Urbane designer who worked with Youghal Carpets
Cormac Mehegan: June 24th, 1924 – May 29th, 2015
Cormac Mehegan, who has died aged 90, was chief designer in Youghal Carpets between 1959 and 1974. When he started, Youghal was a young company.
Brian O’Brien, a solicitor whose family had been woollen manufacturers in Cork for generations, was its founder. The O’Briens’ summer house was in Youghal, where Cormac Mehegan had been teaching arts and crafts since 1950.
Mehegan began designing carpets on a part-time basis in 1956. He had been enjoying making stained glass windows, which the long-established Watson firm in Youghal kindly fired.
In numerous Irish and English homes at the time lino on the floors was being replaced by wall-to-wall carpeting. In this postwar age of consumption, Cormac’s designs soon helped Youghal Carpets gain a large market share at home and abroad.
Noting a market preference for greys, he was able to adapt his love of Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist painting to design carpets in a series of greys with a lively splash of blood-red spots. Edgy designs with sunbursts in orange suited the optimism associated with the era and similarly reflected Mehegan’s passion for American painting.
He was stimulated by his increasing role in marketing and in devising advertising strategies. Work at trade fairs facilitated visits to the great European and American art galleries. His capacity to see trends and quickly produce suitable designs was legendary. He reckoned that 80 per cent of the company’s manufacturing was from about two out of 12 of the designs in every carpet book.
When Design in Ireland was published in 1962 Mehegan voiced his reservations about the concept of design which seemed to be advocated by its Scandinavian authors.
He believed they saw design as a hybrid between peasant craft and a kind of Bauhaus modernism. With his experience of commercially successful design, Mehegan did not rate the market potential of such an approach. He was himself an avowed modernist, seeing modernism as a byproduct of industrial cultures, filtered into Ireland. In his succinct analytic way, he loved to show how we Irish understood the principles of modernism but often “overcooked them”.
An urbane and witty man, his achievements and his engagement in such debates led to his appointment to the boards of Kilkenny Design Workshops and the National College of Art and Design. When art students seeking change in the early 1970s picketed the Youghal Carpets showrooms on Trinity Street, Mehegan resigned from the board.
He was proud of the high quality of the carpets, made from 100 per cent wool purchased on the world market, not to mention the employment provided here and abroad.
Mehegan taught with the Vocational Educational Committee in the 1950s, in the job that painter Katherine Higgins (née Turnbull) successfully applied for when her artist husband, Joseph Higgins, died in 1925.
Mehegan met his future wife, Peig Keating, in Youghal when they both began teaching there. She had a first class honours degree from University College Cork, where Professors Hogan and Corkery taught her. The couple shared an abiding interest in reading and in the Irish language.
Mehegan had attended the Crawford Municipal School of Art from the age of 13 and was a multiple prizewinner. A superb draughtsman, he committed himself more fully to painting when he left Youghal Carpets. An exhibited painter, he was experimental, loving on the one hand to paint his family in landscape settings and on the other to grapple with the challenges of abstraction.
The Mehegans reared their children, Louisa, Angela, Eugene, Catherine and John, in a charming home in Youghal. Cormac Mehegan, an only child, designed the headstone for his mother, Louisa (née Forde) and he and Peig, who predeceased him by a year, are buried under it.
Their children, 12 grandchildren, sons-in-law and daughter-in-law survive them.