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The Uncommon Life

2014: A Last Look at a First-Class Year!

December 31, 2014

In 1999, UncommonGoods was founded as an alternative retailer driven by an emerging market for unique, handmade and environmentally friendly designs, as well as a conviction that business could be a force for good in the world. And over the past fifteen years, the people behind our efforts—our Brooklyn team, not-for-profit partners, and an array of independent artists and independently minded customers—have been the inspiration and can-do catalysts of our growing business. So, as we look back at 2014, we thought the best way to characterize the year is by profiling a few of the people and partners that made it one to celebrate.

Reach Out and Read: a Better to Give Success Story

Through our Better to Give program, UncommonGoods has donated over $1 million to our partner non-profits.

Reach Out and Read

As an independently owned business, we have the freedom to support causes we believe in, helping them to impact the world in a positive way. Through our Better to Give program, we make it easy for you to join us in supporting these great causes—with every purchase you make, we’re proud to donate $1 to your choice of one of our non-profit partners. Over the week of Thanksgiving, we increased the Better to Give donation to $5 for those visiting our site through a special email campaign, taking us past the $1 million donation mark on Black Friday!

Our newest Better to Give partner, Reach Out and Read, joined us in 2014, and was immediately a popular choice, gaining over 35 thousand customer backers, for a total of more than $35,000 in donations. Reach Out and Read serves more than 4 million children annually, sharing the transformative power of reading with families in need nationwide. As recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the program incorporates early literacy into pediatric practice, equipping parents with tools and knowledge to ensure that their children are prepared to learn when they start school.

With obvious passion for his organization’s work, Reach Out and Read’s Executive Director Brian Gallagher shared some of the ways that Better to Give has benefited their efforts over the past year:

Reach Out and Read’s Executive Director Brian Gallagher

“The support has allowed us to purchase brand-new books (our favorites include Goodnight Moon and Clifford the Big Red Dog) and to deliver critical literacy guidance to families in need. With the support of UncommonGoods and others, we have been able to grow our program in 2014, adding our unique early literacy intervention in 287 additional health centers, hospitals, and pediatric clinics nationwide, serving 230,000 more children. UncommonGoods has provided essential funding to keep our program expanding—truly helping us to change pediatrics, change families, and most importantly, change futures.”

Brian also commented on some of the benefits of our collaboration beyond the bottom line:

“In addition to the amazing financial support, the Better to Give partnership has helped educate an entirely new audience about Reach Out and Read—and the importance of early literacy and early intervention. We have seen our social media base steadily increase over the year, and feel certain that many of those fans and followers are UncommonGoods customers. We have also been able to reach shoppers who have a social conscience, and may have chosen to support Reach Out and Read additionally outside of the Better to Give partnership. We are so grateful to have had the chance to align ourselves with such a great brand, and use this platform to help us raise funds and overall awareness of our organization and our mission.”

Finally, he sees some important affinities between UncommonGoods and Reach Out and Read that make this partnership a great fit:

“We love that UncommonGoods is more than just a company—you give back to those in need and you strive to better the world, as we do through our literacy intervention. And based on the amount of support we’ve received this year, your customers are clearly people who also care about literacy and value the early interactions between a parent and a child. We are beyond thrilled with this relationship and look forward to all that is to come as our two organizations continue to work together to effect positive change.”

 

Nancy and Walter Warner: a Bigger Jam Session

UncommonGoods promotes the work of more than 600 small, independent makers; 80% of these have 10 people or fewer on their team.

Walter and Nancy Warner | UncommonGoodsNancy and Walter Warner, Beer Jelly Set

 Part of UncommonGoods’ long-standing mission is to support the work of innovative, independent makers—artists, designers, craftspeople, and…jelly makers. Each of the 600 makers that we represent has a unique story, and Nancy and Walter Warner are no exception. The two former archaeologists moved to Vermont to pursue new ventures: Walt pursuing a career as a cultural resource lawyer, and Nancy launching a business making distinctive, artisanal preserves. Their collaboration with UncommonGoods has allowed them to take their craft from cottage industry to a full-steam operation.

Nancy Warner put her spoon down long enough to reflect on the effect of their partnership with UncommonGoods over the past year:

“Working with UG has allowed us to grow our business with confidence in 2014. The partnership and the audience UG reaches has helped us more than double our gross sales from the previous year. We thought we were full time before our partnership with UncommonGoods, but teaming up has helped us become job creators: we’ve hired four employees, invested in new equipment, and have quickly outgrown our tiny spot on the town green and are on the hunt for our next home in Vermont.”

Beer Jelly | UncommonGoods

She also commented on the esprit de corps between her venture and the UncommonGoods team:

“I believe we are a great fit with UncommonGoods because the staff there is as excited about our work as we are. True believers in the creative and uncommon process, UncommonGoods has worked with us to develop new flavors like Cabernet & Cracked Pepper wine jelly, conferenced with us regularly to be sure we’re on the same page, and supported our use of environmentally-friendly packaging (even though it may cost just a bit more). Most importantly, the UG crew reaches out to us regularly to be sure they understand our process and our limits as small producers of handcrafted items. In some ways, UG feels like an extension of our own team.”

Kenesha Phillip on the People Who Drive the Success of UncommonGoods

UncommonGoods is committed to paying a living wage, with hourly team members paid 70% higher than the Federal minimum.

Kenesha Phillip | UncommonGoods

 Kenesha Phillip, UncommonGoods Area Operations Manager

UncommonGoods maintains a team of 120 year-round—and 685 seasonal team members in the fourth quarter (2014)—all under one roof in the historic Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Keeping all operations in New York and in a common space has been a priority since the company’s founding. And maintaining a great team by paying a living wage, providing opportunities to grow with the company, and valuing the potential of each individual have been essential elements in UncommonGoods’ success over the past 15 years.

Despite the frenetic pace of our warehouse in December, Area Operations Manager Kenesha Phillip—who herself started as a seasonal Team Lead in 2012—took some time to reflect on the character of UncommonGoods’ team:

“I think that the recognition of humanity is a really important thing. In the world that we live in now…it’s important that people know that you see them, and that they know they’re valuable, and that’s the most important thing that UncommonGoods does. Tom or Dave [company founders] will walk into the warehouse and say that the people closest to the customer are the most important people to the business, and that’s very nice to hear and very comforting and makes people feel appreciated. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being on the warehouse floor, it’s that people give their best effort when they feel like you see them and you value them…they feel like they’re here to help the team accomplish a bigger goal.”

Brooklyn Army Terminal

Brooklyn Army Terminal

She also commented on the challenges and opportunities that come with the company’s seasonal activity which calls for a high quality team:

“The human element here is really important, and something that we fight for all the time. And it’s not an easy thing to do—the bar is raised year after year, and we need better and better people to work for us. But it’s definitely an attraction when you know you can start as a seasonal worker and move into a management role. It helps us hire a strong team and keep a strong team here. I’d worked in retail before, so I know how people are typically paid in retail and what kind of environments they are…[here] it’s just different…we pay people a living wage, and we try to treat people with respect. If you walk over to the warehouse right now, you can’t tell who’s year-round and who’s seasonal. We try to make sure that everyone has a great experience, regardless of whether they’ve been here for a few months or for years. We work together as a team.”

Regarding UncommonGoods’ commitment to keeping the entire company under one roof in Brooklyn, she observed:

 

UncommonGoods Warehouse

“For us to be successful as a company, Operations has to go well, but everything else in the company has to go well too. We partner with so many departments every year to make sure that the customer has a good experience in the holiday season. We work with the Merchants…with Customer Service…with Human Resources…to make sure that those things all come down to the customer. So it’s a nice thing having the corporate offices in the same building as the warehouse.”

And she discussed the importance of paying a living wage for a company—and team—that calls New York home:

“It’s very expensive to live here, so people need the wages that we pay…and people always ask about it when they return because we do pay such a good wage compared to the Federal level. I know that it impacts the lives of the people that work for us in a significant way, even if it’s for a short time. It’s a significant thing, and it means someone being able to pay their rent. It makes all the difference in people’s living conditions. I know that some people that work for us have a difficult time financially, so it’s important that we continue to do this, and it’s something to be proud of.”

 

Always Becoming a Better Business

As a founding B Corp, we’re committed to sustainability. This year we made strides with our highest B Lab score yet.

B the Change | B Corp

 

We’ve always been passionate about sustainability, and back in 2007 we joined our fellow founding B Corporations in starting a global movement to redefine success in business. As the official B Corp website explains, by earning our certification we’re “voluntarily meeting higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance, Certified B Corps are distinguishing themselves in a cluttered marketplace by offering a positive vision of a better way to do business.”

In 2014 we showed that we’re still going strong when it comes to sustainability. In fact, we proudly announced that our Impact Assessment came back with our best score so far: 111.4 points. (That’s 12% higher than our previous score.)

Many of the improvements we made in 2014 helped us earn our recertification and earn a higher score than we’d had in the past. We formed a sustainability committee to give employees opportunities to personally impact our sustainability decisions, we implemented composting and better recycling programs, and we improved our vendor relationships.UncommonGoods B Lab Scorecard

While we are definitely happy with the changes we’ve made and our improved score, we know that working to be a better business is an ongoing process. After our recertification was complete, we sent a representative from our sustainability committee to join other representatives from businesses in the B Corp community at the B Corp Champions Retreat to bring back advice on how we can continue to grow as a socially responsible company and make a positive impact on the world.

We’re excited to continue to make positive changes in 2015, to grow and nurture our talented team, and to keep building strong relationships with our Better to Give partners, makers and artists, and customer community. Happy New Year!

Design

8 Quotes that Keep Makers Motivated

January 10, 2014

Everyone has those days when pulling the covers up a little higher and staying in bed a bit longer seems like the best possible decision. Some people are also prone to getting cozy on the couch with visions of video streaming in their heads these days. We all have moments when we lack motivation, but sometimes getting out of that lull, or avoiding it from the start, isn’t so hard. Keeping a meaningful quote in mind can bring inspiration, help you stay motivated, and make all the difference in the world when you’re feeling down.

Many of our artists and designers have sayings that hold special places in their hearts, so each time we go behind the scenes for a studio tour we ask for the featured artist to share the words that keep them primed to create. Here are a few of our favorites from 2013.

 Samuel Beckett Quote

Kasia Wisniewski & Nicholas Foley have an industrial sized laser cutter in their apartment. They use it to create their beautiful art, and they used it to share their favorite Samuel Beckett quote with us. They also shared their own words of wisdom on our studio tour: “You should always be aiming to ‘fail better’ on the next go-round.”

Susan Jeffers Quote

Illustrator Adrienne Vita took her quote from the title of a self help book by Susan Jeffers, but uses it to stay motivated when it comes to trying new things.

Amey Quote

Tattoo artist turned UncommonGoods Design Challenge winner Matthew Amey’s favorite quote is made up of three little words with big meaning. “My efforts flow through these three simple statements,” he said. “Imagine; think outside the box, allow yourself to wonder. Create; make work, be creative and productive. Inspire; make work that inspires others to think, contemplate or produce work of their own. Repeat…”

Paulo Coehlo
“The most amazing part about my job is creating every single day and doing what I love,” said jewelry artist Emilie Shapiro when we stopped by her studio in Queens. We’re glad she’s found her treasure!

Thomas Edison

Etta Kostick creates beautiful stained glass pieces, using a technique her father taught her, from her home studio in Chicago. She sent us this Thomas Edison quote, and told us how it helped her get her make art a career: “It was terrifying to take that initial leap and go full time with my business but this quote was a reminder of how I should approach life and work.”

Friedrich Nietzsche Quote

Graphic designer, woodworker, and design challenge winner Jeff Knight shared this bit of inspiration from Friedrich Nietzsche among the boards and blades in his Fargo, ND wood shop.

Tolkien Quote

Janelle Haskin won our Winter Accessories Design Challenge armed with yarn and crochet hooks. She also had this Tolkien quote to keep her going.

Meghan Ellie Smith Quote

Painter Meghan Ellie Smith uses watercolor to create bold scenes. She also used those pretty pigments to write out her favorite quote. Though nontraditional, Meghan finds meaning in this message. She told us, “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.”

What quote keeps you motivated?

Maker Resources

7 Tips for Setting Up at the NYNow Trade Show

August 23, 2013

Advice from our artists at the NYNow trade show | UncommonGoodsThis week New York City welcomed hundreds of designers and brands to the Javits Center for NYNow, nee NYIGF. This trade show is big time for designers as well as buyers since retailers are getting ready to stock their holiday assortments and are looking for products that are new and interesting.

With trade shows being so expensive for an exhibitor, there is a lot of pressure to make an impact on retailers walking the show. I walked through, visiting our UncommonGoods artists – some seasoned NY gift show veterans- asking them for their best advice for other exhibitors. Some of the tips they told me are truly golden!

Cat Studio's booth at NYNow | UncommonGoods1. Be flexible with your display.
CatStudio, designers of beautifully illustrated geographical home wares, comes with a loose plan for the display of their booth and room and time for improvisation. When they get to NY from California, founder Terrell heads to a flea market in Chelsea for vintage props. The team heads in with an open mind and the result is a display that is personal and exciting.

Jeff Davis's booth at NYNow | UncommonGoods2. Leave your booth in NYC.
Designer Jeff Davis knows he is coming to NYC twice a year to exhibit at the gift show, so instead of bringing his walls and props with him to and from Philadelphia, he leaves it all in a storage facility in Manhattan. Some storage facilities will even drop off your stuff at the Javits Center. This way you can focus more on packing your merchandise and marketing materials.

Jenny Krauss's booth at NY Now | UncommonGoods3. Design a booth that doubles as storage.
Setting up a booth for Jenny Krauss is as simple as opening a trunk. She designed two large cases that open up into a display and hired a local contractor to build it. It wheels into the convention center full of props and merchandise and allows for an easy clean-up!

Jim Loewer's booth at NYNow | UncommonGoods4. Lighting is everything!
Bad lighting could make or break your product display, and since your booth doesn’t come with lights of it’s own, lighting is all on you! Glassblower Jim Loewer understands the importance of light in his display so he constructed a light box to show off his sun catchers. Experiment in your home or studio by shining a flashlight over your product, if it looks better in the light, it should have a spotlight on it.

Melanie McKenney's booth at NYNow | UncommonGoods5. Build some private space.
Things can get cramped in a small booth, so husband and wife team Justin and Melanie McKenney build a small room into the back of their booth where they store supplies, papers, and a chair for resting. I won’t show it to you, but the couple says it keeps them sane (and still married!) while exhibiting Melanie’s designs throughout the week.

great idea to get buyers to remember you at the next trade show | UncommonGoods6. Bring bottled water!
Melanie and Justin know from exhibiting more than once that water at the Javits Center is expensive and hard to come by. So they come prepared with cases of water they buy in bulk at home. It’s a nice gesture to hand a bottle of water to someone who is clearly parched and not interested in shelling out $3 for a bottle of water, but they make sure that retailers remember how special the gesture is by replacing the labels with custom labels with their brand name and booth number. I glanced at their logo so many times throughout the rest of the day and was even reminded of them when I got home and emptied my bag!

getting my caricature done at NYNow | UncommonGoods7. Offer an experience they can’t get anywhere else.
Back at the CatStudio booth they took advantage of their talented illustrators to offer caricatures to people visiting their booth. It got me to sit there for a bit and chat with founders Terrell and Carmel to learn more about their company. I also walked away with a great souvenir to have after the show. If you have the space and resources, try planning something creative that highlights what makes your brand unique and will leave a lasting impression.

Advice from designers at NYNow | UncommonGoodsAnd my advice for walking the NYNow? Wear comfortable shoes!

The Uncommon Life

Food Art to be Thankful For

November 20, 2012

I’m thankful for art, I’m thankful for food, and I’m thankful that Jan Davidszoon de Heem painted this mind-blowingly gorgeous painting, “Festoon of Fruit and Flowers,” in about 1660. That’s 352 years of beauty so far.

This squirrel is thankful that he didn’t end up the way most “game” does in these old still lifes – dead.  We at UncommonGoods don’t sell anything that involves harming animals, and we also prefer animals to be safe and happy in art (including all the cats on YouTube, naturally). German painter Peter Binoit’s “Fruit and Vegetables, Roses in a Glass Vase, and a Squirrel,” painted in 1631 or so, is stunning, nutritious–and vegan.

The way the colors pop in this painting seems sort of modern, doesn’t it?.

This one, even more so: “Still Life,” 1618, by the same painter, Peter Binoit.

I suppose back in the day, painters liked to use fruit as a subject because it was a way to get bright colors massed in globs, before they (European artists, at least) thought up abstract painting. In Edouard Manet’s “Basket of Fruits,” painted in 1864, you can almost see the paint wanting to leap off the fruit and fly around on its own, without being obliged to resemble anything real.

Look what it’s doing with Van Gogh’s and Cézanne’s apples, below.

“Still Life, Basket of Apples,” painted in 1887.  (With all due respect to Vincent, I think they look more like some kind of squash.) Whatever they are,  each one has a mind of its own, and so did every brush stroke that made them.

www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111436

Paul Cézanne , “The Basket of Apples,” 1893. Do those fruits appear to be obeying any laws of gravity or perspective that you know of?  How about that table–in what dimension does that exist?

Fooled ya. There’s no paint at all, here.  Photographer Rasbak’s “Sterappel” (star apple), 2004, is a real piece of fruit. Yet it looks more abstract than any of the paintings, and seems  if anything even more miraculous, because its perfect form wasn’t invented by humans.  Paging Georgia O’Keeffe.

We’re done with apples, but not incredible edibles. Not only were no fauna harmed during this blog post, but the flora staged a revolt. Van Gogh made apples look all crazy just because he could, and the vegetable kingdom returns the favor in Ju Duoqi’s “Vegetable Museum no. 16: Van Gogh made of Leek” (2008) (photo courtesy of Artnet).

Vegetables, fruits, painters, photographers and collagists in all media: I’m truly thankful for the talents and imaginations of all the beings, past, present, and future, who’ve created the art I love, the food I love, the art about food I love, and the art made from food I love.

And, because I have an inexplicable passion for produce with faces, these four tasty toys will conclude my post for today. Thanks, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving! (To gorge on 100% fat-free, gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free, vegan food art, check out my ongoing Pinterest collection.)

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