Amanda Sawyer pictured at Irish Girl in Brooklyn. After years in the Big Apple, she has returned to her hometown to set up her own interior design business. Her passions are antiques, mid-century furniture and lighting and she is a keen proponent of the “reduce, re-use, recycle” philosophy. Picture: Ken Coleman
Irish Girl in Brooklyn returns to Limerick roots
Words by Moya Ni Cheallaigh
When I arrived in Amanda’s Hilton Sawyer’s beautiful Thomas Street emporium, I was enthusiastically greeted by Bootsie the Tibetan terrier. I also met Amanda, her husband David, and her sister Siobhan… all are partners in Amanda’s exciting new interior design business www.irishgirlinbrooklyn.com. The Irish girl has come home, drawing on a lifetime of experience to run this new lifestyle brand specialising in homeware, interiors, and floral design. Bootsie comes to work every day too!
Over the next 3 hours, we chat about American politics, the arts scene in Limerick, the recent Limerick Jazz Festival and dogs. Lots about dogs. (Amanda also has a blind and deaf rescue Cocker Spaniel). However, eventually we got around to why I was really here; to find out more about Amanda herself and her new venture in Limerick.
Moving to New York City
Ever since she was a little girl, Amanda Hilton Sawyer always wanted to travel.
“I would probably be travelling still if I hadn’t met my husband” she laughs. “Limerick in the 1980’s was a dismal place. I couldn’t wait to leave, so at the age of 20 off I went to New York with just £70 in my pocket.”
Coming back now after 30 years away, the former real estate agent, can’t understand why everybody asks her if she is mad! She sees Limerick as a vibrant place, with so much going on and a real sense of direction. This is a Limerick Amanda wants to live in. It’s a small city with a big city attitude and she wishes that more of the locals could see this too. It took about 5 years to persuade her husband David, originally from Texas, to move here, but they really enjoy living in this small city. For Amanda, being back with her family is a huge plus and so far they have no regrets. After 25 years they were done with the overstimulation of New York.
“Outside of NY you could go to a city in the US the size of Limerick and it would have nothing but a mall, there‘d barely be a library, there wouldn’t even be a bookstore! People just don’t realise how much culture they have here. It would be so hard to find a place that would be as nice as this to live in in the US, but people I meet are like ‘why are you here?’”
I ask if maybe it has something to do with the weather and a hilarious story ensues about how her husband David has been so fooled by the Irish weather this summer that he went to Fitzgerald’s to ask them about getting air conditioning units to put into the house they are renovating on the Ennis Road. Failing unsurprisingly, to procure such an item in Fitzgerald’s, he asked their building contractor next, as temperatures hit ninety. The builder just said, “Nah we never get that kind of weather here”.
Amanda reckons that David still thinks we are all having him on!
Early days in America
“I was really so green when I went to New York. I was only a kid and at this point I didn’t have the Morrison Visa yet, so I was working off the books for a couple of hundred bucks a week. I was a “Girl Friday” as they call it over there. I used to run errands all day, doing anything that needed to be done. I was working for this guy called La Monte Young who used to be around New York in the 60s with John Cale of the Velvet Underground, Yoko Ono and people like that. He was in that whole art world! Anyway one night he and his wife were going to a party and they said ‘Hey Amanda do you want to come?’ That night I was introduced to Robert Rauschenburg and Andy Warhol! Of course, I didn’t have a clue how famous these artists were. Isn’t that funny? I was also in Chuck Close’s apartment …that was the kind of stuff that you would see. When you are young you just wander around…you don’t realise what you are witnessing. It was just amazing.”
Unsurprisingly, all this exposure opened Amanda’s eyes to a whole other world and gave her some ideas about the direction she would take when the opportunity arose….which it did eventually.
Marriage and Real Estate
Amanda was lucky because, before long, she got a Morrison Visa. She had also met her future husband David by this stage. Shortly after they got married, with his backing, she decided to have a go at selling real estate. It takes at least 6 months to get going and the only pay is through commission on sales. It was a real trial by fire, but she became very good at it and feels that her honest no bull approach was appreciated by her clients – certainly a little different to the hard sell employed by most real estate agents!
So how did she go from real estate into interiors I ask? Did she go to college to study interior design? “Not at all” she tells me, showing some of that refreshing honesty.
“I have no formal education, but selling real estate in Manhattan, opened up lots of doors. I learned to stand up for myself and put my big girl panties on! I was selling lofts in Soho, Tribeca, just as these areas were becoming much sought after. As time went on, I was working with a very wealthy demographic and seeing what interior designers could do. I really wanted to understand more about that. Dave and I used to go to flea markets and design shows for fun and we would buy stuff…beautiful things, just because we liked them or because they had an interesting story. Dave worked in financial services and enjoyed the distraction. I was still selling real estate but learning more about interiors on the job. I was making a lot of money and started travelling and picking up interesting pieces any chance I got. However, I never did get to study interior design because real estate was so lucrative…I became a prisoner of sorts as a result. As the years went by, I started to get very tired of it and really wanted a change. That’s why after much deliberation, we eventually came home to Limerick.
We didn’t have children of our own and I missed my family. I guess Irish people really love their families! We had very close friends there, but it isn’t the same. It’s interesting; in Ireland, people will want to know who exactly you are, and they want to find a connection so that they can place you with people they know. In New York, nobody would do that, but they will ask you straight out how much money you make! “
Despite her wish to return to a simpler, more meaningful life back home, Amanda credits the US with giving her a great career. She feels that while Americans look at what you can do, here there is a lot of what you can’t do. She knows she is seen as a bit unusual starting off in a new career at this stage of her life but she doesn’t even contemplate that she might not be successful. “That’s the gift that being in the States for so long gives you!”
So what exactly does Irish Girl in Brooklyn offer?
“A lot of what we will be selling here are mid-century pieces I’ve collected and some new pieces too. I feel like Irish people need to be encouraged to mix and match and incorporate beautiful things into their homes, rather than being hung up on decorating a house according to the period it’s from. I love collecting beautiful and interesting things and if somebody is decorating their home, I can provide that piece with a difference that they just wouldn’t find somewhere else…whether it is a piece of furniture, a mirror, or a piece of art.”
Amanda is especially interested in one of a kind pieces, be they handmade or something that has history. As well as providing or procuring signature pieces for her clients both directly or through their interior designers, Amanda would also be interested in taking on the bigger role of designing any room in a house, or the entire interior. Her top to bottom refurbishment of their own period house on the Ennis road, which they bought without seeing it in person, is giving her plenty of experience, in an Irish context.
What about the ordinary person who doesn’t have a big budget?
“The thing about this business is there are so many things you can pick to be a special piece in a room. It could be a cowhide rug, a reproduction of an old print, a beautiful silk velvet cushion from Turkey, a Stilnovo light fitting or a handmade vase.”
Her showroom (for want of a better word), is not a gallery or a furniture store but rather a hybrid of both. There is art and furniture and antiques, but it is more like a comfy sitting room full of beautiful things ….right down to the dog!
As for having her showroom in Limerick, well why not, asks Amanda. She didn’t move from New York only to be in Dublin where she would be one of several other people with similar businesses trying to negotiate another stressful city. At least in Limerick what she does is fairly unique and besides, a lot of her sales will be conducted online anyway. Her market will be from a wider audience; many Irish dealers cater to the London market for example, though Amanda also hopes to liaise with local interior designers and indeed craftspeople and artists. She finds Limerick City really visually attractive and is delighted when clients coming to visit are surprised by the beauty of our city.
Does she see herself being as successful in Ireland as she was in NYC?
“My Dad was a fireman and my mother stayed at home. I didn’t come from money and I had no formal education, but still managed to do well in the US.” She believes she can be successful here too.
Hers is a very American story she realises, because in Ireland so much is predicated on who you know. She had no choice but to be successful in America, but this constant striving for success eventually becomes tiring. Amanda admits that part of her enormous drive was because sadly, she and David were unable to have children. They were devastated when they found out and it was a really tough time.
“I remember waking up one morning and deciding I was going to put my heart and soul into my job to make it worthwhile being away from my family. Because I have done this already, I don’t have it in my head that I can fail. My mother asked me what I would do if things didn’t take off and I told her If I find out that I can’t make a living from selling this table for that amount of money, well I will just figure it out and sell something else! Irish people are so successful all over the world…there is no reason why we can’t be successful here at home, especially with connections and markets that are global rather than merely local.”
Both The Irish Times and The Gloss Magazine have already noticed our Limerick girl, so I thought should I look the part when going to interview her, even “borrowing” my 13 year old’s handbag in an effort to be coordinated! I need not have worried; Amanda was just back in from the gym!
I came away the better from having met such a positive and genuinely inspiring person and would feel totally comfortable calling her to find something nice for a room, or for a wedding present. From those gorgeous handmade Turkish cushions to retro chairs and light fittings, even if I might not have a large amount to spend, there is truly something beautiful for everyone in Amanda’s collection. All items are available to view on her website www.irishgirlinbrooklyn.com/collections and are clearly priced. Now all that has to be done is persuade David to start playing his tenor sax/bass clarinet again…in a city like Limerick he will soon be in demand. The future looks rosy!