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Deagan McDonald of Origins bridges sculpture and function with designs that pair technology with old-world techniques.
Rules are made to be broken, sure. But as the creative force behind Origins demonstrates, rules can also be bent in a way that births something entirely new. This isn’t the first time Deagan McDonald has won a WL Designers of the Year award—in fact, in 2021 he and Origins co-founder Kelsey Nilsen (who now works as an architect full-time) triumphed for their experimental yet functional furniture. This year, our 2022 Maker of the Year is using the same innovative techniques in a completely different way—creating customizable, thoughtful wall sculptures made entirely from solid wood.
McDonald and Nilsen met while studying for their masters of architecture at the University of Toronto, and it was that field of study that provided them with the technical know-how to fabricate sculptures with the same machinery that’s often used for topography and site models. “It’s still very architectural in my mind—the way we use the software and technology,” says McDonald, “and the way that we’re detailing our sculptural pieces.”
Their work bridges art and architecture—using geometry, light and shadows to create meaningful pieces that are easily customizable thanks to computer programming. “We’re interested in creating pieces that are dynamic and respond to the environment that they’re placed in,” says McDonald. “Depending on the space you’re putting it into, we might customize the geometry or angle so that it will react to whatever the light source is going to be.”
Judge Dexter Peart, co-founder of Goodee, celebrated both the technical and artistic aspects of Origins’ work. “The duo successfully pushes the boundary of how machines can reimagine natural objects,” he noted. “The detail of work is evident—and the results achieve perfectly consistent inconsistencies.”
READ MORE: Meet Western Living’s 2022 Maker to Watch
Swell, for example, is a wall-mounted sculpture that McDonald describes as “a static representation of natural forces or movement.” With ripples across its surface, the piece appears like undulating water (a swell, if you will) and captures the feeling of motion without moving at all. As McDonald adjusts the piece’s digital program, the blueprint becomes more or less calm—allowing for serene waters or a stormy surface.
Inspired by Pacific Northwest coastlines, Low Tide has similar origins to Swell. “The underlying geometry is the same,” says McDonald. “We’re just interrupting the process halfway through and cutting it more delicately.” The result is an organic yet rigid sculpture that resembles a bird’s eye view of the tides. Drift, meanwhile, is inspired by the scars left by glacial ice on ancient stone. It features deep, shadowy striations created from a tool that produces millions of tiny shavings to match the digital blueprint.
Another skill McDonald attributes to his architectural roots is his ability to predict how a piece will work in different spaces and lighting. “Architecture will always be part of the studio,” says McDonald. “The dream project for Origins is designing and building a cabin in the woods and then fully furnishing it.”
What was your first design project?
The first piece that set the trajectory for Origins was the Tempo bookshelf, which was submitted as an entry to IIDEX Canada’s 2016 Woodshop competition. This was my first piece of furniture design, and it bridged that gap between sculpture and function—an area I’m now returning to.
If you weren’t a designer, what job would you be doing?
Probably architectural rendering. That was always my favourite part of a project: bringing the design out of the rigid realm of drafting software and “seeing” it for the first time filled with people and light.
Is there a famous project or object you wish you’d designed?
The Bruder Klaus Field Chapel by Peter Zumthor. For me, it’s conceptually pure in both its intention and execution.
READ MORE: Meet the Winners of Western Living’s 2022 Designers of the Year Awards
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