the Hedges and Ailbhe Keane of Izzy Wheels who has built a global business creating wheelchair wheel covers.

“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.”

Find out more on NCAD’s website or discover more reasons to study in Dublin.

Last Updated: 14th August 2022
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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