Deagan McDonald launched Origins back in 2016 with his partner, Kelsey Nilsen, when they both were still students. They bring an unusual pairing to their line of furnishings and sculpture: high-tech software modelling paired with old-world, hand-finishing techniques. While Nilsen now practices as a full-time architect, McDonald has carried on with the thoughtful experimentation that is Origins. We’ve been a long-time supporter of his work at Provide, and with our new Provide Design Gallery, we’ve also launched a new partnership with him: the Provide x Origins Profile coffee table.
We caught up with Deagan McDonald to chat more about his unusual approach to technology and design.
What was your day like today?
Today was a mix of everything, as most days tend to be for me. I’m kind of operating as a one-man operation right now. There’s always a mix of the administrative side of things, coordinating shipping and suppliers, that kind of thing.
But right now, I’m really excited that we’re doing one of our Tempo shelving units, which was actually the first project that we ever did as Origins, back in 2016. It’s a customized length of it, and it’ll be shipping down to the States. It’s just always a little bit nostalgic to be doing the very first piece, and doing it over again. The whole process evolves each time, and we get better and better at it, and a little bit more refined as we go.
That’s a great segue into your origin story. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how this all started?
Kelsey and I started the company together. It was right at the moment where we were both in the same year of our master’s in architecture at U of T, and in that final semester, we were taking a course that was geared towards being a business and architecture professional—thinking about ways to operate differently in the industry, to be a little bit disruptive. We wanted to apply the architectural way of thinking and software and technology that we were using in school, but to take a different approach to furniture and product design. So we started Origins in that course work. That Temple piece that I mentioned was one of the first competition entries that we did, for IIDEX in Toronto.
Can you expand on that concept of applying architectural studies to your designs?
I think it’s just the mindset that is taught a lot in education, the whole idea of working through iterative design. And certainly, the software that we’re using in terms of 3-D modeling and drafting, and the machining and the technology that we’re using to produce the designs. That was something that we were exposed to through architecture school, through that way of thinking. And the machinery that we’re using, the CNC technology—it’s not uncommon in furniture making, but you’ll find it a lot more in millwork shops where they’re using it for the speed and the efficiency, and the repeatability, but mostly just to create cut boxes or to replace the job that someone was doing by hand.
Can you describe how technology and architecture come together in one of your pieces?
The Swell piece is a good one to describe it. We’ve got one on the wall at Provide right now. It’s a large circular disk, and it starts with creating a digital model of that surface, creating sort of a parametric script or algorithm that is used to create that surface. You can think of it like writing a recipe—like when you’re building a recipe for a pasta or the sauce. You know that you’re going to start with tomato and onion, and all of your spices—those are the parameters. There are a million different ways you can cook the tomato, or the onion, to end up with a different result. So this computer algorithm is taking similar parameters, where you can adjust the intensity of the wave surface, the directionality that the piece might have with the angle of the waves, and adjust each of those parameters to create a unique piece each time—or to create a piece that responds to the space that it’s going into. Maybe if it’s in a yoga studio, people will tend to select a very calm, flowing surface. We’re putting a piece into a Crossfit-style gym, and they picked one that’s way more intense. It can fit the energy of the room.
You’ve also designed the new Profile coffee table with Provide.
Yes, we’re pretty excited about the way that one has come about. It started early on, just when David was going through the initial process of finding the new space and designing it and working through the renovation. He was on a trip down in California, and he gave me a photograph of a vintage bench. It’s got a similar profile, proportionally to the piece that we’ve done for him, and a similar rhythmic nature.
He sent us that image, and said, I would really like to do something like this in the front window that we can use for display. He’s got a bunch of incredible ceramic pieces, vases and bowls from various artists, and he wanted something that would go in the front window that would respond to the natural light, and also be a nice backdrop for photographing those pieces in situ.
So we’ve put our own twist on that Perriand piece. We adjusted the stance of the legs, and then we added, instead of all of the slot pieces just being a rectangular profile, about fifty percent of the pieces have one single edge that is rounded over. And then those pieces are interspersed with the rectangular pieces. It’s an interesting way for us to use a very limited number of pieces to create a very organic and randomized effect. Your eye doesn’t really pick up any sort of patterning to the piece when you look at it. But if you examine that very closely you can pick up the nuances of it.
Light and reflection seem to be a big part of your practice.
Yes, I think it’s just always something that’s been at the forefront of my mind. My father was in the lighting business for many years in Calgary. He wasn’t on the design side his company, but they represented many different brands as a distributor. It was something I was exposed to all through my childhood, the way that they were approaching different projects and spaces. So it’s always something that’s on my mind, as early as the 3-D model. I’m always trying to not only model the piece, but to see how it’s reacting to light. You can simulate it with digital light sources, to see how it’s responding as you move around it in space.
Is sustainability large part of your practice as well?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s always at the forefront, trying to make sure that we’re using the resources that we’re privileged to be working with, trying to make sure that they’re used in a way that is celebrated, and is going to hopefully last for generations. We don’t want to be creating pieces that have a very short lifespan, that are reaching the end of their life before they should. The pieces that we’re making should outlive us by generations. We’re really trying to stay away from any sort of pieces that we would consider to be really trendy, or, I guess, would be disposed of before their natural end of life. When we’re working with solid materials, they’ll develop a really nice, natural use over time in a way that really adds a lot of character to them. A lot of time the pieces from larger box furniture stores, once you ding it against the wall a few times, it’s not going to show the same.
Do you have any series you’re working on in the future?
We’ve got a number of sculptural pieces that we’re hoping to add to the line fairly shortly. Some of them are evolutions of pieces that we’ve done in the past. And I’m always testing new ideas. We’ve got another coffee table that’s in the works right now.
It must be a lot of experimenting, like a mad scientist.
It’s certainly a trial-and-error process. Not every experiment works out the way that we want it to. You can end up creating some very expensive firewood at the end of the day! But we’re always trying to improve things in a way that are material efficient.
How long do you find it takes for you to come up with a product that you’re happy with—that you’ve decided this is it?
The initial concept happens really fast. I find it’s more successful if I can have the idea and execute the first prototype quickly. I just need to see it physically, how it’s occupying the space, how it’s in the real world, reacting to the light and the shadow in the actual environment. And then, once the actual piece is prototyped, really refining it to the point where it’s scalable—that process can take quite a bit longer. There are always the fine details that you need to iron out—the joinery in furniture, and mounting hardware, and how these pieces are going to hang on the walls safely and ship properly. Those details take a lot longer to iron out. But to get that first proof of concept happens very quickly for me.
Contact Provide for more information on our collections with Origins.