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Uncommon Design School: Less is More

February 13, 2015

Love it or loathe it, we all know minimalism when we see it. A neutral palette comes to mind. Forms tend to be aggressively geometric. International Style buildings…Scandinavian furniture…deconstructed timepieces like our On the Other Hand Clock. Some find minimalist designs thrilling in their integrity. Others find them stark—even threatening. Whatever your reaction, one handy phrase comes to mind: less is more.

On The Other Hand Clock | UncommonGoods

On the Other Hand Clock

A conceptual cousin to ‘form follows function,’ this cool but cheekily contradictory aphorism is a close contender for the top modernist mantra—a quotable bit of wisdom that may still be echoing through the lecture halls of many a school of architecture and design. But, like Louis Sullivan’s alliterative catch phrase, less is more deserves an investigation of its history.

The phrase is most closely associated with the designer who embraced the association: architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For Mies, it was an apt slogan for his pursuit of design purity. The intentional contradiction helps make it memorable, but essentially it means “the less complicated the design, the better.” The less of less is more is apparent in the work of Mies and other midcentury modern designers, but the more means ‘better,’ with a note of pseudo-spiritual zeal.

Barcelona Pavilion | Wikipedia

The Barcelona Pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Wikipedia

Much as Mies’ cigar-puffing visage comes to mind when you hear the phrase, he had to admit that he didn’t coin it. He credits his modernist mentor, Peter Behrens. The young Mies, working in Behrens’ studio, recalls that he showed his boss some design options for a factory façade, to which the elder architect replied “less is more.” This set the tone for Behrens’ elegantly minimal approach to industrial design, and Mies took up the banner for other types of buildings as well.

But wait—there’s more (or is it less?) to this story. The phrase crops up before Behrens was born, in a poetic context: Robert Browning’s poem Andrea Del Sarto (called “The Faultless Painter”) of 1855.

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
 (I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
 Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

Browning employs the phrase in an imagined diatribe by a B-list Renaissance painter who works in the shadow of the likes of “Michel Agnolo” (Michelangelo). Hardly the heroic, modern origins you might expect.

Bike Print | UncommonGoodsThe Bicycle Encyclopedic Print

Whether or not Behrens and Mies were aware of Browning’s poem, the phrase got a modern makeover that puts a positive spin on minimalist aspirations. Not to be outdone, maverick architect Frank Lloyd Wright quipped “less is more, only when more is no good.” Apparently, Wright wanted to indicate that he was hip to mid-century trends, yet wanted to keep his options open.

Design

Frank Lloyd Wright For Our Feathered Friends

January 28, 2015

When I saw the sample of our new Prairie Bird Feeder from across the room, I recognized its inspiration instantly: the so-called “Tree of Life” art glass pattern—probably the best-known motif from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo masterpiece, the Darwin D. Martin House.

Prairie Bird Feeder | UncommonGoods

Prairie Bird Feeder

But I suppose I should be able to spot such patterns at 50 paces. After all, I spent nine years as curator for the Martin House Restoration Corporation, helping to preserve, document, and share such designs with the public. I stopped short of getting a Tree of Life tattoo, but you might say that the Prairie style is in my blood.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed in concert with Nature—with a capital N, he insisted—and Drew Kelley’s Wright-inspired bird feeder design follows that organic lead. The cedar feeder is simply stained as Wright might have done, and its miniature roof is gently pitched and cantilevered like the rooflines of the Martin House and other homes of Wright’s Prairie period (c. 1900-1914). Add the art glass motif applied to the side panels, and those birds will be eating in sublime style.

Darwin D. Martin House

Darwin D. Martin House, Wikimedia Commons

But there’s another connection between Kelley’s bird feeder and the Wright house that inspired it. With relatively free reign on his ambitious Buffalo commission, Wright designed not only an interconnected complex of five buildings for the Martin family, but also an impressive complement of furniture, fixtures, art glass (nearly 400 pieces), and custom architectural details. He even designed custom clothesline poles for the kitchen garden and four limestone birdhouses to adorn the roof of the Martins’ conservatory.

Wright’s birdhouses feature multiple chambers in a colony-like configuration favored by purple martins. So, scholars suspect that the birdhouses were, in part, a play on the name of the client (martin / Martin). And like purple martins, the human Martins lived communally, with extended Martin family (Darwin D. Martin’s sister Delta Barton and her family in the smaller house in the complex) and servants living in the same complex. Beyond Buffalo, Wright also designed a custom birdhouse for the Westcott house in Springfield, Ohio.

Darwin Martin Bird Houses

Birdhouses, Darwin D. Martin House. Biff Henrich /IMG_INK, courtesy Martin House Restoration Corporation.

After challenging American architecture in the Prairie period, Wright went on to design some of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century, such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim museum in New York. His body of work—both realized and conceptual—also includes a mile high skyscraper for Chicago, and a house for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Despite this dazzling portfolio, you can safely say that at least a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs were for the birds…and so is our new bird feeder.

Design

Uncommon Design School: Form Follows Function

January 8, 2015

From musical wine glasses to self-filtering popcorn bowls, the distinctive variety of our collection relies on interactions of form and function. Sometimes these interactions are straight out of the design handbook; sometimes, they’re more playful and ironic. Whatever the case, a familiar phrase comes to mind: form follows function. You’ve probably heard it batted around—at a cocktail party or in your undergrad art history course—but you may not know where this quotable bit of design history originates.

Popcorn Bowl with Kernel Sifter | UncommonGoodsThe Popcorn Bowl with Kernel Sifter

Chicago, 1896: a maverick American architect sets out to define an emerging building type that will transform American skylines from coast to coast in the next century—the tall office building, or “skyscraper.” Through a progression of projects, from the Wainwright building in St. Louis to the Guaranty building in Buffalo, Louis Sullivan showed an increasingly clear vision of how the tall office building—a form driven by commercial imperatives—could be designed to reflect its essential nature as a “tall and soaring thing.” At the same time, he put down his pencil long enough to write a sort of manifesto for his skyscraper vision: “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” In this essay was an innocent turn of phrase destined for design school glory: “…form ever follows function.” Like in the old game of “telephone,” this phrase was slightly paraphrased in the retelling, becoming “form follows function,” and a design nerd’s bumper sticker was born.

Prudential (Guaranty) Building | Louis Sullivan

Prudential (Guaranty) Building, Wikipedia 

Not to be outdone, Sullivan’s famous protégé and master appropriator, Frank Lloyd Wright, adopted the aphorism but put his own transcendental spin in it, saying that “[form follows function] has been misunderstood—form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” It’s a prime example of Wright extending his mentor’s principles into his own organic definition of design. But when Sullivan coined the phrase—and when Wright re-branded it—they intended it as an assertion of an aspiration, rather than the revelation of any Platonic design truth.

Frank Lloyd Wright

 Frank Lloyd Wright, Wikipedia

In retrospect, Wright’s insistence that form and function are inextricable stifles his progressive potential. Postmodern design offers examples of form forcing function—one of the main critiques of branded, “starchitect” design of the last few decades. In 2009, Alice Rawsthorn declared the demise of “form follows function,” citing its fading relevance in the age of digital design.* Counter to this obituary, some recent products demonstrate an ironic inversion of the form / function relationship: Lee Goodwin’s Driftwood and Birch iPhone Docks bring unabashedly organic flair to design-for-digital applications, while Jeff Davis’ Record Amplifier draws sound from old records in an unexpected way.

Birch iPhone Charging Dock | UncommonGoods

Birch iPhone Charging Dock

So it seems that Louis Sullivan’s most quotable concept is still on designers’ pin boards today, if only as a platform for playful inversions of his intent.

 

*NY Times, “The Demise of ‘Form Follows Function’”

Design

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Handmade Jewelry

November 13, 2014

Handmade jewelry has been all the rage lately. The personal attention and love that makers and artisans infuse into their work is evident in the masterpieces that they create. What most people don’t understand is why handmade jewelry is more of an investment than its mass produced counterparts. There are many reasons why handmade jewelry is more of an investment than pieces that are mass produced, so I thought I would break it down for you!  Below are 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Handmade Jewelry.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods-548x421

1. No Mass Production Machinery Involved: By definition, handmade jewelry is literally just that, made by the “hands” of the artisan or maker.  The pieces are soldered, sawed, carved and shaped without the use of mass produced manufacturing machinery. A machine can crank out hundreds of units per hour while an individual can only make a finite quantity or fraction of the number of pieces in the same amount of time.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods

2. The Value of Time: As previously mentioned, since there are no machines involved, handmade jewelry takes an incredible amount of time to produce just a single piece. As a designer myself, I know I often spend hours designing a single piece of jewelry for a client. The time to make the piece often can take weeks.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods

3. The Maker’s Process: The maker has a very intimate relationship with each piece or design they create. The design process is key to the value that is inherent in each piece. Emilie Shapiro talks about her process and says, “While creating jewelry, there is a very intimate relationship with my work. I know every curve and line (is) put there with intention. As a maker your energy goes into the piece.”

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods

4. Materials: In almost every case, the value of the materials involved in a handmade piece are of stellar quality. It’s difficult to regulate or even know exactly what alloys are used in mass produced factories where dirty metals are blended together to create costume pieces. Handmade materials are generally sourced from highly reputable suppliers.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods-548x421

5. Sustainability: Jewelry Makers are often dedicated to sustainability and ethically sourced materials. By nature, being ethical can be much more costly than taking the easy route and purchasing from the refiner or dealer with low prices and shady sourcing. Once again, Emilie Shapiro always uses the highest quality materials sourced from suppliers who share her ethos about sustainability whenever possible. Smaller scale production is almost always higher quality.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods

6. Quality: Smaller scale production is almost always higher quality because the ability to track and control the process from start to finish is inherent in the making process. Makers and artisans are extremely proud of the work they produce. They aren’t going to let something of inferior quality leave their studio with their name on it.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods

7. Locally Made with Love: There is a lot of buzz with “buying local” these days. Reducing your carbon footprint and supporting local artisans is good for the environment and good for everyone. Artisans and makers infuse love and energy into each piece of work. There is HUGE value in supporting local from a sustainability and energetic standpoint. Along with the extra value inherent in handmade jewelry you are also buying a truly one-of-a-kind product. Even if the handmade piece is part of an edition – no maker creates two pieces that are exactly identical. You are the only person with that specific piece of jewelry which says a lot.

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods

The next time you consider purchasing a handmade piece of jewelry, remember that even though the piece may be an investment, you are supporting something even bigger. You should feel really good about your purchase knowing that you have a special piece of the artist in your jewelry collection.

Handmade | UncommonGoodsKeep an eye out for this blue hand icon while shopping at UncommonGoods for handmade products!

7 Things You Didn't Know About Handmade Jewelry | UncommonGoods-548x421

Design

How to Take the Leap from Maker to Entrepreneur

October 15, 2014

Emilie Shapiro | UncommonGoods

Where do I sell my work? Is retail or wholesale better? How do I make work that will sell?

These are the questions I hear all of the time as a jewelry instructor. My students at Liloveve Jewelry School, 92Y, and Brooklyn Museum range from making their first piece to running successful businesses, but all have one thing in common–the need to create something tangible that didn’t exist before.

During my time as the production manager at Pamela Love Jewelry and Allforthemountain, I learned how the jewelry industry works inside and out from handmade one-of-a-kind pieces, small scale in-house production and outsourcing work with United States based factories. Through the years of designing my own collection which is sold at over 50 boutiques Worldwide, I’ve found what works for me.

Emerald Mosaic Ring | UncommonGoods

Where will I Sell My Work?

  • Directly from your studio. The Holidays are a great time of year to have a sample sale in person and/or online to get rid of some inventory to make room for new work.
  • Have a jewelry (or other item) party! Ask a friend or family member to host you and your work at their home or office. Bring snacks and wine and gift your host a piece for having the party.
  • Online – Etsy, bigcartel, your own Squarespace, site and so many more! There are tons of ways to make an inexpensive online presence or website that someone can shop from.
  • Retail Shows – Retailing is selling your goods directly to the public from a fixed location or online. Check out local craft shows in your area. The Holidays are great because people are looking for gifts. Be sure to ask the what the median price point is and what other vendors will be there to make sure you’re a good fit. Also, make sure to have a sign and a cohesive display for your work. Good lighting is a must, especially for jewelry, so make sure to ask about electricity. Don’t forget your business cards or postcards and packaging. (Some of these Trade Show Tips go for retail shows as well.)
  • Wholesale – Wholesaling is selling your goods in large quantities to be resold by other retailers. Set a minimum price or piece order to make it worth your time and so a retailer has a good selection of your work represented. Check out local stores you think your work would fit in with. Who else do they sell and for what prices? Would your work look good next to them? Walk in wearing your work (or pictures of your objects), be very friendly and ask who is the buyer and get in touch. Don’t waste your time or buyers time if it’s not a good fit or price point.

Production

How Can I Streamline My Production?

  • Focus on efficiency of creativity while you’re producing. Perfect your first piece (your model) on design and craftsmanship and then break down each step. Work in an assembly line fashion instead of making one piece start to finish, even if you’re by yourself. You work faster while your body gets in the rhythm.
  • Buy in bulk when possible. Stock up on supplies and materials like chains and findings. Go in with other artists to get the best prices possible.

Materials

  • Develop a clear track for your orders from the second you receive it from when it ships out your door. I use a production schedule which I find really helpful. This helps me keep track of the items I have to make for stores and clients, what I have in stock, and what I have to make.

Production Schedule

  • Think about what you’re great at, and what someone else can do for you. As an artist you want to follow your heart on how you make something, but as a business owner you need to use your brain on the most cost effective way. Try to find the balance and make your work efficiently without lowering your quality.

Jewelry Assembly

What are the Best Tips for Success?

  • Make your own decisions; you’re the boss! Whether you’re hiring an employee, deciding whether a new store is a good (or bad) fit, telling the owner of a store they can’t change your designs (this happens to me once a week – you are the designer), there are tons of big and day-to-day decisions with running a craft business.
  • Find a middle ground. As an artist, you will have the tendency to make decisions based on feelings and intuition. As a successful businessperson, you will need to make decisions based on rational calculation. I like to find a happy medium between the two.
  • When you need help, ask for it. Use the resources of friends, family, and local businesses around you. No one can do everything! Know when to delegate.
  • Be thoroughly professional.
  • Accept nothing less than the highest standards of your work. Never cut corners to make a deadline; your work will suffer and people will notice. Customers buy handmade for good quality products. The goodwill of your customers if your most valuable possession! Don’t jeopardize it by delivering late or shipping work that’s not high quality.
  • Never stop learning!