Growing up, Killian McNulty
accumulated a vast knowledge in the field of fine furniture
and antiques almost by accident, as he accompanied his father
to various antiques shops, fairs and auctions.
Realising he had inherited his
father's passion for great and classic furniture and
accessories, as well as an in-depth expertise. Killian
established an antiques and furniture business.
Digger talked to Killian about
his business and love of these classic pieces of design.
Digger: Hello Killian. Can you
please tell us about your background and how the business has
developed into what it is today?
Killian: As my father is a
collector of antiques and a big time hoarder, he had amassed a
massive collection of furniture and period pieces, which
accidentally became a prop hire business. I was drafted in at
twenty-one to run that business and I've been at it ever
Digger: There's quite a few
companies doing film and TV filming over there, aren't there?
Killian: There's a vibrant film
industry, although the government tries to kill it off every
five years or so. However, it stumbles along in one form or
another. Prop hire was my introduction to the whole furniture
side of things. As a child, I was always around antiques,
antique shops and markets.
Digger: And always interested?
Killian: Yes, my dad was always
trying to teach me. It was never an intention of mine at any
point, I kind of drifted into it. It was only about five or
six years into it that my passion for it developed. Although I
was good at it from the get go, I actually started to really
enjoy it when I was about twenty-six or twenty-seven.
Digger: Is there the equivalent
of The Antiques Roadshow over there on RTE?
Killian: We get all the BBC
shows here, including the numerous rubbish ones on daytime TV,
in which they buy something for £50 and sell it for £25. There
are no antiques-focused programmes here that have amounted to
much, most maybe lasting a couple of seasons. I don't think
that format works at all, regardless of the personalities
involved. A credible format would show somebody like me and
other genuine dealers, who have shops in which you are
knowledgably buying something at auction, to sell on to a
private buyer, not at auction to sell at a market. The latter
method is like buying at the second last rung of the ladder
and selling at the last rung of the ladder.
Digger: Yes, and getting a fair
profit as a result. I don't suppose that would make such
visual TV for them, because people wouldn't be driving around
in fancy cars and visiting different auctions and shops.
Killian: Those programmes are
not for the likes of me.
Digger: No but they do help
keep antiques in people's consciousness though.
Killian: In that way, the UK is
very different to Ireland. In my opinion, Ireland does not
share the UK’s love of antiquing, but over the last few years,
there has certainly been a change in attitude. Back when I
started, it’s possible we were not as appreciative of what we
had on our doorstep.
Digger: And without getting too
political, Killian, the Brits probably took most of the decent
stuff and brought it over here?
Killian: They certainly did,
and it worked its way into the UK antiques trade. In fairness,
as much as humanly possible was brought back in the nineties.
Prices were horrendous, but people who had made money during
the ‘boom’ had a positive attitude toward the import of Irish
furniture. Christie’s ran an Irish furniture sale a couple of
times a year, as did Sotheby’s, and the Irish buyers were
keen. There's certainly an appreciation for Irish material at
the top end of things, there just isn't a broad level of
Digger: I can remember staying
at my Nan's in Kerry for a month each year during the school
summer holidays in the sixties and seventies - the roads were
non-existent, people often lived in tin-roofed houses and went
around on donkey and traps. And then, almost overnight,
Ireland had modern N roads and everyone was driving around in
Mercedes and BMWs.
Killian: Absolutely. We're
paying for it now. It was totally mismanaged, but it is what
it is. There's nothing we can do about it now. We were sold a
Digger: Tell us about your
range and about your stock Killian.
Killian: I don't have a set
plan. I tend to buy what I like, pieces that I believe are
well-designed, well-made, good-looking and will make an
enormous difference to where they're put, eventually. So, I
look at what the estimates are. Is it good value for money?
Can I bring it over here at a certain price, sell it and make
money? One has to look at something and get a feeling - the
way that I look at things is not that they're priceless, but
that a premium can be set on them because they're very
different, very nice-looking and made in a particular way. You
can come to a price that you think you can operate within. In
a split-second, I come to a decision about that. Am I drawn to
the piece and am I prepared to fight for it and if so, how far
will I go?
Digger: And you have that
instinct and experience to draw on. So most times you're
right, are you?
Killian: I believe so. Over the
course of hundreds of pieces, I've made very few mistakes. I
made most of my mistakes early on, but most were made with the
prop company and mistakes are easily remedied in that arena.
If something looks right, it can be nailed together, or
stapled together - as long as it stands for the shot, then
it's fine. Yet, if you put something into somebody's house
that is often already filled with high quality items, it has
to be of an exceptional standard.
Digger: There are obviously
enough clients understanding your vision and buying into your
philosophy as it were?
Killian: Yes, I think that's
what it is and I get very, very positive feedback from people.
Every now and again, even people who've got no interest in
buying send me well-meaning emails or leave an encouraging
comment on Facebook. Recognition like that keeps you pointed
in the right direction.
Digger: It's nice to get paid
but it's also nice to get praise. It goes a long way when
someone gives you a good piece of feedback, doesn't it?
Killian: Yes, absolutely. I
would consider myself an extremely modest person and I
wouldn't, in any way, talk myself up about anything I do. I
feel I have natural instincts for what I'm doing and from the
time I was a child, I was handling Georgian furniture and
absorbing information without really knowing it. I walked into
an antiques shop one time as a young guy of eighteen or
nineteen, and an antique dealer pulled out an item and said to
me, "I bet you don't know what that is." I replied, "It's a
such-and-such." He said, "Okay, and what's this?" Again, I
replied, "That's a so-and-so." Then, he went to his main
attraction piece and I knew what that was, as well. He was
Killian: It was, but half of
the things he pulled out, my father actually owned multiples
of each, because he really is a complete hoarder.
Digger: Why didn't this guy
then offer you a job?
Killian: I was there on behalf
of my dad. He knew who I was and I was there to do something
for my father. He would have known me since I was a child. At
the same time, he didn't really know what was going on in my
Digger: That would make a good
TV or film moment, wouldn't it?
Killian: Definitely. I remember
another time. I was in an antiques shop with my dad. Again, a
teenager at the time. My dad picked up what's known as a
'cruisy light', a little oil burning lamp that looks kind of
like the end of a set of scales. He turned around to the owner
and said, "What's this?" I looked at him and said, "A cruisy
lamp." My father said to the man, "What is it?" and the man
said, "It's the end to a set of scales. It's a tenner." My dad
said, "Grand, I'll have that." As we walked out of the shop,
he said to me, "Killian, NEVER tell them anything." (Digger
laughs) I learned early on to ask them and see what they think
it is and if they've made a mistake and haven't done their
homework... Dad always said to me, "Knowledge is the key." He
always had a library that would be the envy of quite a lot of
dealers and I would be amassing a library of stuff on my end
about the vintage furniture side of things.
Digger: And the library in your
head as well.
Digger: That experience and
knowledge and instinct is your biggest resource, apart from
your customers, of course.
Killian: You beat them on
knowledge. That's where you win. At an auction, you beat them
Digger: Why is vintage and
nostalgia generally so popular with just about everyone now
Killian: I don't really know
exactly and I haven't over-pondered it. All I can say is that
on a personal level, I'm not drawn to any new items, in
particular, when it comes to furnishing a house. They don't
hold any interest for me. With new items, at that point when
I’m looking at its price, I already know that I can get
something of much higher quality, a much more interesting
looking piece, from the vintage side of furniture selling. So,
I think it's just much better value for money, in terms of
quality. In a sense, I just don't get the same emotional
reaction whatsoever to new things, as I do to vintage
furniture and antiques.
Digger: It's a bit like what I
say to people in the vintage clothing business. Vintage
clothing is affordable, it's usually pretty much unique, it's
very well made and it's environmentally-friendly. Why would
somebody buy new?
Killian: Exactly. My father
said to me when I was a kid that the only item in your house
that you should lose money on is your bed. Everything else
could be, and should be, in some shape or form, something you
buy that retains a value that you can then trade on and trade
up, at some stage in the future, if you decide to do that. In
fairness, my wife and I do have certain pieces in the house
that either she has designed and made, along with a few little
contemporary bits and pieces. However, all the nicer pieces
come through my site, mid-centuryonline.
Digger: I can see you having a
Georgian house. Would that be true?
Killian: We did have. We had a
three-storey Georgian town house with Regency furniture,
Georgian, Victorian and some vintage stuff, and it really
looked amazing, but it wasn’t in the greatest part of the
city. When our children reached school-going age, we then
moved into a very typical, 1930s terraced house out in the
suburbs of Dublin.
Digger: My sister first moved
to Dublin before settling in Cork and someone stole a grocery
delivery from her doorstep. She mentioned it to her new
neighbours and within 24 hours the items were all returned
intact and they told her the culprit had been 'dealt with!'
Killian: Yes, if you'd stolen
milk off a doorstep you'd probably be treated harsher than
running up a 15 billion debt with the bank. (Digger laughs)
Digger: Who are your 'typical'
Killian: Based on the people
I've met and whose houses I've visited, it's hard to pin down
a ‘type’. Generally, my customers are affluent couples in
their mid-thirties right through to their seventies. Sometimes
even older. Yet, it can depend - people in their sixties and
seventies tend to chase very specific types of things, maybe
something that they held an interest in when they were
younger. Quite often it can be quite a high-end piece, like a
coffee table or an expensive pair of chairs. With people
starting out, furnishing their homes, they want quite specific
pieces. They will be quite a bit younger and they might be
looking at things from the point of view of the material. I
had a woman whose house I went to and the most important thing
to her was that it was made of brass or had brass in it. They
approach me because I advertise through various selling
platforms, various publications and I have my website set-up
well for SEO and a broad range of keywords to draw people into
Digger: And you've got your
reputation and I suppose referrals from happy customers as
Killian: That's really coming
together this year. My first year was spent trying to figure
out what level the furniture needed to be at to be sold, how
to photograph it, how to describe it. There was a lot of
stumbling around in the dark in year one. Year two, I refined
things a bit more, things improved and I sold a good amount of
items. I re-designed the website last March/April and then
re-launched it in May. It started to go very well for me then,
actually. Previous customers came back saying, "By the way, I
now need x, y and z." So, it's all building up. In the last
year, we've taken big strides towards knowing how it’s all
done. It's a very different game from what we do with the
props. That is a hire business. Essentially, I could do that
in my sleep and I could hire sand to the Arabs. There’s no
emotional attachment there, but when you're selling it to a
person, and especially when you're at my point in selling it,
I want the person to love it and I don't want them to be
disappointed, especially when selling online. When I
eventually get the piece(s) into their house, they're really
excited and you get an amazing email from them a week or two
later telling you, "Thank you very much, I really love it and
I'll be back in touch." Still, every time I turn up at a
customer’s house, I get stage fright and I'm not certain how
it will go.
Digger: And 99.9% of the time
it does go well I'm sure Killian?
Killian: I've only ever taken
one thing back and that was because the person clearly didn't
understand the concept that brass was a gold colour. They
bought something that had brass in it and they returned it,
because they didn't realise it would be gold. Unbelievable.
There's no explanation required and I take things back because
there's a two week cooling-off period. It’s no questions
asked, regarding returns.
Digger: People make mistakes.
Killian: They do. C'est la vie.
I could understand something being the wrong size and so on,
but couldn't really understand someone not realising that
brass was gold-coloured. That's fairly obvious.
Digger: You're doing very well.
There's all this doom and gloom, but you're running a business
that's going from strength to strength. Imagine how it would
be doing if the Celtic Tiger climate was back?
Killian: Yes. God, I wish I'd
seen what it was like back then. The past year has been great
for us, yet all I hear on the news is that we're going
through another recession, the Euro is gone, blah blah blah.
You’d almost think people are just going to put their cheque
books away and batten down the hatches. In fairness, some of
the people I've met over the course of my dealings, based on
what I can see of their circumstances and where they live, I
can only imagine that what they spend with me is a drop in the
ocean. I went to France and walked around the flea markets in
Paris and prices were just gob-smackingly high and I was
thinking, "My God, how do they get away with that?" There was
a set of chairs there which I had sold for €3,000 and they had
an €8,500 price tag on them. I got back and was thinking about
it when I saw a website displaying Parisian property, and it
was going for 5 million, 10 million, 15 million, 20 million… I
just thought, "Loose change." €8,500 is obviously nothing in
the grand scheme of things, if you've just shelled out 20
Digger: They could go to your
website and get them shipped over a whole lot cheaper but it
probably wouldn't occur to them.
Killian: Yes, different people
work on different levels. Some will do anything to save a few
quid and some will do anything to save bother or
inconvenience. I do my best to try and create a good
relationship with clients and cover all bases for them. I have
had several examples where people wanted very specific
delivery or collection criteria and I have gone out of my way
to accommodate, more so than most would. The clients really
appreciate flexibility and I think I will get more business
from them, as a result.
Digger: It is a challenge
selling to people remotely and you have to cover all the
angles and try and anticipate what might crop up, don't you?
What are the best aspects of what you're doing at Mid-Century
Killian: Top of the list has to
be the ability to buy things - buying things that you've
always wanted to see and being able to see. If I ever take a
stand at a show, people say, "Can I sit in it?" or can they do
such-and-such with the various items on sale. I always say,
"Absolutely, you have to, you should do." If you've never sat
in an Eames lounger, which many people wish to own, the first
opportunity you have to do so, try and do it.
Digger: It's funny that we show
a reverence like that and are very hesitant to sit on things
or try them out.
Killian: You're not going to
spend €5,000 on a chair that you've never sat in and that you
don't know for certain is going to suit you. If you see one
then you need to put your bum in it. There is stuff out there,
some of which sells for quite high prices, that could really
put you in hospital, if bought... Some early stuff from the
1920s and 1930s, that is highly-prized and can sell for many
tens, if not hundreds of thousands, could cripple you, as
sometimes they’re not the most practical pieces of furniture.
It doesn't take away from their beauty. I'm a firm believer in
trying, touching, sitting, feeling, getting to know the actual
items. From my point of view, the best aspect is that I get to
do that with things. I bought a pair of cabinets recently and
the idea behind buying them was that I always knew they would
be good quality and always felt that they would be beautiful.
They arrived and they were just way better than anything I
ever could have imagined. Now, I know that every time I see
those, I can buy them and sell them, if they come in at the
Digger: It's great.
Killian: It is.
Digger: I suppose the other
thing must be dealing with the public and it must give you a
warm feeling inside when you do see that you've done the right
thing and get that feedback.
Killian: Most people who do
contact me, about 99% of them, have been fantastic to talk to,
very receptive, easy going, clever and interesting. It's
at the shows that you sometimes can meet people whose agenda
is to upset you, unfortunately! They're not interested in what
you’re selling, but they come up to you feeling the need to
comment in a negative manner. If you meet 200 people on a day,
there's going to be two or three that just want to upset you
by saying something. I had a woman who walked onto my stand
one time and she had her hands by her side and kicked a piece
of furniture and said to me, "Is this that Celtic Tiger crap?"
She meant ‘overpriced rubbish’.
Digger: Some people know the
price of everything and the value of nothing.
Killian: Exactly. I've had that
argument with people a few times. You don't have to convince
the people who like and really understand what you're doing.
Generally, it’s when you meet people out and about, you only
get chilly comments from people who were never going to be a
customer of yours in the first place. Throughout this process,
I do have an emotional attachment to what I'm doing - some
dealers will only talk about the price and margins and what
they can make on an item or sell it for. "I can sell hundreds
of those," they say. That doesn't interest me in the
slightest. I plough my own furrow and do what I enjoy and what
I am passionate about.
Digger: Good for you Killian.
Long may your success and enjoyment continue.
My name is Killian and I own
and operate mid-centuryonline.com. I am the son of an antiques
collector who instilled in me a passion for design and in
particular the proportions and balance of good furniture. I am
passionate about 20th century furniture and I stock only
quality Art Deco and Mid-century items that I feel are well
designed and well made, pieces that will stand the test of
time and remain saleable and collectible forever.
I buy only pieces that I feel
will make a huge difference to the room they are placed in,
pieces that will make you happy every time you see them and
ones other people will notice the second they walk into your