Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Legacy lives beyond nice

Father’s Day is supposed to be a time of reflection. At this recent opportunity, my thoughts wandered to include someone who I might best describe as my Design Father. My biological parent played an important role in my life, as they all do, but this didn’t include any fathering of my interest in design. Donald Lloyd McKinley did that.

DLMcK, as he identified himself, cryptically, was my first design teacher and the director of Sheridan College’s School of Design when I was a student there. As the director, he insisted that it be called the School of Design, rather than the preferred name of School of Crafts, because he believed so strongly in the preeminent importance of design in the production of artifacts, however they were made. Once he stepped down from the directorship, the name was changed to the more compromising School of Crafts and Design, which persists to this day, but it’s likely not the same without him.

One of a kind

He was a big man. His build was substantial, with large features: jowls, nose, ears, hair. His hands were large and his fingers spatulate. His eyes were blue and piercing. He gave the impression of looseness though, and walked in a way that might be called lumbering. The freckled redness of his skin suggested the Scottish heritage that his name implied.

His appetites were big too, especially for observing and learning. I’ve never known anyone who could drink as much as he could, although it never kept him from his chosen responsibilities. He had a very pretty wife and a quick appreciation for anyone else who was pretty too. He was competitive and had liked to race and rally in fast cars, when he was younger.

He might be called a big talker as well, although not in a pejorative way. He talked seamlessly and sometimes seemingly endlessly. He once mentioned to me that his mind didn’t start working until his mouth started flapping, and then it needed some time to catch up, hence the habit. But I’ve never met anyone else who could speak as perceptively, penetratingly and interestingly about almost anything, without preparation. But especially design, so I didn’t mind.

A harsh critic

He was at his best in critiques. He would assess, probe, imagine, deconstruct, rebuild, hypothesize, and imagine far more than the (usually hapless) designer of the piece of furniture on display ever could have done or even imagined. It was a scary experience to have, and much better to be well prepared for. That’s not such a bad pedagogical trick, as it motivated and inspired as well as terrified us.

He wasn’t particularly nice in his critiques. Tears were shed. He wanted truth and his words were a blunt instrument, with no apologies. Later in life, after heart surgery, he told me that “contrary to the hopes of family and friends, my brush with death has failed to make me a nicer person.” I doubt that he was disappointed in that. Sooner or later, almost anyone who knew him learned how sharp his tongue could be, and we don’t forget it, and probably are better off for that too.

Although he wasn’t given to niceness or sentimentality, he could make very fine and sensitive things. What he made became increasingly tactile, as he grew older. Little things to fondle and discover through the fingers, as well as the eyes.

Early brush with stardom

He trained as an Industrial Designer, although he spent most of his career in the world best known as Crafts, as a furniture designer/maker and especially as the teacher of the same. He was an early hero in the emerging craft world of the 60s in the States, along with his friend Wendell Castle. At some point they diverged, with Don choosing teaching and Wendell choosing stardom. I’m not sure that he remained content with his choice though. He liked attention and flattery as much as anyone.

However, he chose to serve and it was a noble and fortuitous choice. Part of that was innate generosity and maybe a small part of it was inertia too. He claimed that the fire under him had to get very hot before he ever actually got into motion. But when it got hot enough, he got moving. It would amaze me to see what he could produce overnight, the night before it was too late. Ultimately though, his legacy is his students, not his designs. He taught a lot of us and he taught us a lot. I feel confident to say that we all are deeply grateful.

Thanks, Design Dad.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department


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