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Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Maggy Ames

October 10, 2014

Maggy Ames | UncommonGoods

One morning a few weeks ago I woke up extra enthusiastic. I couldn’t wait to get to work. That’s because my work day started with a trip into Manhattan to meet an artist whose work I’d loved since the moment I saw it on our tabletop buyers’ sample shelf. I was going to meet Maggy Ames, the maker of the some of the most beautiful stoneware bowls I’d ever seen.

When I got to Maggy’s space, one of the last working corroborative pottery studios in Manhattan, I was happy to see that she was as enthusiastic about the start of the work day as I was. She was ready to start throwing pottery, but she didn’t mind taking a moment to show me and UncommonGoods Photographer Emily around first. We snuck a peek at the kiln room just in time to see a fresh batch of bowls come out, watched Maggy’s team weigh and prepare clay, caught a glimpse at the secret formulas for a few glaze colors, and admired how the clay dust that seemed to touch everything in the studio made the place even more magical.

After our introductions and a little exploring, we watched as Maggy transformed a large, lumpy ball of clay into an exquisitely curved bowl–something she does about 15 times on an average day. Watching the process was certainly inspiring. Talking with Maggy, who’s been making pottery for 30 years and retired from law to became a full-time artist 5 years ago, gave me a much welcome creativity boost too. Whether you’re looking for little motivation to get making, some inspiring words of wisdom, or just some beautiful photos of art in the works, I hope you’ll love meeting Maggy and seeing her studio as well.

Maggy's Hands

What are your most essential tools?
Fingers and finger memory! When you have to throw dozens and dozens of pieces that must fit precisely together with virtually the same shape and size every single time, you really rely on your fingers to have their own muscle memory and just “do it.” After making literally hundreds of these 3-piece sets over the years, I count on my hands to know their job without my head getting in the way.

Maggy Ames throwing bowls

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
In the kiln room. We have 13 potters in total who work in this studio. Though many of us studied at the same places over the years, we each have a distinct style that comes through. Watching the endless variations — and totally new approaches — of 13 individual artists go through the various stages in our kiln room is endlessly inspiring. I can’t count how many times a week I have an “oh, wow” moment in that kiln room.

Nesting Bowls | UncommonGoods
Nesting Bowls | UncommonGoods

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Our studio has developed into a really supportive clay community. Over the years, we have developed the habit of gathering around the lunch table for downtime, personal interaction, and good old gossip! It is a wonderful benefit that you don’t get if you work in a solo studio.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
You simply must do retail shows before you can do wholesale. You have to watch the customers: What do they pick up? How do they hold it? What are they saying to you? What are they saying to each other when they think you’re not listening? Even after developing my wholesale business, I still do at least two or three retail shows a year so I don’t lose touch with my customers.

Clay tools
Level

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Don’t be afraid of the big leaps. One way or the other you will get it done. You can decide after it is finished whether you liked it enough to do it again. But if you never take the leap, how will you ever know?

In Progress
Mirror

How do you set goals for yourself?
I am trying very hard NOT to set goals for myself. I am in a different position from many younger artists, since I am supposedly retired (big laugh!). I concentrate on only doing what feels right to me at this moment. I don’t know how I will feel about things from year to year, but I know how I feel right now; I don’t want to be locked into any “master plan” and I don’t want to miss any unexpected opportunities that pop up out of nowhere!

Foot Pedal
Scale

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Everything that looks beautiful to me as it comes out of the kiln, everything that comes out fitting perfectly together, every major order that gets out on time — these are all victories of varying degrees and I make it a practice to grab every opportunity to be happy about my work. There are enough challenges in this business, so you have to grab the smiles when they come along.

At the Wheel

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
I don’t have a favorite quote, but I have a favorite mantra for myself and for my workers: “Who is using this? Who is using this? Who is using this?” My work is very functional and that is something I take great pride in. My goal in pottery is that customers will experience everyday utilitarian objects as works of fine craft, but that won’t happen if the piece doesn’t fit easily into their routines. Does it feel good in your hand? Does it slide in and out of the oven? Are the edges smooth to the touch? Is it easy to clean? Is it easy to store? In other words, “Who is using this, and how is it working for them?”

Special Handle

How do you recharge your creativity?
MOMA. I never get tired of wandering through [The Museum of Modern Art] and seeing sizes, shapes, colors, lines, styles. The endless things that people do with style is fascinating. It is my idea of a perfect afternoon!

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
In a studio of 13 people collaboration is just sort of a natural by-product. There is always someone looking for an idea as to how to do something, and there is always someone who has an idea how to do it! There are so many wonderful pieces that come out of our kilns that literally could not have been produced without the input, advice, and creativity of others in our clay community.

In the Works
Nesting Stoneware Mixing Bowls | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Woodworking Winner: Glenn Goes Against The Grain

October 7, 2014

Design Challenge Winner | Woodworing Design Challenge | UncommonGoods  
It’s no secret that we love wood designs here at UncommonGoods, and so do our customers. And because our first Woodworking Design Challenge was such a success with over 100 entries, we decided to host another one earlier this year! Once again, we weren’t disappointed with the heavy amount of amazing entries we received, Glenn Heimgartner’s submission being one of them.

When sifting through the woodworking entries, I knew that Glenn’s Wooden Wrap Lamp (at the time named the Audrey Lamp) would make it as one the semifinalists. Through just a single photo, I recognized Glenn’s solid craftmanship and fell in love with the lamp’s beautiful and simple design. When we finally saw the lamp in person, from the maple veneers to the black walnut base, my prediction of a well-designed, handmade product was proven correct. I secretly wanted to take the lamp into my own apartment and place it permanently on my bedside table.

Meet Glenn – a sustainable woodworker, soccer coach, father of three (who allegedly runs faster than a cheetah), and our latest Woodworking Design Challenge winner! 

Wooden Wrap Lamp
Can you tell us three fun, random facts about yourself?  
1. I went to 4 different high schools in 4 years – including one in Japan.

2. I completed a 30-day expedition in the Yukon – no showers, no laundry for 30 days –undoubtedly one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

3. According to my 6-year-old son and his buddies, I run faster than a cheetah.

How did you come up with the concept of your Wooden Wrap Lamp design? 
I had just finished a long stretch of building large, rather in-depth custom furniture pieces and was interested in changing gears and making something of a smaller scale that was more of a functional accent piece.  Also, I had a large amount of walnut scraps that I wanted to upcycle instead of discard. I had been thinking about the idea of a lamp for a while and figured this was the perfect time, as I needed a holiday gift for a family member.

I had seen other lamps with the general construction of a solid wood base, 4 posts, and a top and always liked the look and feel of light shining through wood veneer shades.  What resulted was the first version of the wooden wrap lamp, which is a blend of modern, arts and crafts, and Japanese design details with a natural, handcrafted feel.

Design Challenge Winner | UncommonGoods

How did you discover our Woodworking Design Challenge? 
We’ve been getting the UncommonGoods catalog for years and my wife showed me the announcement for the challenge in the Winter Catalog – A WEEK BEFORE THE SUBMISSION WAS DUE.  She urged me to submit and I figured since I just made a wooden lamp as a gift for a family member that it would be a good fit for UncommonGoods.  Luckily I was able to set other work aside and get a refined version designed, built, and shipped on time.

How did you celebrate when you found out that you won our Woodworking Design Challenge?
Can’t say I did anything too crazy.  I think I might have given my wife a high-five and then enjoyed a good beer.  Was just honored and excited to know that others out there believed I created something of value.

Design Challenge Winner | Woodworking Design Challenge | UncommonGoods

What different techniques do you use when creating your designs?
For me it’s simple, I start with an idea that needs to meet an aesthetic need and perform a function.  I do most of my design in my head – from the initial concept through fabrication – never stopping the internal struggle until the piece is complete.  I sketch on paper and draft in 3D to explore proportions and details and to solidify my focus.  I usually have a 3D plan to take to the shop and start fabrication.

Once I start to create actual parts, I trust my eye and will deviate from the plan, tweaking various details – thicknesses, proportions, radii of curves, etc. – to arrive at a more finished product.  The piece is completed and sometimes it hits that comfortable balance between form and function – sometimes it doesn’t.  If multiples will be made, I refine and rebuild.  If it is ‘one-off’ custom piece, it is what it is at that point.

Design Challenge Winner | Woodworking Design Challenge | UncommonGoods

Can you walk us through the step-by-step process of creating your lamp?
I go through current inventory of walnut and purchase additional if need be.  I ‘upcycle’ scraps from larger projects when possible.  The selected walnut is milled into various pieces that make up the solid wood frame (2 base pieces, 4 posts, and 2 top pieces per lamp).  Details on the ends of these base and top pieces are shaped via the router and by hand.  Joinery is cut via basic machines and cleaned up via hand tools (base and top pieces are joined via lap joints; posts are joined to the base via mortise and tenons and to the top via bridle joint).

Pieces are glued to make the base and top respectively.  Posts are glued to the base.  Maple veneer is cut and glued in ring shapes to make the shades.  All pieces are sanded and finished.  Rings are glued to posts.  Top is glued to the posts.  Final quality control and touch up finishing is completed.  Nickel hardware and electrical components are installed and light bulb is tested.  Product is packaged.

Are there any major projects, collaborations, or ideas you’re working on now that you want to talk about?
First and foremost, I’m in full production mode in the shop handcrafting multiple lamps to meet UncommonGoods demands for the Winter Catalog!  On the custom furniture front, I’m working with a few private clients designing various unique, functional pieces for residential settings (dining room table, library table, bench for a foyer, etc.).  I’m also in the process of designing and prototyping two more home accent pieces for retail that will be of the same style and materials as the wrap lamp.

Design Challenge Winner | UncommonGoods
Other than making and promoting your woodwork, what other hobbies are you into?
With three amazing small children (ages 6, 4, and 1), I don’t have too much free time for hobbies.  Luckily, my passion of woodworking satisfies most of my self-centered needs.  When I do get a free second, I love the outdoors and exploring the nearby mountains on my own or with others. (I usually do a great one-hour hike right from my shop a few days a week.)  I coach my oldest son’s soccer team and help my parents with their small farm.  I’m fortunate to live in a town that has a great music scene and I see live acts whenever possible.

Design Challenge Winner | Woodworking Design Challenge | UncommonGoods

Where do you get your wood from and is it sustainable?
I have a professional background in sustainable forestry and sustainable wood products, so I am well versed on the land management techniques and supply chain logistics of such material and goods.  I take pride in sourcing responsibly harvested wood from local forests and I purchase from local mills and small sawyers whenever possible.  I mainly work in walnut, cherry, and maple, which readily grow in the forests of my area.

I also have worked in reclaimed chestnut, pine, and oak, which are usually recycled from demolished buildings.  I work to minimize waste in project planning and ‘upcycle’ scraps from larger projects like tables into smaller projects like the wrap lamp.  Shavings are spread on tree/shrub beds that surround the shop and are also composted.

Design Challenge Winner | UncommonGoods

What makes wood products special?
Wood is always alive, whether it is upright in the form of a tree or milled as a beautifully wide-planked tabletop.  I am constantly fascinated by the idea that a tree can function as part of a forest (cleaning the air and water, providing wildlife habitat, and providing an amazing backdrop for outdoor recreation) and then be sustainably harvested to continue its life in functional and beautiful items such as furniture and home goods.

I love that a log can be milled in different ways (rift sawn, flat sawn, quartersawn) to result in different grain patterns and that every piece is different, exhibiting unique details like curly grain, pronounced figure, knots or worm holes.  I always get excited to finish mill a rough piece to see what amazing grain is exposed.  It never gets old smelling and handling this material on a daily basis.

Design

Perfect Popcorn Without the Kernels

October 3, 2014

There’s nothing like a delicious buttery-gold bouquet of popcorn in full bloom.  What could disappoint but the unpopped underachievers lurking at the bottom of the bowl, potentially ruining your movie night with a chipped tooth? In Product Development we often seek a more convenient and enjoyable means of snacking, as evidenced by the fun and functional Ooma Bowl. We planned our next item realizing that, no matter how masterful a popper you are, there are often at least a few kernels at the bottom that make grabbing those last few bites of popcorn a less than grand finale.

Popcorn Bowl

Popcorn Bowl

Our Senior Merchandising Manager, Candace Holloway initially spotted the Popcorn Bowl on Etsy some time back.  The designer, Catherine Smith, no longer made her sifting bowl and had no samples she could share with us. Fortunately, she was happy to license her design, which allowed us to recreate her kernel-catching masterpiece. In the spirit of trial and error, this challenged us to re-engineer the bowl, only having a photo to look back at.

Due to the technical precision required for the ceramic bowl, we developed this as a hydraulic pressed stoneware item. This would allow us to execute a sifter that fit perfectly inside the collection compartment at the bottom of the bowl.

Production

Popcorn Bowl

Our first design incorporated the variable large and small holes we had seen in the original bowls image.  After testing on receipt, we found that the smaller holes were simply too small to fit the unpopped kernels, especially given the minor expansion many of them encountered.  We also found that the lid, having been developed as a flat coaster, did not adequately direct kernels into their holes, as they found themselves resting in the spaces between.  Finally, the bowl was simply not large enough to compensate for a nice, fully popped (well, with the exception of the reluctant poppers at the bottom) bowl of popcorn.  With this valuable insight, we went back to ceramicist to make some much needed changes.

Popcorn Bowl

Popcorn Bowl

A new bowl arrived –larger overall, with all large-size holes and with a domed sifter at the bottom.  We also changed the glaze to something a bit more tactile and unique.  We found, as we made our way through the popcorn, that kernels found their way to the bottom and slid easily along the sides of the bowl or directly onto the lid, passing through the bottom holes as they rolled along.  Deciding on hole size can be a tough process – too large and edible bits of popcorn end up in the bottom compartment, too small and the kernels don’t make it through.

Popcorn Bowl

We were quite happy with where we landed on size – removing the kernels without taking too many tasty morsels along with them.  This Popcorn Bowl did a much better job catching kernels, leaving nothing but delicious, fluffy popped corn for us to enjoy as we celebrated victory with nary a kernel in sight.

Popcorn Bowl

Maker Stories

Eric’s Hallucinogenic Design Wins Art Contest!

July 18, 2014

Eric Tonzola | Art Contest Winner | UncommonGoods

It’s no secret that Eric Tonzola, our latest Art Contest winner, creates some prettytrippy designs. While observing his futuristic artwork, I feel like I’m jumping into a fantasy world where unicorns probably exist, the world wide web (fortunately) does not, and the sweet moments that we usually don’t notice are slowed down and captured. Here at UncommonGoods we want to add artwork into our assortment that will not only sit pretty in your new renovated bathroom, but will help paint a specific atmosphere that tinkers with your creative imagination. In this case, the atmosphere that Eric exudes is euphoria and reverie — a theme I wouldn’t mind welcoming into my home. Meet Eric Tonzola and find out about his “hallucinogenic” techniques, where he finds inspiration when it’s lost, and what his biggest vice is when it comes to focusing on his artwork.
Hallucinogenic Landscape | Art Contest Winner | UncommonGoodsWhat’s an Uncommon fact about your hometown?
I live in Lancaster City, PA and although it is a small town and small city it is chockfull of incredible artist and musicians. Lancaster is such a beautiful place and there is always some new small business opening up and new artists popping up all the time. The music scene has been blowing up and has really been putting its self on the creative map. Our fresh produce, indoor market has been rated one of 10 in the world. It’s a very amazing town and uncommon in its own way.

How did you come up with your Hallucinogenic Landscape design for our Art Contest?
Whenever I start working on one of my digital pieces I usually start off by thinking of a out of worldly landscape. An ocean on a moon of a far off world or a thick foggy forest from another dimension. Something along those lines but for the piece I entered for the contest my concept was based on a serene mountain pass that looks almost heavenly. A futuristic landscape with radiant colors that takes you to a place that you could only dream of.

Tell us about your journey into becoming an artist.
Ever since I was young I always loved to draw. I would get into trouble a lot in school and church when I was young because I would sit and draw on everything. So I guess it was just natural that I would start to create more and more as I grew up. After high school I went to college to become a graphic artist. While in college I fell in love with illustrating and designing. Ever since then I have been fine tuning my different styles and techniques.

Eric Tonzola | Art Contest Winner | UncommonGoods

Other than being an artist, is there anything else that you do?
Oh, Yes, Totally. I do love music… a lot. I play guitar (not the best) but it is something I really enjoy. The best is when I can get together with friends and jam. My younger brother is a really great drummer and I think him and I may start playing more together which is exciting. I also do have a full time job as a graphic designer. Working for a home décor company never seemed like something I would enjoy, considering the style of my personal work, but I have grown to love it. I create stuff your mom or aunt might have in hanging on her wall.

What different techniques do you use when creating your designs?
Over the years my different styles have really developed right down the middle. Creating designs digitally and illustrating things by hand. When creating illustrations or paintings I use mostly inks. I love using ink. It has such a richness to it and I feel like its very versatile. At times I also  like to use acrylics and honestly when painting, depending on the mood, I will use any material at my disposal. So I guess that half is mix media. My digital work I use mostly Photoshop and it is a combinations of over layering and blending a multitude of different images together to create the final design.

Eric Tonzola | Art Contest Winner | UncommonGoods

Are there any major projects, collaborations, or ideas you’re working on now?
I honestly don’t have a lot of projects going on right now. Some ideas I have are brewing but nothing has solidified yet, but keep your eyes peeled.

What was the toughest lesson you learned while being an artist?
Not to beat yourself up too much when you have a block.  Being an artist is exciting but its also almost a privilege, I feel. I have come into this world with abilities and talents that not everyone has and although exciting it can also be stressful. Whenever I am in a block I try to just enjoy everything else in life. If I try to force new ideas or new work it usually ends up worse and more frustrating. When I step away and just enjoy every moment of life, the next thing you know I find myself six hours into an illustration, a whole new concept for a project, and planning on shows and what to do. It comes naturally.

Where do you picture yourself 5 years from now?
5 years older. Haha. No, I’m not too sure. I have a lot of ideas of what I want to do with my art but the skys the limit so I just need to pursue everything that comes my way and hopefully in 5 years I will just be that much more successfully and develop my work even further.

Hallucinogenic Waterfall | UncommonGoodsAre there any particular graphic designers or bloggers you look up to when it comes to your area of design?
Recently there is no one person I specifically look too. I see a lot of amazing work out there and pull a little from everything I see that grabs me. One blog site I love to check out is butdoesitfloat.com. Very cool, eclectic work comes through there.

Eric Tonzola | Art Contest Winner | UncommonGoods
Where do you go or what do you do when your inspiration is completely lost?
I like to go hiking and just be outside. I will sometimes walk to the park and just lay in the grass on a hill and look up at the sky and try to clear my mind. Maybe go see a movie but, like I had said earlier, when I am uninspired I try to just enjoy life and it comes to me naturally.

Do you have any secret vices that causes immense procrastination? How do you monitor this vice?
Well, honestly just laziness, sometimes. Well, maybe not laziness, but when you work all day as a designer (which I do love and I design everyday) it gets hard to get yourself to sit down and keep working. Some of my work can take hours and I don’t always have the time. So I guess its more or less just keeping organized and focused on my work that can be difficult. I also spend a lot of time just hanging out with my friends. Love them to death, but they can be a distraction. Although, I wouldn’t change that for anything..

What advice can you offer anyone who is submitting their work into our next design challenge?
Just have confidence in your work. Never hurts to try, and try, and try again.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with JoAnn Stratakos

July 14, 2014

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoods
At UncommonGoods, we’re always excited when we launch a product that in time reveals itself to be a complete game-changer; an overwhelmingly popular product that sheds new light on what makes something a runaway sensation. But every once in a blue moon, we meet a new product that we know will win hearts as soon as it is placed in This Just In. Elwood the Rainbow Unicorn was the latter. From his goofy blue eyes to his chubby little feet, we were smitten and didn’t have any questions as to whether everyone else would share our love for him.

So we decided to take a trip to Pennsylvania to meet Elwood’s creator. By “we” I mean Senior Buyer Candace, Purchasing Planner Maham, and myself, and by “trip” I mean a car ride outside of cell phone service to a place where the streets had no name. Literally, we had to call when we were close so the artist could give us directions that Google couldn’t help us with. We were warmly greeted by ceramicist JoAnn and her spirited team of Mudworks helpers who were eager to show us how our most beloved new product is born. It was easy to fall in love with people as it was to fall in love with their creations so we are excited to share our visit with you.

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoods
What are your most essential tools?
My hands.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
My inspiration comes from working the clay, and inside my head… that’s where the designs come from.

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsInside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsWhere does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Down time??? I am supposed to have down time??? Elwood disagrees! (Though we do have company outings, and frequent lunches where we attempt to take turns making various foods for all to enjoy.)

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
I was never a “young” designer. I started learning to make pottery when I was 40+ years old. The best lesson I learned was the harder you worked, the luckier you got!

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsInside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsWhat advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Advice to the me of five years ago…learn bookkeeping.

How do you set goals for yourself?
I set goals HIGH… then stretch to reach them.

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsWhat quote keeps you motivated?
I don’t have only one quote… there are several: “If you argue for your limitations, then all you get is to keep them.” “Well-behaved women never make history.” “Never teach a pig to sing… it’s a waste of your time and it only annoys the pig.” “Behind every successful woman is a man who’s surprised.” I guess what they all mean to me is that you have to keep going, keep motivated and put your energy where it will do the most good.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
New skills? Every day is an opportunity to learn something, but I am not attending workshops or classes personally.

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsInside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoodsHow do you recharge your creativity?
Vodka, definitely vodka.

Where does collaboration come into play with you craft?
Pottery is one on one, me and the clay. However, when I come up with a new design, I do run it past my crew to see if it will be viable. As an artist, though, I tend to make things I like, things I’d like to have around me.

Inside the Artist's Studio with JoAnn Stratakos | UncommonGoods

Elwood the Rainbow Unicorn | UncommonGoods