Blueprints Magazine interview with Dan Donnelly

Modernist Mentor: An Interview with Daniel Donnelly by Jamee Telford, Associate Outreach Programs Coordinator

Growing up in the Antiques industry his father an estate auctioneer and mother and interior designer , Daniel Donnelly learned at a young age how to cultivate, collect, and create quality furniture. Twenty-one years ago, he established an antique and custom furniture shop in Old Town Alexandria and has seen it grow into a fullfledged modern design studio. He produces his own line of furniture, sells classic pieces from the likes of Marcel Breuer and Charles and Ray Eames, and re-stores vintage furniture. This fall, Donnelly collaborated with the Museum’s Design Apprenticeship Program (DAP) to offer guidance and expertise to area high school students as they constructed modern furniture for donation to a local organization called the Dinner Program for Homeless Women. In the interview excerpted below, he talked about his design work and experiences with the DAP kids.

Jamee Telford: What is your design philosophy?

Daniel Donnelly: It varies, most times the solution is just a slight shift in approach or different angle of attack.Over-thinking is a trap into which we all fall into on occasion Let your materials do the work. Let the materials serve their original purpose. When envisioning a space,I start as a minimalist then layer details, work on functionality first then let the contents work themselves in . I try not to manipulate materials too much.

Telford: What do you think led to the resurgence of interest in mid-20th century furniture?

Donnelly: I think it is a generational thing. Appreciation of popular styles tend to skip a generation ,In our case this happened to coincide with a generation that produced an enormous output of inspired design . Mid century design embodies a functional approach to living spaces and is a good fit with our technology culture today . Herman Miller realized the groundswell in the early 90's and re-released its classic collection since then others have followed ,including me . You no longer have to search through antique shops or family estates to find the work of Eames, Nelson, or Noguchi.

Telford: What did you see as the DAP students’ biggest design challenge as they created furniture for the Dinner Program for Homeless Women?

Donnelly: Comfort. The students are creating seating for this organization, seating that will be used quite often. The challenge is, how can they make it comfortable and durable? How can they create seat cushions that will last a long period of time? What materials are available to do this? If they choose not to use seat cushions, how will the materials they use to construct the furniture create a comfortable design? These are the questions they have to answer.

Telford: What did you learn from your experience with the students?

Donnelly: I am extremely impressed with the quality of questions the students asked during our initial meeting. They were thinking like designers. It was so refreshing to be in conversation with them. They wanted to know everything about the space, what the constraints were, and how to solve the problem. It was apparent the students wanted to meet the needs of their clients. I would continue to encourage their problem-solving skills. A good designer is an excellent problem solver. If they continue the cultivation of the skills I have seen so far, these students will be on the right track. 

Donnelly on the shores of his beloved Potomac River, collecting driftwood and other abandoned treasures to repurpose into art pieces.

Donnelly on the shores of his beloved Potomac River, collecting driftwood and other abandoned treasures to repurpose into art pieces.