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Helen Kilmartin is known for her luxe but low-key look, a contemporary aesthetic that costs a fortune but doesn’t scream money. It looks casually put together. It’s a talent that is 25 years in the making, one that formed when she worked with Irish designer John Hegarty in the late 1980s.

Helen Kilmartin of Minima. Photo : Luke White

He taught her about fabrics and at the same time she began travelling to trade shows most memorably the Milan Furniture Fair where she saw “beautiful things not available in Ireland”. She had just bought her first house and, unable to find furniture that she liked in Ireland, decided to bring brands such as Alessi to these shores for the first time, opening her first shop, Presents of Mind, on Dawson Street, Dublin 2.

In 1996 she opened Minima on St Stephen’s Green, where KC Peaches is now, and stocked cool contemporary names including MDF Italia, Artflex, Minotti, Flexform, Cassina, B&B Italia, Knoll and Ligne Roset. A rent review that would see her payments double was the deciding factor in her moving shop. She rented a three-storey over-basement Georgian building on Herbert Place and set up home in what would also her showroom.

It was an idea she had seen in London. She made it look aesthetically appealing and made the space work for her by renting it out for photo shoots and events. Five years ago she moved the nomadic Minima into a property on Hannover Quay, seen by some as a bold move. The country was in the depths of recession and had little appetite for furniture costing five-figure sums.

Her tenacity has kept the business open. While things have been tough she has continued to retail. A quiet spell last year made her revisit the idea of a home showroom – this time in London. “It was time to try something new, she says. What Helen is doing in London mimics her Herbert Street set-up. She rents a stucco-fronted flat in W1, between Victoria and Pimlico – prime interiors shopping territory. The period-style features may not be original but fit with the scale of the space, making her contemporary pieces sing.

A bronze floor lamp and square coffee table are key components of the sitting room. Photo: Luke White

She joins a roll call of Irish design expats who cross the channel to steal a slice of the UK capital’s vibrant interiors market that includes Helen Turkington, who set up her shop in Clampham on St John’s Hill in 2010; in 2012 Danielle Reid opened Folkore in Islington with her husband Rob Reid. Her offer is niche. “Architects here want someone who knows what ranges are available from which brands,” she says. Her less obvious design buys suit the discreetly wealthy who don’t want everyone knowing how much they paid for their furniture.

As well as a host of high-end European labels she promotes select Irish designs. In her marble-tiled hall there’s a console table by Irish duo Lyons and Kelly, interior designer Eoin Lyons and architect John Kelly. The art throughout is curated by Mark St John Ellis who runs Francis Street-based The Nag Gallery. She asked London-based Northern Ireland celebrity florist Neill Strain to do the blooms.

Minima Design: A modern day version of the bergere chair, Cassina's P22 is a discreet statement to make in the sitting room. Photo : Luke White
Minima Design: A modern day version of the bergere chair, Cassina's P22 is a discreet statement to make in a sitting room. Photo : Luke White

In the sitting room there is a rug by another Irish man, Luke Irwin, who has a shop in nearby Pimlico. Her statement chair here is a Cassini P22, a contemporary take on the bergère chair that is less obvious than an Egg chair, a classic she considers overused. The room has a low French coffee table by Hughes Chevalier and a swish bronze Promemoria floor lamp. Her TV sits on an ebony and glass console by Spanish label Darc Design and Architecture.

The diningroom is dramatic, a space you can imagine sitting around UFO table Emmemobili until the wee hours. A disco ball-style central pendant, Magdalena by Terzani, has horizontal laser cuts that throw shapes, creating a talking point pattern on the walls, painted in a colour called Brassica by Farrow and Ball. The Eve chairs are by Cassina.

The simple matte-painted kitchen units have marble countertops and a full marble splashback. They’re decorated with Kose ceramic sculptures. She’s made a feature of the curtains in the bedroom. Using widths of Baumann blackout material in tonal shades of pink and purple sewn together, when closed they create a colour-block effect. A Fortuny light hangs over one of her bestselling pieces, a Casa Milano bed. A custom-built armoire for shoes is one of many pieces of free-standing furniture she has built for clients by Irish designers; Barry Archer and Robert Hennesey of Wedge and Robert Trench are some of her favourites.

She is not a designer, she says. “I am a consultant. I put houses together. I love working with designers but I try not to make a home look too current. The end result should look timeless.”

Article featured in the Irish Times, written by Alanna Gallagher.

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