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The Uncommon Life

Midwinter Art Break

January 24, 2013


The holidays are over, and winter stretches ahead. Sometimes it’s stunningly beautiful. Sometimes it can be bleak. Sometimes, just boring.

Fortunately, painters, sculptors, carvers, collagists, craftspeople and photographers have created glorious art about all the faces of winter. Looking at their work can feel like a mini-staycation,  a meditation, or a moment of bliss. Isn’t that always true about good art?

I’ve been collecting winter-themed art on Pinterest since last autumn. Eventually, themes began to suggest themselves. Here are a few of them.

Winter: The Art Composes Itself

I named this theme in the spirit of, “The jokes write themselves.” Against a snowy white background, branches and bird footprints can look like ready-made drawings–although, of course, the pieces below were all carefully composed by very talented artists.

Life in  Wintertime

Clockwise: Todd Hido, #6093 (2009) © Todd Hido; Todd Hido, #4124 from the series House Hunting (2010) © Todd Hido; Vija Celmins, Heater, 1964 © Vija Celmins; Wolf Suschitzky, Frozen Shirts, Welwyn Garden City, 1941 © Wolf Suschitzy.

Ice and Snow Art

Andy Goldsworthy, “Ice Spiral (Treesoul),” Reconstructed icicles around a tree, 28 December, 1995.  Glen Marlin Falls, Dumphrieshire, Scottland. © Andy Goldsworthy; Andy Goldsworthy, “Icicle Star,” joined with saliva, 2004, © Andy Goldsworthy.

For a blizzard of winter art, look here:




A Year’s Worth of Winning Designs

January 4, 2013

Happy New Year! We’re excited to see what 2013 will bring, and we have big plans for the next 12 months. We’re planning more sneak peeks Inside the Artist’s Studio, interviews with designers from across the country, behind the scenes looks at what goes on here at UncommonGoods, great gift ideas, and of course, brand new design challenges! But, before we announce our first challenge of the year, we’re taking a look back on the great designs that came to us through our 2012 design challenges and the people who created them.

Last Spring we were already thinking Summer! Our first design challenge focused on sustainable picnic ware from Susty Party. We asked illustrators to send us their summer picnic-themed art, and we saw a big batch of submissions celebrating fun in the sun!

Denae Douglas’ Bicycle design was the judges’ favorite, earning her the grand prize. Her blue bike was stamped on eco-friendlier disposable bagasse plates and cups perfect for picnicking. (We know it’s still January, and it’s cold outside, but we do have a few sets left if you’re looking to stock up for Spring!)

All of the illustrations that came rolling in with the Summer Picnic Challenge had us in the mood for great art, so for our next call for entries we asked artists to send us their artwork for the Art Contest. We asked our online community to pick their favorites, then sent the top 5 designs to our judges for review. In the end, Mathew Amey’s “Jump Off” leaped into our lineup.

Matthew’s piece was limited edition, and didn’t take long to sell out, but art fans need not worry; our buyers loved his work so much, they’re adding more of his illustrations to our assortment.

After the Art Contest we switched it up just a bit, from art you hang to art you take on the go! Our iPhone Art Case Design Challenge was a huge success. We received a slew of votes and comments in the semi-final round and heard some wonderful feedback from the judges in the finals.

The judges loved the techie feel of Naomi Meller’s computer design and chose it to win the grand prize, but our buyers weren’t quite ready to let go of all of that other great artwork! Several design challenge submissions were selected for our iPhone Art Case Collection and became uncommon goods!

Speaking of art on the go, we couldn’t have a year of design challenges without including a call for wearable art–A.K.A. Jewelery–entries! The winner of our 2012 Jewelry Design Challenge was a little different. Not only do we love Kim Jakum’s excellent craftsmanship and fine attention to detail, we also couldn’t stop talking about the unique (and oh-so-sweet!) personalization element of the piece. Kim’s Personalized Children’s Signature Necklace gives the wearer a chance to capture their little ones’ own handwriting in sterling silver.

Then, last Fall, we switched gears again and asked our design community to think bicycles! Submissions to our Bicycle Lovers Design Challenge included helpful bike tools, custom pieces to deck your ride, cycling wear, and art made out of reclaimed bicycle parts, like Laura White’s winning Bicycle Cog Suncatchers.

Laura’s pieces aren’t only beautiful, they also celebrate the sport of cycling and are made from reclaimed materials, which is always a plus here. In fact, we love reclaiming, recycling, and reusing so much that we decided to build a design challenge around the idea. Our final design challenge of the year focused on upcycling, and we saw some seriously clever creations made from materials that would have otherwise been discarded.

The story behind winner Susan Harbourt’s Forget-Me-Not necklace is almost as compelling as the piece itself! The beautiful copper flowers and the wires keeping them in place actually started out as part of the original electrical wiring in her Edwardian era country home. When she and her husband renovated the house, Susan saved the copper and turned it into a winning design.

Susan’s story of creating something new out of something old is surely inspiring, as are the stories of many of our 2012 winners and semi-finalists. If you’re interested in learning even more about what it takes to be design challenge champ, check out our previous roundup for more success stories or check out these tips from a former design challenge winner.

We hope this stroll around the winner’s circle put you in the mood for creative new creations, whether you’re a designer yourself, or a just someone who loves uncommon design! We’re certainly looking forward to a new year full of new goods. If you’re interested in taking part in an uncommon design challenge, see what we have coming up in the next couple months and stay tuned to our Twitter and Facebook to see when and how to submit.

January – Garden Decor Design Challenge
February – Woodworking Design Challenge
March – Art Contest 2013

Maker Stories

Natural Beauty: Nancy Nelson’s Forest-Inspired Jewelry

December 10, 2012

Take one look at Nancy Nelson’s jewelry and it’s obvious that she’s deeply inspired by nature. The organic shapes, earthy feel, and, in some cases, the actual natural elements used—such as the raw semi-precious stones in her Aquamarine Branch Ring –all celebrate Nancy’s love of the outdoors.

The ring, and her beautiful Blue Pinecone Necklace, were both featured in our community voting app, where they received some fantastic feedback from our online community. But before the designs made their way to our buying team, and even before the first pieces of brass and silver used were cast, these creations started as found objects in the forests near Nancy’s West Virginia home.

“I live in a small town 2.5 hours west of Washington DC,” Nancy told us. “It is an area filled with nature trails, state parks, and adventurous outdoor activities. Our family spends much of our time exploring the outdoors. It was during one of our adventures in the Appalachian Mountains that I spotted the twig for the Aquamarine Branch Ring.”

While the ring doesn’t actually contain this original twig, it does feature the exact likeness of it, because the sterling silver band is hand-cast by Nancy from a mold made of that very piece of wood.

Like that perfect twig, the pine cone that became the model for the Blue Pinecone Necklace was also selected on a family outing, while visiting the place Nancy’s children like to call the “Magic Forest,” Swallow Falls.

“We collected tiny pine cones from the forest floor as we hiked,” said Nancy. “With our pockets full, we took the pine cones back to my studio where we examined each one. I then selected the one I felt was the most beautiful in form, shape, and texture. When choosing the perfect pine cone, I took into consideration [its] size and weight. Since all my castings are solid, this is one of the most important aspects in choosing a good model. The pine cone had to be lightweight enough to hang comfortably from a necklace.”

Once cast, the brass incarnation of the pine cone is given a blue patina, which Nancy hand-paints. Nancy explained why she chose to add this hint of blue, “It stems from my love of lichen that grows on the trees, rocks, and fallen pine cones throughout the moist forest which is dominated by tall Hemlocks. I wanted to transform the pine cone and add color but I wanted it to be a little more controlled, which is why I decided to patina the edges.”

While these majestic hemlocks, fallen pine cones, and the other wonders of nature that surround her definitely influence Nancy’s work, she does have other muses. “Being a mom, I usually do not have to look far for inspiration,” she said. “My young children’s growing imagination and quest for exploration inspires me to think outside of the box and challenge myself to create something timeless yet interesting in form—something uncommon.”

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Audrey Heller

December 6, 2012

I remember the sample meeting (where each week our buyers present uncommon products they’re considering for our line-up) when Audrey Heller’s fantastical photographs were first introduced. The team was immediately captivated by the whimsical scenes, and not a buyer could wait to add her work to our collection.

Remembering the excitement around her creative pieces like End Well, Ripened, and my personal favorite, Bound, I couldn’t wait to get a tour of the studio where Audrey brings her miniature models to life. Since Audrey is in San Francisco, I couldn’t visit her workspace in person; but being a photographer and all, Audrey was happy to snap some photos of her own to provide virtual tour of her studio.

What are your most essential tools?
Eyes. Light. Focus. Patience. NPR. Coffee. And then a bunch of tech stuff.

I was a lighting designer and director for theater, and I use those skills all the time. I create and light my little scenarios, using many of the same design theories that I used on a big stage, but adjusting my tools to tiny scale. So what I would do with a 400 pound follow spot in the theater, I might do with a flashlight in my studio.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
I love to be surrounded by evidence of creative thinking, reminders of unique places I have been, and objects with histories.

I’ve spent the last twelve years traveling to art shows across the country. That connects me to a huge variety of artists, people who present and support the arts, and arts educators. All of those connections, combined with the array of sublime and ridiculous experiences I have on the road, remind me that there are always new things to explore.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
I’ve started to learn to play the ukulele. I have absolutely no musical training or aptitude, so I’m just dreadful. But I’m slowly getting less dreadful, and that’s really amazing. It is hard, it takes a lot of focus, progress is slow…but it is such a sweet and silly little sound that I can’t get too worked up about how bad I am. Working on a three chord song is a great way to reset my brain.

How do you set goals for yourself?
Ha. I usually set goals by committing to an external deadline. Deadlines are great for me, because without them, I would never consider anything finished. So I look for things that will stretch me, maybe scare me and then I say yes. From there, it’s the calendar and lists!

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
Theater is the ultimate collaborative art, and I struggle with working alone. I really love working with people, incubating and nurturing ideas.

In this series my collaborators are silent, but essential. The figures I use are made for model train sets, and they all come from the same manufacturer. They are crafted with incredible precision and care, and have made it possible for me to create work with much more depth than if they were not, in themselves, so fascinating.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Victory is its own reward, right? When it’s not, ice cream!*

* San Francisco is the home of some mighty fine purveyors of frozen treats, but I travel a lot, so I’m always interested to hear of new places to try..feel free to offer your suggestions!

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“You are here.”

It is simple, and profound. Sometimes it’s just a locational fact, sometimes it is great ponderable wisdom of the ages. It is a reminder that I often need. My curiosity can become a liability and lead to distraction. When I remind myself to be present just where I am, I get a lot more out of what is in front of me and who I’m with. It’s delightful that the phrase appears in the world, unlooked for. When I see it, even on a map in a subway station, it reminds me to stop and look around.

How do you recharge your creativity?
Serious play is the best recharger for me. Learning, experimenting, trying out new things, can put me in that childlike state of mind where I’m open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. I don’t mean “childlike” to sound simple, or superficial. I mean REAL child-like: when the world is fresh and full of wonder, and a little scary and mystifying and out of control.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Don’t be so afraid of making mistakes. I don’t get better by figuring out how to do things right; I get better by doing things. Jump in.

The Uncommon Life

Our Pin the Halls Pinterest Contest Winner (Plus some Holiday Party Pinspiration!)

December 4, 2012

We’ve been singing carols and craving Christmas cookies since our Pin the Halls Pinterest Contest launched last month. We received just around 100 entries, so picking the winner wasn’t easy. Along the way, we discovered some great recipes, DIY ideas, and tips for planning the perfect holiday party. We couldn’t stand the thought of all this knowledge going the way of the fruitcake (i.e. not getting eaten up), so before we get to the grand prize winner, we’re happy to share these holiday honorable mentions.

The color-coordination and homey feel of Jenny’s board first caught our eye, but her pins that appeal to the stomach are what we love most. We think peppermint bark and sea salt caramels would be a hit with sweet-toothed holiday party-goers, and this gingerbread man in a hot chocolate hot tub is deliciously silly. (Though we do feel just a little bit bad about wanting to bite his head off.)

Mimi’s board also includes bountiful baked goods.

Petite whoopie pies, candy cane cookies, and red velvet cupcakes (in glass jars!).

Mimi’s DIY foodie faves aren’t limited to edibles, though. We also loved this gorgeous sparkling ice wreath.

We love the idea of a DIY party, and Amy’s board is packed with great ideas.

Goofy backgrounds for holiday pictures, a fully-decked table, and recycled paper gift wrap are a few of our favorites.

We adore this bit of decor–which can also double as an advent calendar or a fun way to display gift bags filled with party favors.

We also love the idea of incorporating vintage finds into the holiday festivities. Missy’s board features more than a few pieces the Ghost of Christmas Past would surely appreciate.

Vintage-inspired candy cane gift wrapping that Missy said reminds her of her grandma, red and white striped luggage that could double as an offbeat decoration, and vintage versions of some classic characters.

Another of Missy’s pins really stands out too, but not because of its vintage vibe. We just think this green Grinch martini would make a great addition to any party this time of year.

That sweet and sour holiday drink concludes our honorable mention round-up, but before you run off to throw a holiday bash of your own, don’t forget to browse the winning board.

Zillie Zallie’s beautifully blue-tiful collection strays from the traditional red and green, but still feels very jolly.

Her uncommon pins include frostbite mocktails (perfect for those who’d rather avoid the spiked eggnog), blue and white cake pops (that look delightfully like ornaments), candy doing double-duty as decor, and these luminous blue lights.

Please help us congratulate Zillie Zallie on winning an UncommonGoods holiday shopping spree, and don’t forget to spread the holiday spirit by visiting all of our favorite Pin the Halls boards to repin the recipe for your perfect holiday party!

***We had such a great time pinning and party-planning that we couldn’t wait until next December to hold another contest! Enter Pin the Halls–Part 2 for another chance to win a holiday shopping spree!***

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.

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.)

The Uncommon Life

A Windfall of Autumn Art on Pinterest

November 9, 2012

Due to an injury, I wasn’t able to go on a leaf-peeping trip this year, and I consoled myself by collecting autumnal art on Pinterest. It wasn’t the same, of course, but I found it hard to be unhappy while perched upon a comfy chair with a cat and a laptop and perusing fantastic art, like the great Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church‘s “Autumn in North America,” above. Andy Goldsworthy. Rowan leaves around a hole, made on a sunny day in the shade, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, October 25, 1987.As I surfed, “curated” and pinned, several major themes of autumn art emerged; all so obvious that a child could guess them.  And so the first theme, “Made of Leaves,” includes some children’s artsy/craftsy projects (see sources at the bottom of the page), along with one by British environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, “Rowan Leaves with Hole,” made in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Bretton, England in 1987.

Georgia O'Keeffe, "Autumn Leaves, Lake George, N.Y." (1924)

© Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos

“Art of, but not made of, leaves” is my clunky title for Theme Two.  Russian painter Isaac Levitan‘s 1879 “Autumn Leaves,” Georgia O’Keeffe‘s 1924 “Autumn Leaves, Lake George, N.Y.,” British photographer Stuart Franklin‘s 1986 “Somerset county, Quantock Hills,” and this incredible leaf tattoo with silhouettes of a hawk diving after some rabbits that are hiding among the leaf veins, each satisfied several leaves’ worth of my forest of foliage cravings.

Paul Gauguin,"By the Stream, Autumn" in WikiPaintings

A Frenchman, an Austrian, a Canadian and a Chinese walk into a bar. “What’s shakin’?” asks the bartender. The Frenchman, Paul Gauguin (1885’s “By the Stream, Autumn“), the Austrian, Egon Schiele (1917’s “Four Trees“), the Canadian, Tom Thomsen (1915’s “Maple Saplings, October“) and the Chinese, Lin Fengmian (“Autumn in Jiangnan“; I couldn’t find a date but he lived from 1900 to 1991)  all answer, “The autumn leaves from the trees!”, but in paintings, not words. Which sums up Autumn Art Theme Three, “Trees,” and probably ends my writing career here and now.

Autumn Art Theme Four, “Golden Fields of Ripe Grain,” could easily have been subtitled “The Vincent Van Gogh Subsection,” because the man painted wheat field (“Wheat Fields with Sheaves, 1888) after wheat field (“Wheat Fields with Auvers in the Background,” 1890) , each more glorious than the next. But for contrast, I threw in Grant Wood’s slightly cartoonish “Iowa Cornfield” (1941) and Greek painter Nicolaos Lytras‘s more atmospheric “Fields with Haystacks” (I couldn’t find a date for it, but Lytras lived from 1832 to 1904). I like the way you can see the light reflecting off this painting; I’m so used to looking at computer images all day that it’s nice to be reminded of actual paint.

Autumn Art Theme Five is “The Glory and the Power(less) of the Harvest.” Pieter Bruegel the Elder‘s 1565 “The Harvesters” makes the whole wheat scything thing look pretty chill. Giuseppe Arcimboldo‘s 1573 “Autumn,” a comic take on the season’s vegetable riches, is a good vibes-er as well. But Jean-François Millet‘s sad 1857 “The Gleaners,” one of the most famous paintings of all time, shows poor women gathering what’s left on the ground after the more fortunate have finished their harvest. Gleaning is still practiced today (though not usually while wearing long skirts), and there are non-agricultural, year-round versions of gleaning as well, which you’ve probably heard referred to as “dumpster-diving.”

Autumn Art Theme Six, “Vistas,” may look a lot like Theme Three, “Trees,” but I swear it’s different. These paintings have bigger scenes. More of a view. Are not 100% tree-predominant. There are ponds (Charles Burchfield‘s 1938 “October in the Woods“), mountains (Canadian Franklin Carmichael‘s 1920 “Autumn Foliage against Grey Rock“), and people (Van Gogh’s 1889 “The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital (‘The Fall of the Leaves’).” Totally more vista-y than Theme Three!

I saved my favorite vista for last. This one reminds me of the northern lakes in the state where I (and Cassie) grew up, Minnesota. “Hasta la vista!” say the geese in Tom Thomson’s 1915 “Round Lake, Mud Bay,” and now I must say “Ciao” to this blog post as well. Quack, quack!  (You don’t have to say good-bye to beautiful autumn artworks, though. There are tons more in my Pinterest collection.)

Kids' fall foliage crafts sources: Leaf Rubbing Fairy,  Leaf Finger Puppets, and Leaf Deer
The Uncommon Life

Positively Inspiring Reusable Graphics

October 30, 2012

Positivity is contagious. Sharing a kind word, a thank you note, or even a smile can start a chain reaction. With this in mind, Amy Humes created her Positive Message Graphics, reusable stickers that let you spread happiness, inspiration, peace, and the power within. We love Amy’s idea so much, we decided to take her message to the web. Feel free to pin, tweet, like, and share these encouraging buttons as reminders that optimism really can go viral.

These Reusable Positive Message Graphics are available as a set of 4 large canvas stickers, so you can place them anywhere where you or a loved one may look when in need of words of encouragement.

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