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Meet Susan, Winner of the Upcycling Design Challenge

Earlier this month, our Upcycling Design Challenge judges met at UncommonGoods headquarters, some in person and others via Skype, to pick a winner from the top five voted designs. After and hour of discussing five unique designs made of reclaimed materials, the judges decided Susan Harbourt’s Forget Me Not Necklace made of recycled copper was the best choice to join our collection of upcycled goods. Meet Susan and help us welcome her to the UncommonGoods artist family.

How did you first get into designing?
As fate would have it, my husband had an amazing opportunity to move half way across the county. This meant leaving my engineering career behind and beginning what I thought was a new chapter in my life, little did I realize it was actually a whole new book!

We moved to Illinois and purchased a large Edwardian Era home out in the country that had not been maintained since the 1950s. It was a lovely home full of grace and charm and was in need of reviving. One fateful night, I was helping my husband update the original electrical system installed during the 1930s as a part of the Rural Electrification Act. Scattered all over the floor were piles of lovely aged copper wire that we had just removed from the walls of the old house. In an absent-minded gesture, to pass the time while waiting for the next instruction on how to help, I picked up a few scraps and wove them into a bracelet. A spark was ignited and a new passion was born in that very moment. Little did I know how much that moment would redefine the rest of my life.

What was the inspiration for the Forget Me Not Necklace?
The inspiration for my Forget-Me-Not line of jewelry actually stems from a mishap that occurred on the first Valentine’s Day my husband (then boyfriend) celebrated 20 years ago. He tried so hard to be romantic and surprise me by buying a special bouquet of flowers that were to be delivered to my dorm room. The flowers arrived, but they were three days late. He was so traumatized from that single event that he swore off buying flowers forever, so he switched to buying me jewelry instead. Now that I make jewelry, my husband no longer enjoys buying it for me. I do miss getting flowers and jewelry as gifts, so I had to do something about it! So I must admit, I designed the Forget-Me-Not jewelry line to fulfill my desire to receive flowers and jewelry again.

What is your favorite upcycling tip?
Don’t let what something was limit your mind to what something can become…

What do you enjoy about designing with materials that would otherwise be discarded?
I enjoy showing others, through my art, that there is more than one way to view the world around them and to not take things for granted because of how they seem at first or the labels placed upon them. It’s like a metaphor for life that applies both to objects and for relationships.

Is designing a full-time job or a hobby?
My official full-time job is being mommy to two very creative and inquisitive little boys. Designing jewelry started out as an accidental hobby for me. It then became something that allowed me to earn enough money to pay for the occasional babysitter and date night with the hubby. After a few years of teetering on that edge of hobby versus business I decided it was time to commit to taking my passion to the next level. I have spent the past year redefining and refining my business and vision. It is amazing to look at where I am now versus a few years ago. I am proud to tell people that I am now a full time work-at-home entrepreneur and mom!

Describe your work space.
My studio is a work space dream come true! It is a large well lit space that I set up with a great flow that allows me to be organized, efficient, creative and productive. As you enter there is an office area and bookcase full of books and items to inspire me. From there it continues into my material storage and metal prep area that is filled with some amazing tools with great history. I have a large chest of drawers that once housed geological samples in a museum at the University of Illinois and there is a variety of large industrial tools that are from the 1940s. Beside that area I have my soldering and metal forming stations followed by the area where I do my finishing and assembly work. The last stop in my studio is my shipping station that makes me feel like every day is a holiday – it’s full of ribbons and boxes and items I made that are ready to start their journey out into the world and begin their new life with someone new.

The thing I love most about my studio is that I have a well-stocked creative play area set up where both of my boys can explore their artistic minds along side of me as I work. I enjoy watching them have the freedom to create and express their individuality. My husband also has a wonderful metal and wood shop set up on the other side of the wall which has a large window in it so we can feel more like we are working together.

What challenges do you face as an artist who designs with reclaimed materials?
The big challenge that I face [is running] out of my unique materials. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of copper wire that I removed from my house. I feel like I have hardly put a dent into it. I have also found that once people realize that I like to create with reclaimed materials, they become very generous in bringing over there project scraps. That is how I came across the copper roofing materials I have started to incorporate into my work.

The other big challenge I have with my work is that some people just don’t get it. I feel that I often have to educate people about the significance of using recycled and reclaimed materials. There are always the people that feel that copper is a low end metal and don’t understand why I don’t work with gold and other designer metals. Not that I am opposed to using the other metals, and at times I do use them, it is just that I love my old copper wire!

What advice would you offer someone interested in entering an UncommonGoods Design Challenge?
The best piece of advice I can offer someone interested in entering an UncommonGoods Design Challenge is to find your own voice and perspective first and have confidence in it. It does not have to be exotic and elaborate; it just has to be uniquely yours and fresh.

Written by Gaby D

Gaby is the Community Outreach Coordinator. She knits, reads, collects vinyl, yogas, and is the lead singer of a Brooklyn-based rock band. She is half-part Martha Stewart and half-part Fran Drescher. If she's not sleeping, she's probably Tweeting. Her favorite uncommon good is anything made by Dana Brandwein Oates or Emilie Shapiro.

4 Comments

  1. jan

    Hi Gaby, I love your story and the pics of your studio – is it always that clean? I’m an artist and designer too, and totally relate to creating at home in my studio, working in all the “zones” and delighting in sending my products off to their new homes. This resonated with me. Congrats on your jewelry line – I Love Copper!

  2. Pingback: A Year's Worth of Winning Designs | Design Challenge Roundup | UncommonGoods

  3. Adi

    It’s my pleasure to see your studio pic while it’s a little messing in my opinion. Anyhow, it’s a great decorative on your side and i love it :)

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