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Design

Creative Design to the Rescue! (Of Homeless Cats)

March 7, 2014

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My cat Eddie thinking about cats who lack a nice warm bed like his

If you love cats–as we do–it’s painful to think of them having to brave the elements on their own during a freezing northern winter, especially this year. But here in New York City, tens if not hundreds of thousands of cats have no shelter. So, if you also love creative design, and believe in its potential as a force for good–as we do–it’s nice to learn about Architects for Animals’ “Giving Shelter,” a yearly funds-and awareness-raising initiative founded by animal lover Leslie Farrell.

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“CatHaus” by Francis Cauffman Architects was voted the favorite of the 2014 attendees

Since 2010, every year, Farrell, Director of Client Development at architecture firm Francis Cauffman, has convinced a handful of top-notch architectural design firms to design, build and donate innovative outdoor winter shelters for homeless cats. Their creations are put on public display as a one-night benefit event for the Mayor’s Alliance for NewYork City’s Animals. Attendees vote for their favorite, then all the shelters are donated to caregivers who work with needy animals.

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“Cat Hive” by Incorporated Architecture & Design

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by Carlton Architecture PC

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“Time Machine for Kittens,” by Two One Two Design

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“Hairball,” by M Moser Associates

The creative designs of these shelters help the cause architecturally (they generate good ideas for future shelters) and in other ways, too, as Michael Phillips, Community Outreach Coordinator of the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the Mayor’s Alliance, points out. “The media coverage with pictures of the flashy shelters is an eye-catcher that many people examine with interest, whereas they will skip over an article about the plight of cats abandoned to the streets through no fault of their own.”

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Homeless cat in Brooklyn (rescued and adopted a few days after this photo was taken)

Nobody knows how many homeless cats there are in NYC, but estimates range from tens of thousands up to a million. Most of them are scared of us, so they keep out of sight, which makes counting them difficult. While people often think of cats as natural loners, they actually tend to form colonies near food sources such as garbage bins near apartment buildings. Some feral moms could very well be teaching their kittens to scrounge your leftovers as you sleep. (I’ve witnessed this, a sight both adorable and sad.)

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African Wild Cat at the Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa. Photo: Sonelle

These felines are all trying to survive in what, for them, is an unnatural habitat. It’s not just that it’s so urban and industrial, but also that they’re not native to this part of the world. All of the world’s domestic cats are descended from a type of wildcat that lives in the deserts of the Near East. These cats are not designed to live in the NYC climate; those pretty fur coats are not enough protection during the winter, no matter how thick they get.

They need our help, especially as it’s humans’ fault that they’re out there in the first place. This population is made up of of strays, who are lost or abandoned tame pet cats (some of whom have regressed to a not-so-tame state), and ferals, the essentially wild (that is, not socialized to humans) offspring and descendants of non-neutered strays and pets who were allowed to roam. They have neither a consistent and healthy food source, nor shelter from the elements, nor protection from urban dangers such as cars, rat and other poisons, and cruel humans.

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New York Feral Cat Initiative logo

Fortunately, there are many (though never enough) animal-lovers all over NYC who work hard to rescue tame, adoptable cats and kittens, and feed and protect the ferals. The New York City Feral Cat Initiative is a coalition of more than 150 animal rescue groups and shelters whose joint mission is “to raise awareness about the thousands of… community cats living outdoors throughout NYC’s five boroughs, to offer solutions to prevent the number of homeless cats from increasing, and to successfully manage existing colonies.”

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Standard outdoor cat winter shelter design by Ashot Karamian

Building shelters that enable these critters to avoid freezing misery or death during inclement weather is part of the last part, managing colonies. (To read about solutions to prevent increases in the number of homeless cats, start here.) Of course, it’s not really necessary to build shelters that are more than just functional. As far as we know, cats aren’t offended by a styrofoam-and-duct-tape aesthetic. Phillips described the minimal structural guidelines as follows: “No heavier than two people can lift easily. Inner space should be no higher than 16 inches to retain the body heat of the cats with room for straw bedding.Waterproof. Constructed with weatherproof construction materials.” He added, “Water is the most destructive force. Snow does not normally damage shelters or enter shelters in comparison to driving rain or flooding.”

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Rubbermaid container cat shelter by by Ashot Karamian (photo by Ashot Karmanian used with permission)

“You could use a basic Rubbermaid container for a cat shelter, which is quite common and perfectly fine because it works,” says architect Sofia Zimmerman, who, along with her husband and business partner, Adam, has participated in Architects for Animals: Giving Shelter three years in a row. “But as designers,”she continues, “we love the idea of someone walking down the street and coming across something that is artful, unusual, or even beautiful. Cat shelters are often found in alleyways, parking lots, and other places where finding something delightful is rare. But here’s a chance to do something nice looking–for the cats, their caregivers, and the people that might catch a glimpse.”

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by Zimmerman Workshop Architecture + Design

“This third one, that we did this year, is perhaps the simplest, but in many ways our favorite. It was all about upcycling. We re-used a cardboard box and sealed it with duct tape. Inside, we lined it with styrofoam that came as packaging material for a lamp. And then we had to add another layer of insulation. This was the chance to do something delightful! We collected nine pairs of old jeans, cut them into long strips, and created a very very long braid. We wrapped it around and around the box, using as inspiration braided rag rugs–the ones you see in storybooks all the time with cats curled up on them!”

She adds that “During that process, we actually learned about the environmental impact associated with creating a pair of jeans….don’t get us started!”

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“Fiberglass Pod,” by Elham Valipay and Haleh Atabaki, co-founders of MishMish, an example of a structure built with camouflage in mind

Different situations may call for specific architectural strategies. Phillips describes varying and “colony needs,” such as “camouflage; difficult specific dimensions to fit an exact spot; or fitting in visually with the design of a building nearby to please a particular property owner willing but not thrilled to have shelters placed on his property.”

If you want to help feral cats where you live, Phillips says, “Offering of your time to assist a local caretaker in your neighborhood is the best way to contribute to the long-term welfare of a community cat colony. The more widespread the support in a neighborhood the more likely the cats will accepted. Volunteering to feed the colony one or more days a week is a great help, when so often only one or two people shoulder the care for an entire colony.“

Or, if you’re crafty and love the idea of experimenting with small-scale architectural design that will actually be used, here’s your chance to do it, fur real! (sorry…)

vernacular1vernacular2vernacular3

Above three photos: “Feral Vernacular” by deSoto studio architecture + design

All photos copyright Marisa Bowe, unless otherwise indicated.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Cassidy Schulz Brush

February 2, 2014

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No matter how much I prepare before a Studio Tour, I never know exactly what to expect when I step into a creative workspace. On the way to my most recent artist encounter I traveled up New York Avenue by bus, out of my own Brooklyn neighborhood and into a close by, but unfamiliar, area somewhere between Bed-Stuy and Willaimsburg, I wondered what I’d see when I arrived at Cassidy Schulz Brush’s studio, Urban Chandy. After getting off at my stop, I wandered down a street that seemed to be a mix of industrial and urbane. I walked past warehouses and large trucks making deliveries, but also passed several people who looked like they could be on their way to art shows or coming from trendy coffee shops.

When I entered Cassidy’s studio, I found that same juxtaposition of city chic and industry. Of course, it’s what I should have been expecting all along, considering that Cassidy and her team so beautifully combine mechanical elements (like wires, sockets, and bulbs) and gorgeous reclaimed materials (like barn wood or vintage ceiling tiles) to create her chandeliers–or chandies, as she calls them.

The space is lit by a combination of sunshine pouring in large windows and the exposed bulbs hanging from its many chandies. Stacks of wood, various tools, and spools of wire line most of the walls there, and the remaining wall is covered in chalkboard paint and filled with chalky lists and numbers. Surrounded by so many details, I felt like I could explore the studio all day examining the many combinations of old and new. Here’s a closer look inside Urban Chandy, and some great advice from Cassidy Schulz Brush.

Industrial Chandelier | UncommonGoods

What are your most essential tools?
The coffee maker, I couldn’t live without it! Seriously, it has helped make many a chandy.;) Besides coffee, my three most essential tools are wire strippers, the drill, and the belt sander.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
I’m inspired by the materials we bring in, every lot of wood is different and brings new challenges and surprises. I have to make time to develop all of the ideas I have between filling orders which is difficult when also chasing after a 3 year old.

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Urban Chandy | UncommonGoods

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
There is no down time in the studio! I cherish every minute that I get to spend there so I keep very busy every second, so much to do so little time. It’s not yet a place I can bring my daughter, with all the small parts, power tools, and stain odors, so I make each day count.

Wood and Tiles

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
It’s a tough lesson to learn that others will knock off your ideas. Instead of getting angry, I try to keep looking forward and creating new and better products.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
I would tell myself to have more confidence and trust my instincts more.

How do you set goals for yourself?
My one goal is to keep making the best that I can do better. I’ve said many times over the last two years that this business just took off by itself, I’ve just been along for the ride. I feel my role is to just focus on the product and design, constantly improving it.

Getting Organized
Tools

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
I try to remind myself often how lucky I am to be where I am with this business and my career. I’m very ambitious and like to challenge myself, but I try to internalize every achievement as a small victory and appreciate the hard work I’ve done that lead to it.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
There are a few quotes by Thomas Edison that I find inspirational! Edison, an inventor and businessman was quoted as saying, “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.” It’s one of my favorites along with another I have written on our blackboard at the studio: “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Thomas Edison QuoteWhat are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
Right now I’m learning about patinas and how to create different colors on copper and brass with various compounds that speed up oxidation and other chemical processes that tarnish the metal. I’ve only been fabricating for two years now, so I still feel like I learn something new everyday. I studied Business Administration in college!

How do you recharge your creativity?
I like to recharge by playing with my daughter and spending time with my family. I love building things for my daughter Lucy and with her as well. We like to build forts together, it gets pretty involved at our house. Anything is game to become part of a fort…including the dog!

Painted Sockets

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
I enjoy sharing ideas with other makers and feel lucky to know a few great people who always inspire and encourage me to keep doing what I’m doing. Matt and Steve Loftice at RecycledBrooklyn, Tyagi Schwartz of Dog Tag Designs, and Chris Harth of NY Cutlery have been great friends and mentors to me the last year.

The Uncommon Life

Getting to Your Intersection of Love: A 6 Step Road Map

January 23, 2014

Intersection of Love | UncommonGoods

Valentine’s Day is approaching and, as the old saying goes, love is in the air. We’re extra giddy about celebrating Saint Valentine’s holiday this year thanks to a special collection of fun new art created by our Product Development team. The Intersection of Love ™ is a way to show the world that your one-and-only has a special place in your heart.

On the other hand, Valentine’s Day can be a total bummer for those who are feeling unlucky not in love. And, since our blog team is made up of women at different points in the journey to the intersection of love, we decided to pool our experiences one night over a couple glasses of wine and share our best advice for those looking to arrive at the corner of commitment.

1. Make an itinerary for your journey. Know who you are and what you want.
Some travelers are just looking for friendship, others are looking for marriage, and some want something in between. Before hitting the road, evaluate what you really want. Look at the map of where you’ve already been to evaluate past relationships, then make a note of where you want to be, who you want to be there with you, and what you want to do to find that person.

2. Choose Your Mode of Transportation
Where will you feel comfortable meeting someone? Many people find love online these days. There’s nothing wrong with that, and although it can be scary setting up that online dating profile, once you make the decision to do it it’s a lot easier than you think!

It’s also okay to go the old-fashioned route. Get out there and attend events where you can meet people with similar interests, talk to your friends to see if they’re interested in setting you up, and don’t feel like you have to commit to the same mode of transportation for the whole ride.

3. Read the Road Signs
You’ll come across some important road signs along the way, so it’s important to be able to read those signals. Some things are easy to pick up on (your potential partner stops texting), but others are a bit more subtle. It’s impossible to tell what another person is thinking, so trust your intuition. Spending time with someone is sort of like taking driver’s ed. You’ll learn new things along the way.

4. Check Your Gas Gauge
You don’t want to run out of gas, but that can happen if you leave a lead foot on the accelerator. It’s okay to tap the brake, or even pull over for a bit if you think you’re going too fast. Keep your tank full by making conscious efforts to keep your relationship exciting. Also, take the time to really think about your relationship and if what you’re putting into it (and getting from it) is creating a mutual valuable experience.  If your tank does start to get low, it’s time to evaluate whether it’s working or if it’s just time to move on.

5. Know When to Flip on Cruise Control
So, you have a full tank of gas and you’re feeling pretty comfortable? When your relationship is in a good place, you don’t always have to stress about what’s next. When you get to this point, make time to enjoy just hanging out together (even if you don’t have big plans), get to know each other’s friends and family, and learn little things about each other you didn’t know before. Sometimes it’s fine to relax and take in the scenery.

6. Knowing When You’ve Arrived at the Intersection of Love
When you reach the intersection, you can pretty much drive with your eyes closed (though we certainly don’t recommend doing that on any actual road trip). When you’re both in the same place emotionally and have the same idea of what it means to “arrive” then it’s almost as if your GPS has announced “Destination on left.”

Disclaimer: The blog team at UncommonGoods are not relationship experts. We don’t have degrees in interpersonal psychology, and the advice in this post probably shouldn’t be taken too seriously. However, we do sincerely hope you find your way to the intersection of love!


Intersection of Love | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Meghan Ellie Smith

December 13, 2013

Meghan Ellie Smith

Clutter Castle is what Meghan calls her eccentric home studio, tucked away in the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn. When I saw the odd, yet beautiful, string installation hanging from the ceiling, a collection of wooden instruments displayed on the wall, and a creepy plastic hand sitting on its own mini mantel, I fully understood how the Clutter Castle earned the honor of its name. But it’s funny, although I was like a kid in a candy shop in her vintage oasis — oohing and ahhing at every corner, I didn’t find it overwhelmingly chaotic. I felt as if the odds and ends of all the clutter were actually masterfully organized to push the use of imagination and a creative atmosphere. Which made perfect sense, because those were my exact thoughts about Meghan’s winning art piece, Chaos Mountain. The bright and earthy colors bleed into one another with no particular pattern, yet the shaped splices are meticulously placed. I love it. Perhaps the juxtaposition between the crashing watercolors and structured mountain reminds me a little of myself: a bit messy, a bit random, a bit chaotic, but in the end of the day, I know what I want to do and exactly where I want to go. “Not all who wander are lost,” a favorite quote by many free spirited individuals, resonates within the illustration of Chaos Mountain. Meghan Ellie Smith,a true free spirit herself, is not only the Queen of Clutter Castle, but officially wears the crown of our latest Art Contest. 

Meghan Ellie Smith I absolutely love your aesthetic and design. How exactly did you decide on the concept of Chaos Mountain?
Thank you! I’ve been very inspired by nature lately, especially mountains. I guess being in the city all the time can make one feel a little desperate for the great outdoors. Working on Chaos Mountain was a really nice way to get some simulated nature time. Meghan Ellie SmithIMG_0289

Where do you find inspiration within your space?
I’ve got 7 roommates! All of whom are musically, artistically, and creatively talented. Being surrounded by wonderful, passionate friends is an amazing source of inspiration.

Where does down time fit into a day of being productive.
I pretty much just go on reddit.com/r/aww and look at cute animal photos whenever I’m waiting on paint to dry. That and watch Parks and Rec, and take the occasional nap when the mood strikes.

Meghan Ellie Smith IMG_0302

What are your most essential tools that you must have by your side while you design?
Pretty much just acrylic paint, brushes, paper towels, scissors, duck tape, laptop, and very important- CANDY.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a freelance artist?
Lots of people will tell you they can’t pay you, “but you’ll get great exposure.” This is a load of crap.

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Other than being an artist, what else do you do?
First and foremost, crazy cat lady. I took that to the next level recently and started volunteering at an animal shelter called BARC in Williamsburg- they’re awesome, I highly recommend volunteering and/or adopting from there. I’ve also just been named the talent booker for a new bar/music venue in Williamsburg called Kingsland which I’m crazy excited about!

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Where do you picture yourself and what will you be doing in 5 years?
If all goes according to plan, bottle feeding baby tigers. And making a legit living being an artist.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
DON’T LIVE IN THE DORMS; you’re gonna have a weird roommate who doesn’t flush.

Meghan Ellie Smith

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
One time I was in the car with my mom and I asked her, “How many birds are there in the world?” She responded, “Seven. It’s all mirrors.” Both hilarious, and amazing. It’s way more fun to let your imagination bend reality and see the world however you want. IMG_0331

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft? 
I’d love to learn about screen printing! I’ve got some friends that can teach me, so it’s just a matter of finding the time to do it. Also photoshop…very daunting.

How do you recharge your creativity?
The aforementioned nap times are pretty great for that, and hanging out with my friends and laughing about all things ridiculous puts me in the  greatest mood, which is when I’m at my creative best.

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Do you have any special projects or events that are in the works or that are floating in your brain right now?
I’m currently working on my biggest painting yet! It’s 3ft.x4ft. and sort of a surreal, illustrative mountain scene. I’ve always been pretty scared of doing large format work so it feels really good to be confronting this challenge. I’m happy to report- so far, so good.

Meghan Ellie Smith

 

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Design

Inspiration for Innovators: A New Collection of Patent Art

November 12, 2013

Creativity is one of our greatest joys and highest values at UncommonGoods. It makes us so happy when we come across or develop an imaginative, original design, artwork, or product that will bring something special into our customers’ lives. We’re in awe of the creative geniuses throughout history whose ideas, experiments, innovations and inventions have transformed life altogether.

Actress Susan Cabot as a chemist inventor Janice Starlin in the 1959 Roger Corman film, The Wasp WomanActress Susan Cabot as a chemist/inventor Janice Starlin in the 1959 Roger Corman film, The Wasp Woman

Learning about how great inventors and product designers have pursued their ideas from dream to reality, persisting through the grueling effort of iterative failures and breakthroughs, is incredibly inspiring. Our Product Development team wanted to create a new wall art collection that would link the often quiet presence of innovation in our daily lives to the grand and sometimes dramatic history of invention.

Thomas Edison with lightbulbThomas Edison looking stern while holding a light bulb

Thinking about history led them to the National Archives online collection. Then they had their light bulb moment. What’s a more universally-recognized symbol of inspiration than… the incandescent light bulb itself? What more prolific inventor has there been than Thomas Edison, with his 1,093 patents? And how cool is it that the National Archives collection includes some great-looking documents that were central to Edison’s most transformative inventions? (Answers: None, None, and Very.)

Edison Illuminated Art | UncommonGoods

Edison Illuminated Art (Electric-Lamp. U.S. Patent #223,898, 1880, by Thomas Edison)

The team fell in love with the patent application drawings that skilled draftsmen (yup, all men back then–though not all white men) created of the light bulb and other inventions. Their historical value is bottomless. But our team was also struck by their simple beauty, and the profound inspiration they recall and radiate. They decided to create a collection that would spotlight the elegant loveliness of these hand-drawn, hand-written documents.

Replica of Edison's Menlo Park LaboratoryReplica of Edison’s  Menlo Park Laboratory, site of the invention of the light bulb. (GNU Free Documentation License. Photo: Swampyank, Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

It was determined that a Product Development team field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, NJ, where “the wizard of Menlo Park” lived and laboratoried [Ed. note: We “innovated” that word] was a mandatory step in their creative process. [Ed. note: Uh-huh.]

Their trip to the wizard’s workshop wasn’t only inspiring; it was humbling. You know that famous Edison quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”? He wasn’t kidding. “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” Edison wrote. “Before I got through, I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” (There was no electrical system for people to plug light bulbs into, so, no problemo, Edison invented a power distribution system, too.)

Edison bulb used in Menlo Park demo, 1879Edison bulb used in Menlo Park electric lamp demo, Christmas week, 1879. Unlike today’s bulbs, the early ones were created by artisans, of hand-blown glass. Photo: Sergio Caltagirone.

 

Edison 1877 cylinder phonograph - photo. Photo Library of CongressEdison’s 1877 cylinder phonograph

Edison’s 1879 light bulb – perhaps the most iconic patent ever – wasn’t actually the earliest; but it was the first efficient, long-lasting, practical, and commercially viable one. His 1877 cylinder phonograph, however, was an original. Even he was amazed when the first words he said into it – “Mary had a little lamb” – were played back to him by his machine.  (The little pocket device injecting music straight into your brain has Mary and her little lamb in its DNA. Even if you’re playing death metal.) [Ed. note: Whether or not you were fleeced is another issue. Har. Har.]

The patent applications for these inventions, antique as they are, still powerfully communicate passion for innovating, pushing forward, solving problems, imagining and designing the future. But there’s also an appealing quaintness to them. They seem to embody honest simplicity, even a kind of innocence.

Edison lightbulb quasi-ad
Edison the marketer: Electric light “warning,” 1878

Though we know these became some of the most successful products of all time (in part because Edison was a brilliant and aggressive marketer), because they’re purely technical, they seem to exist on a higher plane than mere marketing. There’s no slick, trendy styling; no scantily-clad ladies holding these objects; and no breathless ad copy. Invented before the onset of “planned obsolescence,” which created the problems of waste and resource depletion we have today, these products were designed to simply perform their functions well.

Phonograph Patent Art (U.S. Patent #227,679; 1880, by Thomas Edison)

We dig that. The team didn’t want to mess with perfection, so the artworks in our new collection consist of un-altered reproductions of the original patent applications, printed on 100% archival enhanced matte paper. Each goes a thought-provoking (and fun) step further by subtly incorporating functionality and form, to illustrate how these inventions have evolved. The Phonograph, for example, incorporates a vintage vinyl LP, and the Light Bulb is illuminated by an LED.

US Patent Office New Wing, 1891US Patent Office then-new wing, 1891

As Morgan Tanner, UncommonGoods Product Development Production Manager, put it, “These patents point to the origins of these commonplace items, but by no means represent the ‘last word’ on them. Innovation breathes life into the products we rely on and interact with every day. Reinvention brings timelessness.”

See Saw patent 116,502, 1871Sometimes inspiration means seeing things from a new angle. Seesaw Patent art (U.S. Patent #116,502, by Mrs. S. E. Saul, 1871)

The team hoped to dream up a collection of inspiring art for our customers that would honor creativity as an immensely powerful energy flowing through each and every of us–and they succeeded! The iconic, historical aura of these documents beams undimmed through the decades, motivating us each to explore our own, individual genius in whatever direction it takes us…even if it takes a while to get where we’re going, as it did for a certain young patent clerk at the beginning of the 20th century who couldn’t get a promotion and felt he was going nowhere at the speed of light.

Albert Einstein, patent clerk third class, Bern, Switzerland, c. 1903. He didn’t write the series of papers which revolutionized physics until 1905.

 

From a 1901 letter from Einstein’s father, Hermann, to Professor Wilhelm Ostwald at the University of Leipzig, Germany:
“I shall start by telling you that my son Albert is 22 years old, that … he feels profoundly unhappy with his present lack of position, and his idea that he has gone off the tracks with his career & is now out of touch gets more and more entrenched each day. In addition, he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means…..” (Professor Ostwald never responded.)