Designer to Know: J McDonald

Designer to Know: J McDonald

By Dwell
J McDonald’s otherworldly furniture and sculptures are inspired by the tensions, contrasts, dissonances, and harmonies between humans and nature.

The wildly varied forms of Brooklyn-based designer and artist J McDonald are equal parts furniture and sculpture. Some of his creations, like his 2018 Cabinet chair, are all harsh angles. Others, like his Cocoon armoire and Fallacy mirror, appear to swell, twist, and ooze, revealing influences as diverse as the carved cliff dwellings in Turkey and termite mounds in West Africa, all observed during extensive global travels.

McDonald, who studied architecture at Middlebury College and completed a stint as artist in residence at Taliesin West in 2014, is highly attuned to the ways design operates psychologically as well as physically. Currently, McDonald is working on a communal bench whose dimensions are informed by a socially distant six feet, but will still foster conversation and intimacy—a hopeful foil for a post-pandemic world.

The Cocoon Armoire by J McDonald

"I wanted to create something with a sense of optimism, and think to a future in which there are more opportunities for togetherness."

Read about McDonald’s new hobby of working with lime-based natural plasters in our Q&A below. 

Hometown: Brooklyn, NY

Describe what you make in 140 characters. Otherworldly furniture and objects that illuminate the tensions and dialogues between humans and our environment through concept and craft.

What's the last thing you designed? A bench that began as a socially distant "six-feet-apart" bench but ended up as a piece I'm calling "Emerging Design." It's a very simple polished stainless steel monolith, but with a wild, organic form emerging from it and penetrating through it. [The bench] follows from a lot of my past work in that it's a simple and minimalist geometric shape in dialogue with an organic, formal element.

Do you have a daily creative ritual? Morning coffee with a pen and a sketchbook.

How do you procrastinate? By running away to nature, or working on something else that's mentally easier. Most of my procrastination habits have changed since my son was born five years ago—now there's simply less time for it.

What everyday object would you like to redesign? Why? The fan. I don't live with air conditioning, so there's a lot of fan clutter in the summer. Fans tend to be either super sleek and plastic, or very industrial and utilitarian. I think there's room for a new fan aesthetic. The fan is an interesting object because it's really the only thing that is in constant motion in a space, yet it rarely moves itself. Plus, there are a lot of fun challenges to explore, like protecting kids' fingers and housing a motor.

The Geode Mirror by J McDonald

Who are your heroes (in design, in life, in both)? My influences, just like the people I respect and admire, are myriad and interdisciplinary. In terms of artists and designers, I have been particularly impacted by the works of Richard Serra, Michael Heizer, Nacho Carbonell, Neri Oxman, Antoni Gaudi, Isamu Noguchi, and many more. Beyond any singular figure, I am also incredibly inspired by indigenous communities and traditional design, both in attitude and aesthetic. More than anyone though, Mother Nature is my hero.

What skill would you most like to learn? Ceramics. I use clay for modeling and feel an intrinsic connection with the material. I am also a believer in hand-mind connections, which I receive from clay. As a three dimensional thinker with a penchant for complex organic forms, [clay modeling] is very conducive to my aesthetic. Though I've used impure clays dug from the ground and developed natural plasters recipes, I've never delved into firing ceramics for finished work, and I would like to learn.

What is your most treasured possession? At the risk of sounding narcissistic, I value the things I've made myself beyond any other possessions. Not because they are materially important, or even because I necessarily like them, but because they represent a set of thoughts or recall certain memories and experiences; they sketch a tangible arc of life. My collection of 20-years’-worth of old sketchbooks is also very dear to me, as is my 30-foot-long map of West Africa.

The Creature Table by J McDonald

What's your earliest memory of an encounter with design? From the moment we are born we are steeped in design—so immersed in it that it's possible to go through life without ever realizing that we everything we do is shaped by the design of our objects and spaces. When our expectations of "normalcy" are challenged, a whole world of limitless potential opens, and every thing around us becomes an opportunity to reimagine the way we live. For me, this was visiting pueblos in New Mexico as a kid. I remember thinking: Wow, a house can be this too.

What contemporary design trend do you despise? Resin over foam. I really appreciate the ease with which resin allows the creation of new forms, as well as how people have been pushing the envelope of furniture as sculpture with it. But it feels like a toxic-plastic easy way out, and though it photographs well, the in-person feel isn't inviting. I have an obsession with tactility, and I have worked hard to develop materials and processes for my organic forms that create an earthy, intuitive warmth that's durable but also alive.

Finish this statement: All design should... be challenging. If it's not, it's likely derivative or not very good. There are so many things that design asks us to do simultaneously in one object: to create something that is new, functional, and imaginative, as well as something that is impeccably detailed, thorough, and perhaps conceptual. Challenging can also mean confronting our standards of design, be it in our lifestyles or behaviors. Yet, the object should feel natural and whole, intuitive, and easy—traits I believe can only arise from battling through the challenges.

The Space Lamp by J McDonald

What’s in your dream house? The outside is in my dream house. Bringing nature inside is important to me, though that can mean a lot of different things. It can be literal—with plants and sensually curvaceous earthen walls, or glass doors and windows to let in sunlight light or wind. But it can also be through the work of artists and designers who are successful at capturing nature in an object.

Did you pick up any new hobbies or learn a new skill while in quarantine? What was it? I've been learning a lot about lime based natural plasters by performing experiments with different mixtures and additives, which has also been really fun. While working on some new pieces, I recently developed a process that helps me go from a model to a full-scale object using a combination of analog and digital techniques.

How do you think the pandemic will affect residential design in the future? What about workplace or commercial design? People will start thinking more about their outdoor space. Sinks with those built-in soap dispensers will also become more popular. Although our homes currently feel like places to isolate, I think in the near future they will become a space for entertaining as visits to bars and restaurants decline. I think retail stores will also continue the trend toward being showrooms to drive online sales, rather than the physical point of sale.

The Cocoon Armoire and Fallacy Mirror by J McDonald.

How can the design world be more inclusive? I think one important way is to address the root cause and create a society that is more egalitarian. When the vast majority of buyers are wealthy white people, the practitioners and the work tends to reflect the clientele. If we had more equal wealth distribution across different demographics, I think that the design field would organically diversify. I also believe such an evolution would lead to more diversity in the objects themselves, as well as a more robust dialogue within the industry.

What do you wish non-designers understood about the design industry? There are trials, challenges, joys, and satisfaction that come from birthing something in your imagination and bringing it to life as a material object. To me, the process feels essential to being a human being. Although nothing I make is truly necessary in this world, it feel it is necessary for me to make it.

You can learn more about McDonald by visiting his website or Instagram.

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