Nick McDonald got his start in the furniture-making industry due to an auspicious location. Growing up in south-west Victoria, his neighbours had a purpose-built grandstand for their annual bull sale.
With no use for it anymore, McDonald’s neighbours offered him what amounted to kilometres of messmate timber in exchange for him taking it down.
“It's worth a lot of money,” McDonald says at his Brunswick studio, pulling a piece of wood from a still-considerable stack out the back of his workshop. His furniture business, Made by Morgen, is about three years old.
You might have seen McDonald’s minimalist woodwork around the city at health and wellbeing studio Universal Practice, KX Yoga and smoothie-maker Green Cup in South Yarra. You can also now find his pieces at design store Simple Form, but the majority of his work involves custom orders for architects, interior designers and individuals.
“Architects know how to design a space, but they don’t always know how to design furniture for that space,” he says, recalling a recent job that involved him blowtorching a boardroom table for a dramatic, charred effect.
He also sells his made-to-order solid timber tables and sideboards direct from his website.
Feeling disillusioned after almost a decade in the construction industry, a home renovation a few years ago triggered McDonald’s change in direction.
“I bought an apartment in North Melbourne and did a lot of the fit out myself – I think that was the first time I got to be creative and practical at the same time,” he says.
One look at the smooth, clean lines of his work and you’ll know what McDonald did next: he went to Scandinavia. He spent more than a year in Denmark (as well as Berlin and London) “studying and working with a few different makers,” he says.
Drawn back to Melbourne for various friends’ weddings, McDonald didn’t plan on staying. But, incidentally, his friend was about to open a smoothie store.
“Green Cup was my first job,” McDonald says of the fit-out – tables and stools made of Tasmanian oak and powder-coated white. “It gave me confidence.”
The “Morgen” in Made By Morgen (which he officially launched in 2014) was a nod to the name given to him by his father – a man with a tendency for dispensing random nicknames.
A studio visit can reveal a lot about an artist. Among ceiling-high silver exhaust pipes, sanding machines and one very threatening mechanism that “flattens timber at high speed” are a number of touches that offset the industrial vibe.
Above his immaculately arranged carpentry tools hangs an artwork by McDonald’s friend David Aldous – who rolls ink on felled trees, then transfers their “fingerprints” onto paper – while a cascading fern adds some life to the white brick interior.
Like his workshop, McDonald’s pieces walk the line between cold and warm – with Scandi minimalism offset by subtleties such as dovetail joins (which resemble fingers interlocking) and no steel runners. His pieces are free of complicated flourishes, and put timber firmly in the spotlight.
Motioning to a mini-assembly line of bedside tables for Simple Form in Seddon, McDonald says he doesn’t want to grow his business much beyond the current operation, which includes just one other full-time carpenter.
This means, like so many small-business owners, he often has to force himself to take the “odd weekend off”.
“I like working on the weekend when there’s no-one here,” he says. “Plus, the stresses of this job are completely different to the stresses of my old job. There’s good stress and there’s bad stress.”
For Melbourne’s latest, subscribe to the Broadsheet newsletter.