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Maker Stories

Maker Stories

Spread the Word: A Conversation with Eliza Todd about Art, Language, and Life

February 20, 2017

For Eliza Todd, creating art is so much more than a career. “It’s a way of figuring out life,” the artist says. On a plot of conserved prairie, the Illinois maker creates her one-of-a-kind designs from calendars to dining ware. Most days, she wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and works up to 14 hours, taking breaks for walks with her husband or to spend time with her two sons. “I’m still in the process of turning this into a life… For years I didn’t do art.” Twenty of them to be exact. She was in the computer industry, but when her younger son was born, Eliza stayed home and decided to go back to her artistic roots. “It’s a risk. Like anything when you try something new, putting myself out there was terrifying.” For her first project, she gathered blocks of wood and covered them with a thick resin that created a cool effect. Other people thought they were pretty cool, too, and so she took her works to some local Lake County shop owners who immediately fell for the designs as well. “It was scary,” she said, “but fortunately, worth it.”

Eliza Todd

The more Eliza practiced, the more her creativity wheels spun, and they’ve taken her from local painter to national glassware designer. It’s a love story that began, as many of them do, with words. “I started collecting these antiquated words,” she recalls. “Some of them are morbid or sick. Some are from the 1800s or 1600s. It was a dark time! But there’s a lot that are really interesting or funny or beautiful. I leaned toward the positive and collected them in a journal.” Then she thought, “I need to incorporate these into art!” The first word she really took to was efflorescence, a word she describes as “blooming, coming into your own.” Then came crapulous which, Eliza admits, still makes her giggle. The adjective means “tipsy,” which made her think, “This would be perfect on a glass.”

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Maker Stories

This Just In-spiration: Meet Rachel Kroh

February 16, 2017

Rachel Kroh - UncommonGoods

If you’re not sure if you’re the kind of person who was actually born to be an artist (or if you’re the kind of person who should pursue it as a career, anyway) visiting the French countryside is a great way to go and figure it out. Printmaker Rachel Kroh did it, and ended up becoming a full-fledged working artist, with a studio and a business of her own.

Rachel’s prints, which come to life with woodblock printing and the use of an Indigo press, are unique, comforting, and undoubtedly special. We love to learn the stories of artists who are new to our assortment, and to share those stories with our readers. Check out our interview with Rachel to hear more about her journey to self-employment, how art meets religion in her craft, and the one quote from a college professor that reminds her to keep going.

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Maker Stories

Uncommon Impact: Recycling Books & Spreading Literacy, One Pin at a Time

February 13, 2017

You can never have too many books, right? Well, actually, you kinda can. With hundreds of thousands of new books published each year, and with many library shelves so overwhelmed that librarians are often forced to throw books away, even those of us who feel sentimental about the written word and the pages that hold them have to admit: we’ve got a problem.

So what to do with all of those outdated encyclopedias and forgotten math textbooks? Aren’t there any other options aside from trashing them? Recycling, of course, comes to mind. But the bindings of many books, especially hardcovers, contain adhesives that can’t be recycled. So the inside pages can go, but then what happens to the rest?

Enter Laura Bruland Shields. A long-time book-lover herself and an artist at heart, she’s taken on this wasteful problem and is making beautiful solutions every day – in the form of one-of-a-kind, laser cut accessories made directly from books that would otherwise be thrown away. On top of that, she takes a portion of the proceeds from her business and donates them to benefit literacy and girls’ education around the world.

When we learned about Laura’s story, we knew we had to feature her in our Uncommon Impact series – her values as a maker and ours as a certified B-Corp company are a perfect match. We love that she thinks ethically in the way she makes her products and uses her to success to benefit a cause she’s passionate about.

Read on to hear from Laura directly about her creative process, some of her favorite book-titles-turned-accessories, and how her business is helping to spread a love of reading worldwide.

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Maker Resources, Maker Stories

Inside the Artists’ Studio with Donna and Randall Rollins

February 6, 2017

Randall and Donna Rollins in their Brentwood, NH studio, photos by Cassie Tweten Delaney

Most of us have had those days when we feel stuck in a rut. You know, when you’re sitting at your desk under harsh florescent lights, or walking extra slowly into your office building, or completing the same seemingly unimportant task for the 500th time. For most of us, this feeling creeps in and we start fantasizing about dropping everything and going confidently in the direction of our dreams. While the feeling usually passes, and many weekday warriors just keep fighting that battle against monotony, Donna and Randall Rollins figured that if they had to pour out their time and energy, it was going to be into something they love. 

The couple met while they were both working in corporate America. First they fell in love with each other, and then Donna fell in love with pottery. Then they learned about the healing properties often associated with gemstones from a friend with a PhD in metaphysics, and everything came together: Donna and Randall left the corporate world to start their own clay studio. They slowly grew their business to include family members and employ local artisans, they discovered new ways to incorporate stones and minerals into their designs, and, aside from acknowledging that their business backgrounds gave them the know-how to turn their passion into a career, they don’t do a lot of looking back. 

“We actively made the decision thinking, ‘If we tank, what’s the worst that can happen? We’ll still have each other,'” Randall told me on my recent visit to the couple’s Brentwood, NH studio. “We took that risk and we were willing to lose it all.”  

As you’re about to see in the photos and interview below, Donna and Randall didn’t lose it all, and they’re still hard at work making beautiful pottery and sharing their passion for stones and clay whenever they can. In fact, when our Tabletop Buyer NéQuana and I arrived to the studio over two hours late, thanks to a flat tire, the Rollinses weren’t even fazed. Their team had left for the night, and evidence of a long workday (so many pieces, in all stages of completion!) was all around. Still, they welcomed us like old friends, offered us snacks, and almost immediately started showing us their collections of stones and telling us about the energy in the space.  

Healing Stone Mugs, before the stones are attached

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Maker Stories

This Just In-spiration: Meet Bryan Mitchiner & Justin Hoffman

January 26, 2017

If you’re someone who takes the time to really look at the labels on the food you’re buying, it’s likely you’ve had more than a few unsettling realizations about the industry as a whole. Justin Hoffman had a similar experience with a jar of mustard, which inspired him to take mustard-matters into his own hands and create his own–with “no added junk.” What was initially a healthy hobby based on Justin’s own curiosity and fondness for cooking turned into a business when he moved to Seattle and met Bryan.

Flavored Mustard Sampler - UncommonGoods

We love to see makers who take good (and good for you) ideas and run with them, and so we’re happy to welcome these two new entrepreneurs to our uncommon family. Read on to hear from Justin (and a little bit from Bryan) about how their whole operation got started, what keeps them going, and, of course, which recipes they recommend!

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Design, Maker Stories

Physics and Poetry Meet with the Beating Heart in a Bottle

January 17, 2017

Leave it to the French to make physics seem…romantic. Artist Philippe Bouveret truly marries science and poetry in our Beating Heart in a Bottle Sculpture: two halves of a heart joining together again and again in a rhythm much like the beating of our own hearts. Thanks to the power of capillary action, the piece is almost like a living work of art.

Never lacking in inventiveness and always eager to experiment, Philippe spent years (from the ages 13-18) building a real, 6m long boat. Eventually, after getting a technical degree, he traded his plans of becoming a naval architect for more artistic endeavors: assisting in the construction of Jean Tinguely’s Cyclops, an enormous moving sculpture tucked away deep in the forest, creating massive pendulums and fountains, and crafting “hidden tableaus that reveal unexpected objects simply by placing an aspirin tablet in a provided slot. Much of the work Philippe has created, either on his own or in collaboration with other artists, engages the viewer in a game of sorts. Now, you can find him continuing to follow his playful sensibilities, working in his “laboratory-studio,” as he calls it, “accidentally making little discoveries that arouse [his] curiosity.”

Acclaimed art collector and museum director Pontus Hultén describes Philippe’s work as containing “an intriguing element, like a happy secret, an awareness of something that leads on much further, towards infinity.” We’re pleased to share the happy secret of the Beating Heart in a Bottle with you–it’s one of our very first international products that’s exclusive in the USA to only our customers.

Another (not-so) happy secret? Few of us here speak French. And so communicating with Philippe necessitated a bit of extra je ne sais quoi. See? I don’t even think I used that right. Fortunately, Philippe’s son Grimaud stepped in to help with an interview and ensured that nothing got too lost in translation. (Merci beaucoup, Grimaud!) Read on to learn more about Philippe’s inspirations and obsessions, as well as what he hopes for everyone who receives a Beating Heart in a Bottle.

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Maker Stories

Inside the Artists’ Studio with Anne Johnson and Arra David

January 10, 2017

Anne Johnson and Arra David outside of the Sea Stones Studio in Windham, NH, photos by Cassie Tweten Delaney

Canopies of colorful leaves. Air so fresh it actually feels different when you breathe it in. Wide open spaces and dewy blades of grass. These are things I don’t get to enjoy all that often in Brooklyn, but New Hampshire is another story. I experienced the natural beauty of “The Granite State” firsthand last fall, when I also got a full tour of Arra David and Anne Johnson’s bustling studio.

The state’s nickname is certainly fitting, given the extensive quarries in New Hampshire. It’s also fitting that Anne and Arra make their designs there, considering that their one-of-a-kind creations are made with wood, natural stones, metal, and–you guessed it–granite.

Curious about just how the designers are able to turn solid rock into functional home designs, our Tabletop Buyer NéQuana and I made the five-hour road trip from Brooklyn to Windham, NH to get an inside look.

Anne and Arra welcomed us in, offered us some of the homemade hard cider mentioned below, walked us through the studio and workshop, and let us take some tools for a test drive. With Arra’s guidance, NéQuana even built her own Sea Stone Splash Sponge Holder!

Arra, an engineer, talked to us about designing special tools to tackle heavy-duty work. He also shared thoughts on taking hold of inspiration when it “ambushes,” advice on the importance of collaboration, and a perfectly pertinent Thoreau quote.

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Maker Stories

Melissa J. Gondek’s Family Sculptures: Celebratory Symbols of Love

January 9, 2017

Family photos have the power to evoke all kinds of complicated feelings: nostalgia, awkwardness, humor, love. They grace our holiday cards and fill up our (increasingly digital) photo albums. They capture small moments that can hold big meaning when we look back on them later on. These photos have their place in our family histories for sure–but what if we could display a representation of our love that’s more tangible, less fleeting? That gets at the essential feeling of being loved, rather than a specific moment in time?

That’s where sculptor Melissa J. Gondek comes in. She says of her work: “I’m sculpting love, and everyone needs more of that.” Our customers have already fallen for her sculptures that depict the bonds we have with our cats and dogs, and so we’re excited to have an exclusive “So Happy Together” family sculpture from Melissa–one that showcases the sweetness of the ties between parents and their children.

The customizable pieces communicate meaningful messages in a heartfelt, simple package. Parents sit with their kids (you choose one or two) cozied up on their laps in a sculpture that would be equally at home on an entryway table or a mantle, in a new baby’s nursery or close at hand on your desk. They aren’t exact replicas of your family, but instead represent its loving spirit–the essence of what keeps you all connected. The universality of the figures lets you decide what “So Happy Together” means to you–whether it’s warmth, or safety, or trust–or all of those good things wrapped up into one. 

We can’t wait to get these sentimental sculptures out to you and your families, but in the meantime, read on to hear from the artist herself about how she brings unique life to the ones we hold most dear through her work.

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