Stephen Walton

Architectural Designer

Steve Walton – Architectural Designer.

Stephen has designed the interiors of McCambridge's, Kai Café and Restaurant, and most recently, Coffeewerk + Press

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Can you tell us a bit about how you've gotten to where you are today?

I moved to Galway when I was eight from America; my parents are from Dublin. I went to school in the Jes, so I've been in Galway most of my life. I did Industrial Design in college originally and from there I fell into lots of different things really. I've worked at probably every job you can work at. I was working in Concord for years; I started off driving actors around, then I was Set Decorator, then Art Director by the end of it. Before that I had been a painter, I was on the dole for years, then I worked for a developer doing all their in-house architecture. When the recession hit, I found myself on the dole, again, which wasn't where I thought I'd end up. Queuing up there the same time I was turning 40 was very hard. But it was fantastic in a way. It forced me into my own business; it's probably something I wouldn't have done otherwise. I think with the recession as well, it's changed lots of people's perceptions of what's important in their lives. It's a bit of a cliché, but people lost the run of themselves and I think it's brought back some values that were lost in that craziness.

How did you get involved in interior spaces for restaurants and cafés?

At the time I had lost my job and I was looking for anything to make money. Somebody asked me if I'd design a restaurant and so I did. That's all you have to do is one. And people liked what I did. It's funny, when I think back to when I was younger, I was always decorating the space where I was living - my bedroom or my apartment. I was always really conscientious of the lighting and things like that, going back to even when I was really young. I decorated my bedroom, painted graffiti all over the walls.

Cactus Jacks, Galway
Cactus Jacks Galway
Cactus Jacks, Galway

"It's really strange; you're so involved with somebody and then all of a sudden it's theirs and not yours anymore. And it's taken me time to get used to it."

How would you describe yourself?

I'm creative, but that doesn't define me as a person. I think I'm pretty rounded; I have lots of interests. I like nature, good food, philosophy. I'm very interested in environmental issues and I'm very curious about people and what makes us tick. I can be quite shy and reserved and this sometimes holds me back a bit from what I really want, but I'm a work in progress. I suppose I'm a man in the pursuit of happiness and in pursuit of understanding what this even means.

How does art/culture influence your daily life?

I suppose when we talk about culture, we're talking about a particular type of culture, because obviously you have all sorts of culture; you have Traveller culture, you have GAA culture, you have Mervue culture, you have Irish drinking culture - you have all these different cultures that make up our experience of life. So we're talking about a very particular type of culture which is creative artistic culture. I think we couldn't get away from creative artistic culture if we tried; it's always part of our lives. What you're wearing is art, your fashion sense is art, the music you listen to is art, so it's always a part of our lives.

Do you find you have to make sacrifices for your work/creativity?

It doesn't dominate my life. That's my job; it's what I do. But I'm interested in a lot of other things as well. It's not like I live and breathe this. I play some guitar; I'd like to work on that more. I keep meaning to do painting and art. I'd like to do sculptural work. I'd love to do some theatre, street performance pieces. I love to get out in nature; I'm happiest on a beach or in the water. I love to get out camping or climbing a mountain. I've kite surfed for years and I paraglide, mountain bike - you name it. But after a couple of injuries recently, I'm realising as I'm getting a bit older that I don't bounce back as well as I used to. I recently decided to focus on normal surfing, thinking it was a safer option; then last month I ended up with six stitches in my head from a surf-board fin, so maybe that plan isn't working out as I hoped...

The Salt Yard, Kilkenny
The Salt Yard, Kilkenny

What drives you?

There's a two-part answer to that question - there's my work and my personal life. What drives me personally? I'm very interested in meditation and yoga and philosophy and stuff like that. I've been meditating every day for three years and it's made a big difference to my life. I'm very interested in personal development and those kind of questions, as in, what's this all about? I don't know - it's self-discovery, what the world is all about. It's self-exploration, but that sounds a bit wanky.

For my work, what drives me is the motivation to do the very best I can for my clients. There's that responsibility that they're trusting you with their home or business. You get to know each other so well - they're telling you about their fears, all about their business, so it's really a joint process. I am also motivated by giving something to Galway through the restaurants, shops and public spaces I design. With McCambridges, that was really in my mind, that I was creating a space for people to enjoy. It's so important; the city centre is the soul of Galway and if I can do anything to improve that, to make it a better experience for people, then great. One of the best things that was said about McCambridges was that it wasn't like Galway; it was more like New York. I thought that was fantastic, that we've provided a place like that that has stretched people's minds a bit, or makes them see things in a slightly different way.

Do you work on instinct or do you think things through?

I think things through a lot. I try to rely on my gut instinct as much as possible, but I think my default is more to plan and to try and cover all bases. It's a very form follows function kind of an approach I have to things. So obviously, the function is to satisfy all the things I was talking about before, then the form naturally takes its shape itself. I do an awful lot of research from the internet for every job, but then instinct is the choices I make, the decisions I make as the design develops - so it's a combination of both.

"I try to rely on my gut instinct as much as possible, but I think my default is more to plan and to try and cover all bases"

McCambridges, Galway
McCambridges, Shop Street, Galway
McCambridges, Galway

Do you find you get obsessive with your jobs because of that perfectionism?

Probably, it's something I'd like to let go of a bit. As I get older, I'm starting to let go because you'll never be happy with everything in a job. Unless you're trying something new and you're making some mistakes, you're not learning anything, so inevitably you have to be unhappy with some things if you're going to try anything.

What project are you most proud of?

I'd say it's upstairs at McCambridges. It really was a labour of love for all involved. I really respected the McCambridge family for putting their trust in me to create that space for them. That family business just celebrated 90 years on Shop Street, so they really are part of the fabric of the city and to get the opportunity to be a part of that and to build something with them that will help carry the business into the future was exciting for me as a Galwegian. Having said that, I also really love Coffeewerk + Press that we just completed on Quay Street. I worked really closely with Daniel Ulrichs, the owner. He has a really great eye and the design really evolved from our ability to work together creatively. It's a really clean and simple space with an honest use of good materials and again, I think it's a great addition to the streets of Galway.

McCambridges, Galway
McCambridges, Shop Street, Galway
McCambridges, Galway
McCambridges, Galway

You've achieved quite a lot in the past few years.

I suppose I have. It's very visual anyway; people can see what I've achieved. I still feel the business is really building and I don't feel I've reached a place where I'm happy with the business as such. That's kind of a back-end thing and that's as much to do with the running of the business and how you juggle the amount of clients. I have so much work on and so many clients, but I do see it moving forward all the time.

How does it feel when you see your plan as an end product?

It's really strange; you're so involved with somebody and then all of a sudden it's theirs and not yours anymore. And it's taken me time to get used to it. It's like giving someone the baby and then walking away. Sometimes I want to help still and say; ‘You should improve your coffee' and I've done it a few times and it's just like a cardinal sin now. You just keep your mouth shut when you're finished. You're only paid to create it and you're not involved any more and that's so strange because you're so immersed in it for a while.

Kai, Galway
Kai, Galway
Kai Café and Restaurant, Galway

I guess you have a vision for the place and that includes the food they're serving, the type of people that work there and you design with that in mind.

Yeah, that's all part of it and if they don't seem to be coming up to scratch on some areas, you're kind of going: ‘That's letting down the whole thing - why are you doing that?'. But it's their thing then; it's up to them. I'm actually not comfortable to go into a place and eat or drink for quite a while after; it's like two or three months before I'll go in and go, ‘Sure this is alright, this is kind of nice actually'. But in the beginning, I just feel too self-conscious. I like going into all the places now. It's just a matter of time - it's just that whole thing of handing it over to someone else and there's always things I'm not happy with. I don't think you'll ever do a job where you're completely happy with everything.

Coffeewerk + Press, Galway
Coffeewerk + Press, Galway
Coffeewerk + Press, Galway
Coffeewerk + Press, Galway

Is that just a part of being creative?

Possibly, you're never really happy, because then you wouldn't be a creative person because you're always building on what you've done before. You wouldn't have a drive to create the next thing better in a way if you were happy with that. With the restaurants, it's really nice because it's a pretty short period between starting and finishing the work and then you can see the finished product within a few weeks.

Any exciting projects in the pipeline?

There's a really interesting project coming called ‘Porter Shed' - it's a collaborative, innovative space close to Eyre Square for the web /tech industry. The idea is that it'll be the first building of many in a new innovation district based in the city centre. There are some great people behind it - Michael FitzGerald from One Page CRM, Paul Killoran of Ex Ordo, Maurice O'Gorman, Galway Chamber Of Commerce, Dave Cunningham from Startx6 and John Breslin from NUI Galway.

The core idea is that a couple of existing successful companies will locate themselves in the building and they'll share it with small start-up businesses and a number of medium-size businesses. The idea is that we'll create a space where collaboration and a sense of community can develop. Small start-ups will learn from the established companies and the established companies will benefit from the enthusiasm and innovative energy of the start-ups. The challenge for me will really be about creating an open space where these interactions can flourish, yet the companies still hold onto a sense of their own identities. The idea is that rather than being sited in a remote business park, the central location will also help to harness the creativity energy of the city. It will be a challenge, but that's what I like.

"From my point of view, there are other issues that are more important or as important such as the environment and Galway becoming a self-sustaining city from a food and energy point of view"

Who/what's your greatest influence.

I can't say I can put it down to any particular person or thing. My biggest influence is life - the problems it throws at you and how you learn to cope or solve those. That's the main thing - it's just life, it's just the way it rolls along.

Your favourite cultural city or place in the world

I like Eastern culture. I like India - I like the diversity of culture. I also love the craziness of it. The horrible smells, then the amazing colours. The beautiful mixed with the dirty; it's just such a mad mix of everything. It's so full of life. There's something about those Asian cultures that's so inspiring.

Steve Profile

How important is culture to Galway City?

It's creative culture and it inspires people when they see people being creative, it inspires other people to be creative as well. It's so important. If you could take it away somehow, what would you end up with?

What's your vision for Galway as a cultural utopia?

From my point of view, there are other issues that are more important or as important such as the environment and Galway becoming a self-sustaining city from a food and energy point of view. There's people like Seamus Sheridan and particular restaurants who are really getting behind the idea of locally-sourced and sustainable food production, but I think with regards to the problems of climate change and all those things that are coming down the track, we need to do more. I think the culture is healthy enough; it's always been a big part of Galway life. But hopefully more people get involved and younger people get involved and the more creative culture we see on the street, the better.

This interview was originally published on A Tribal Vision - read the original interview at All text is copyright A Tribal Vision. Images are copyright of their original owners.

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