Architects are ultimately great puzzlers. It’s a field that’s both a process and a product, and one that sends passionate problem-solvers into a lifelong pursuit of finding creative solutions: the right elevation for a difficult lot, the perfect angle on a roofline to capture a singular view.

For Deagan McDonald and Kelsey Nilsen of Origins (who met studying for their masters of architecture at the University of Toronto back in 2012), that passion translated into another kind of problem solving, studying form and function on a much smaller scale with their experimental design and fabrication studio.

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Both the Ómós dining table (shown here), which is Gaelic for “tribute,” and the Trace coffee table (next photo) take their inspiration from a pair of 40-year-old coffee tables that McDonald’s grandfather designed—the frame of the former, the solid stone top of the latter. 

Our Furniture Designers of the Year bring together old-world techniques and high-tech design for their clean-lined, thoughtful furniture and accessories. While Nilsen still practices as an intern architect by day—she’s just weeks away from registered architect status with HDR Architecture—McDonald ultimately decided that, after a stint working for a local firm, the field wasn’t for him. “I’d gone through the whole degree process, and I knew I needed to give architecture a fair shot,” he says. “It was a really positive experience, but I realized very quickly that I was going to be much happier self-employed and working in a workshop with my hands—and being able to test my ideas more quickly than architecture allows.”

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Trace Coffee Table

Rather than the months and years it might take to see an architectural project come to fruition, he says, ideas for their designs in Origins can and do pivot quickly. “An idea might come to me in the morning, and by the end of the day I can have something physical in front of me, and see whether it’s working or not,” says McDonald.

The firm name also reflects the work the duo does both from a tech and a hands-on perspective. “It’s a reference to the technology we’re using,” says Nilsen. “When we’re doing this type of digital design, everything is always referenced from a single point, an origin,” she explains. “But I think when you’re working in furniture, and putting these things into someone’s home, and helping them build their story, it’s a nice reference—it’s their origin point, too.”

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The Beam bench is designed to be flat-packed, for elevator-friendly moves.

And, along those same lines, origin stories are dominant throughout the collection itself. Both the Ómós dining table (the Gaelic word for “tribute”) and Trace coffee table take their inspiration from a pair of 40-year-old coffee tables that McDonald’s grandfather designed—leading to the frame of the former, the solid stone top of the latter.

In fact, the first design for Trace included the original top from that vintage coffee table, and the simple “x” subframe is designed to adapt to other found or salvaged materials. No fasteners are required between the slab and frame, and the construction method allows for the piece to be flat-packed and easily assembled on site.

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The patterning on the Flute bed (shown here) takes its inspiration from one of Origins’ smaller pieces: the Impact tray (next photo). “Typically you see these patterns at a much smaller scale, remnants of the tooling that are then buffed out or sanded away,” says McDonald. “We intentionally take these patterns and exaggerate them at different scales as a way to sculpt a surface and celebrate the way the piece is shaped.”

In fact, many pieces in the collection are designed to be customized in their dimensions to fit any home, no matter the size. Flat-packing of their solid wood, robust designs ensures that each legacy-worthy piece can travel safely through all stages of an owner’s life. “It makes it easier for someone in a condo, or a tight-quarters scenario, where you need to move the piece up a staircase or an elevator—these things can be really challenging when the pieces are larger,” says Nilsen. “It’s really trying to make sure these products are not reaching the end of their perceived life too early.”

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The Impact tray, which inspired the Flute bed.

The duo also brings a strong industrial design influence into the work—the idea of repeatable patterns you might find on something machine-made, but applied to organic materials like wood, as in the design of their Flute headboard. “The patterning and sculptural effects that end up making their way into furniture starts in our product design,” says McDonald. “It’s easier to prototype and test ideas at a small scale, and you’ve got a little more artistic and creative capacity.”

The Flute bed finds its origin story in the Impact tray, with its intensely scalloped surface created by using a round tool to carve straight lines.  In the headboard, that process is used again to create grooves along the surface, each with a randomized depth that collectively creates the appearance of a subtle gradient across the surface.

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Credit: Tanya Goehring

Deagan McDonald (left) and Kelsey Nilson of Origins.

It’s a body of work applauded by our judges, particularly for the timeless, well-constructed appeal of Origins’ designs. “Every detail looks both soft and precise,” notes judge Jaye Buchbinder of Emeco. “The designers know their way around their materials with distinct execution.” And judge Sara Khodja of CB2 agrees. “Very clean design, lovely finishes,” she says. “Lovely joinery details with the wood, and finishes are modern yet warm.” 

Nilsen and McDonald continue to explore designing in both small and large scales—they’ve recently launched an online store for some of their “objects and artifacts,” like the Impact tray—and the work-from-home trend has seen them designing made-to-measure desks in rooms that were once single-purpose as a living room, kitchen or bedroom. And it’s the play, the big experiment, that keeps them going. “I think we really get excited about patterns, prototypes and finishes,” says McDonald. “It’s like giving an artist a blank canvas.” 

WL Designers of the Year 2021 ▸▸▸