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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.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Dave Marcoullier

February 10, 2015

Dave Marcoullier | UncommonGoods

Rocking red flannel, Dave Marcoullier, a San Francisco-based woodworking designer, was dressed like a true lumberjack when I showed up to take a tour of his studio. Passing gigantic Burning Man iron monuments that were displayed behind a fence outside, I was led into a warehouse that sheltered a world of more peculiar sculptures and organized chaos. I felt like I was in an abandoned carnival tucked away inside a hoarder’s ultimate dream maze. I was in a place that’s the second home for over 250 artists, blacksmiths, inventors, creative minds, and in Dave’s words, “mad scientists.” I didn’t spot anyone right away, but I heard banging, drilling, and faint shouting throughout the warehouse space. A dog brushed pass me, and Dave immediately told me how friendly she was.

Dave Marcoullier Wooden Routings | UncommonGoods

Stacks of random puzzle pieces of wood, metal, found items, car parts, and other bits and bobs were everywhere. I couldn’t decipher what objects they once were, but I had a feeling their future life would be interesting. I was officially Alice in a very, very different wonderland.

Dave was “the guy in the corner with the loud machines.” His space was positioned in the back – where his power tools and materials waited to be played with. My eyes couldn’t focus on just one thing because there was so much to look at. Wood pieces, big and small, tall and short, skinny and wide – were sprinkled along the walls and stored inside of trash cans. There was a huge cargo container placed in the corner, the inside was cleverly morphed into another mini workshop within his workspace, where more tools, gadgets, and machines were proudly displayed. I recognized his designs that were scattered under and on top of tables, all of them at different stages: just started, almost done, completed masterpiece.

From his Infill Fanicle Table to his City Skyline Wooden Routing, Dave’s intricate designs are truly uncommon and make a charming addition to any space. Read on to learn more about this maker and get a glimpse at his unforgettable creative space.

Sculptures 2
Sculptures 1

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
I’m inspired by the chaos and energy in this building. From hoarders to mad scientists, and everything in between, there are a lot of people here doing a lot of different things. I’m the guy in the corner with the loud machines.

What are your most essential tools?
The table saw is the center of my shop, but the CNC router is the epicenter. Everything that leaves my shop spends some time on the router bed. Other notables – ear protection, music and podcasts, a triangle, and a tape measure.

Dave in his San Francisco Studio
Router

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Down time is usually unplanned. Some days I hit the ground running and don’t look up until it’s time to go home. Other days I pace or pause between tasks, knolling and tidying. Some days I wander through the workspace and end up somewhere on the other side.

Outside of Dave's Studio
Outside of Dave's Studio 2

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Nothing works perfectly the first time. I now accept and expect problems and trials with every first attempt. Life and work are a series of mistakes and corrections. Rarely do you get it right on the first take.

How did you come up with the concept of your product?
I’m a serial dabbler. I was experimenting with a handheld shop router, cutting designs in relief into wood, which led to intentional designs I would cut by hand with the router. With increased demand I eventually bought a small CNC router, and then a larger one. It was an organic and progressive process for me.

Dave's Tools

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Less talk, more rock. I tiptoed into many new experiences and decisions, sometimes over deliberating. Have more trust in yourself and don’t worry about the hiccups.

How do you set goals for yourself?
I believe in lists. I keep a running list of bite-sized goals and tasks that need to be completed within a window of days and weeks. I also have broader lists of design ideas and plans for business growth that I need to keep checking in on as the months progress. Finally, I have those big, hairy goals that I let marinate in my brain, keeping me dreaming about things that seem almost out of reach.

Wood
Stable

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Immediately and always.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” -Daniel Burnham

I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t have larger plans for myself. Being self employed by making things was always a huge goal of mine, but I had no idea how I’d ever get there. It’s good to get riled up and make bold plans.

Daniel Burnham Quote

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
Currently, wood turning on the lathe, welding, and metal casting.
I often try to kickstart creativity with heightened focus or by visiting art blogs and museums, but I’ve found this rarely works for me. Most of my creativity arrives unannounced and often at inopportune times. I usually stop what I’m doing to focus on it. It’s important. It’s the fertilizer of my work.

Wooden Routing Art  by Dave Marcoullier  | UncommonGoods

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
Ultimately, the greatest collaborator of my work is my wife. She has a strong instinct for design that I trust. I bounce all my new ideas off her and take her suggestions seriously. My wood shop is within a small collective of about a half dozen craftspeople, and this collective is within a giant warehouse of about 250 people. My shop mates are metal workers, blacksmiths, glass artists and engineers, which means I’m exposed to other crafts and ways of working. It’s helpful that when I need to venture into metal work there is usually someone to help me, and I them. I thrive in solitude but need bursts of interaction.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Phil Thompson

January 14, 2015

Phil Thompson | UncommonGoods

Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Jeanne Gang—some of the greatest, most renowned names in architecture–have marked their space on the Chicago skyline. Their skyscrapers, public buildings, and homes in the Windy City have shaped modern design over the centuries. It is no wonder, then, why illustrator Phil Thompson finds inspiration in Chicago’s Prairie Style bungalows, classic six-flat brick Craftsman buildings, and skyscraping architectural landmarks. As a recently departed Chicagoan, I can attest that Phil and his wife and studio mate, Katie, live in one of those architecturally remarkable apartments that most of us dream of finding. Built in 1912, the Craftsman flat has many of its original Deco fixtures and warm, comforting wood detailing.

A colleague here at UncommonGoods tipped me off to Phil’s intricate custom home portraits. The cleanliness of his structured, blueprint-like approach suitably matches the sparseness of his studio. He surrounds himself just with what he needs: drawing paper, a basket full of trusty micro-pens, and drafting tools. There are a few exceptions to the sparseness—all of which are largely contained within a small bulletin board—a calendar, the usual lists of to-dos, and some inspirational quotations. Phil also prominently displays a beautiful postcard-size watercolor by his grandmother to remind him of his artistic roots.

I am always thoroughly impressed and warmed by artists that are able to seamlessly and successfully blend their passions and skills. Phil and Katie are two of those artists. He pairs his discerning eye and exacting hand with a passion for accurately rendering architectural styles and the home. Phil’s Classic Home Portraits honor those places where we build memories, families, and community.

Phil's Studio

What are your most essential tools?
Micron Pens, down to their smallest size, and Strathmore drawing paper. But the pens in particular. If I ever find out that company is going out of business, I will buy their entire inventory of pens.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
My home/studio is in brick 6-flat building built in 1912. Our unit has most of the original woodwork, leaded glass, and some of the original lighting fixtures. It was done in the Craftsman style, which I find have the most beautiful, warm and inspiring interiors.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Lunch is my best downtime. It’s my time to get out to one of the great places in Ravenswood, especially those along the historic railway “corridor” behind our backyard.

Phil Thompson at work

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Always plan to pay more in taxes than you anticipate. If you’re transitioning from employee at a 9-5 to a business owner, you’ll get well-acquainted with sales tax and payroll taxes.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
If you want to earn more money, forget about trying to outsmart the housing market or real estate market. Focus on finding a business that blends your passion, your skills, and customer demand, and take it one step at a time.

Classic Home Portrait | UncommonGoods

How do you set goals for yourself?
I have an annual sales goal that keeps me going. Daily, I write down a matrix dividing work and personal tasks into “important/urgent” and “important/non-urgent.”

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
When I get a big custom commission or get a big flurry of print orders, it’s usually dinner out with the wife–on a weeknight (gasp).

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
It’s on the bulletin board in front of me: “Success is not final, failure not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”- Winston Churchill

"Success is not final..." Churchill Quote

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft? 
I want to apply the type of line-heavy stuff I do with pen and ink, to traditional etching/linocuts,and create prints. There are two local shops that teach this type of skill, and I’m planning to take a class there.

How do you recharge your creativity?
Podcasts about people’s personal stories and struggles. I’m fortunate in being able to work and listen at the same time, so I’ve listened to months’ worth of podcasts like this. Hearing about how other people are inspired and come up with stuff, how they worked around roadblocks, gets me charged up.

Phil and Katie Thompson

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
My wife is like the Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or down when I show her a finished product. She’s honest. Sometimes the result stings but over time it makes my work better. She also is a cornucopia of ideas about new ways to present my work and new subject matter.

Maker Stories

Wrapped Up in a Good Book: Tori Tissell’s Literary Scarves

October 20, 2014

Tori Tissell | UncommonGoods

It doesn’t take much exposition to connect literature and art. Artist Tori Tissell fuses both with fashionable flair in her literary scarves. Full of storybook charm, they harken back to Tori’s days as a budding artist. “Some of my earliest memories are from the age of three years old when I was painting in watercolors,” says Tori, “there’s a video recording of me being asked what I want to be when I grow up–my answer was an artist.”

This passion continued into adulthood, landing Tori as a drawing and painting major before deciding to move to New York City to study fashion design. “I thought that outlet would allow for a wider audience and quicker reception of my work and ideas.” Tori was right, and after being stumped for Christmas gift ideas during the 2011 holiday season, she decided to use her education and passion for screen printing, fashion, and literature to create something memorable for family and friends. “Since those closest to me also have an affinity towards reading, [book-inspired scarves] seemed like the perfect solution for gifts and possibly more.”

Literary Scarves | UncommonGoods

Tori sourced some fabric for the scarves and found a rich cream-colored knit. With this new material, she was inspired to print the scarves to resemble the page of a book. After the scarves were a hit, Tori began selecting other book texts to be screen-printed. “Initially books and passages were picked by what I favor and some of that will always hold true but lately we’ve been getting a lot of additional input,” says Tori. From Alice in Wonderland to Jane Eyre, each scarf showcases a window into a world of storybook magic.

Tori working on a Literary Scarf

Tori’s husband Chris became a part of the project when they got married in 2012. The scarves had really started taking off, and he began helping with screen printing, sourcing, and streamlining production. “By the end of that year, he was practically a full time employee on top of his other job as a computer programmer.”

Tori and Chris work out of a few spaces in Portland. “My workspace is a bit of a joke,” says Tori, “Chris is the one with a beautifully painted office, complete with overflowing bookshelves, leather furniture, and artifacts from past travels. My office is continually on the move. I either print pieces within our rented studio space in downtown Portland, or I cut and sew fabric on our dining room table.”

Tori and Chris

Wherever she happens to be working, Tori keeps pieces of inspiration handy. One such piece is the print cover art for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, signed by the artist. This is one of many hints at her love of reading, a passion that perfectly enhances her art. Another source of inspiration can be found within. “I think it’s really important for an artist to surround oneself with his or her own work because taking on new illustrations is terrifying. It’s comforting to see what’s already been overcome and to be reminded that you can do this.”

Literary Scarves | UncommonGoods

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!