Nick McDonald of Made By Morgen | Feature InterviewBrunswick, VIC, Australia
Commercial construction management might not seem the most likely starting point for a Danish-inspired bespoke furniture designer. Yet for Nick McDonald, owner, designer and maker behind Melbourne studio Made by Morgen, 10 years as a structural foreman overseeing the construction of shopping centres and apartment blocks was where it all began.
Growing up on a farm in South West Victoria, a building apprenticeship was as good a choice as any for a young man unsure of what he wanted to do, and over time he became a manager for the growing commercial construction firm. As the scale of the work and level of management responsibility increased, so too did the distance from the actual hands-on work and building process. After the stress of overseeing the construction of 600 apartments in Richmond ‘nearly killed’ him, he left the job and purchased an old warehouse, which he renovated to become his home. As part of the renovation, Nick also used his building skills to construct furniture for the space. ‘This was an epiphany for me,’ he says. ‘It suddenly dawned on me that it was possible to be practical and creative at the same time’.
The first piece of furniture he ever bought was a reproduction midcentury Danish sideboard, “even before I started making furniture or knew anything about furniture design, that aesthetic really appealed to me” he says. When, following the renovation, he went on a holiday to Europe, Denmark was a natural place for him to gravitate towards. As luck would have it, friends of his parents were acquainted with a Danish couple who lived in the small town of Ringkøbing, home to Onecollection, the furniture design studio with the rights to produce legendary Danish designer Finn Juhl’s work.
Nick credits Juhl’s FJ45 chair as the one design he admires above all others, so the chance to see where Juhl’s designs are created today was a chance of a lifetime. While building had given him a basic knowledge of carpentry and woodwork, spending 3 months in the Onecollection factory was a learning curve, giving Nick the opportunity to see sophisticated woodworking processes first hand. Following his time in Ringkøbing, he travelled to Copenhagen and London, taking the opportunity to learn from wherever he could, working with everyone from boat builders to furniture makers.
After returning to Australia 3 years ago, the cost of materials made becoming a fully-fledged furniture maker difficult. The chance to salvage 2500 lineal metres of Australian hardwood from a cattle-auction grandstand on a farm neighbouring his parents solved that problem for him, providing the materials he needed to break into the industry. While today Made by Morgen‘s designs are made with finer materials, such as American oak and European beech, that enhance the minimalistic style, recycled timber, sustainability and ethics continues to drive the direction of Nick’s work.
The wastefulness of the ‘disgusting amount of packaging’ that accompanied the purchase of his first large piece of machinery compelled Nick to consider somehow giving back to the community. Recycling collection of offcuts and leftover timber lying around his workshop, Nick created a sideboard that was auctioned for over $2000, donating the proceeds to Road to Refuge, a volunteer-run not for profit that works to educate Australians on the plight of refugees. Since the success of the auction, Made by Morgen has continued to support the work of Road to Refuge, and another auction is planned for the near future. ‘I feel with everything going on right now, Road to Refuge’s work is incredibly important, and it’s important to me to give back’, he says, ‘running a small business means donating cash isn’t always possible, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still help make a difference’.
Until recently, Nick focused solely on custom-made pieces, working closely with architects, interior designers and private clients to create designs that are sensitive to the style and function of the space. While all custom designs begin with a brief, Nick says he is fortunate to have ‘very trusting’ clients who approach him because they already love this work. The process begins with the client’s ideas about the type of piece and the size, then materials and finishes shape the rest of the design. Looking at the context of the intended piece, Nick works intuitively to create a design that is customised and unique, while retaining a signature style and attention to detail.
This background in custom work is clearly felt in Made by Morgen‘s first collection. The considered, detailed and context-driven approach of custom design is apparent across all the pieces in the collection, yet the minimalist midcentury-inspired aesthetic is flexible, suiting a range of spaces. The simple lines and emphasis on the natural finish of the American oak create pieces that are understated, yet which possess a quality and presence.
When asked about his favourite design, the one of which he is most proud, Nick doesn’t hesitate – the Lil bedside table. The first piece he designed in the collection, the Lil is neat and functional, with a few key details that elevate the design. This balance between simplicity and detail is present across the entire collection: the harmonious equilibrium of straight lines and curves, the simple-but-effective notch, the practical drawer, the keen emphasis on materials. Named after photographer Lillie Thompson, who shot Made by Morgen’s product shots for the website and catalogue, the Lil captures the collection’s unique combination of personality and simplicity.
Since discovering the joy of combining creativity and practical skill, Made by Morgen has gone from a makeshift set up in Nick’s parents’ shed, working with timber salvaged from a cattle-auction grandstand, to a Melbourne workshop, new collection and repertoire of custom-made work. Now, with trusty companion, blue heeler Roscoe, and a group of talented makers on board, Made by Morgen is on the way to becoming one of Melbourne’s iconic local furniture design studios.