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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.

Continue Reading…

Maker Stories

Opposites Attract: Michael Stromberg’s Magnetic Art

July 9, 2014

Designer Michael Stromberg | UncommonGoodsOpposites attract as designer Michael Stromberg brings new concepts to life. “I realized that there was an entirely unexplored artistic outlet waiting to be defined,” says Michael of his eye-catching magnetic sculptures and games. “I also enjoy pondering the invisible forces that make these so unique.”

A magnet simply isn’t a magnet without forces that attract and forces that repel. Michael uses this principle in different ways, depending on his ultimate design. For games, he uses strictly repulsive powers as an added hurdle for skill. His art and sculpture, however, utilizes the power of attraction.

Michael began his journey into magnetic art after planning a tournament for a magnetic shuffleboard set he’d designed in the early 2000s. It seemed appropriate to have a magnetically-suspended trophy as the grand prize. After finding nothing on the market that fit the bill, he decided to create his own. “As soon as I began to work on the award, a fairly simple geometric design, my mind began exploring where I could go with this.”

25337_zoom1His sculptures always begin by establishing a focal point for the new piece. Once this has been decided, the frame and ancillary parts are designed as a complement. Everything eventually works together so that touching just one piece of the sculpture causes the other parts to come to life as if by magic.

Fascinated by how the magnetic attraction creates a fluid work of art, Michael says that his designs blend left-brained precision with right-brained imagination. Working with magnetics typically takes hours of re-balancing in order to ensure that the parts move the way he envisions. “Many artists use only gravity and wind to manipulate their work, both of which are predictable, natural forces. Adding magnetism causes new and fresh interactions.”

While his primary medium is wood, chosen for its unique grains and aesthetics, Michael has begun working with clay, fabric, and polymer resins—an exciting turn for his inspired takes on environmental sculpture. “As far back as I can remember, I have always enjoyed making things,” says Michael, “from acoustic and electric guitars to snowshoes, I’ve enjoyed creative endeavors my entire life.” And with his beautiful kinetic pieces, his creative evolution continues.

Michael Stromberg's Designs


Video Kitty: Celebrating the Cats of the Internet

June 18, 2014

It has been said that the Internet is the dog park for cat owners. Sure, your kitty isn’t likely to run an obstacle course or act frisky on command. But the web makes a great place for cat lovers of all kinds to swap tips and stories. And when those cute moments do happen? Catch them on video and, boom, you’ve got an instant audience bigger than that spaniel at the dog park ever had. In honor of those compulsively-watchable cats of the Internet, we’ve helped to create the Video Kitty glassware series!

Video Kitty Tumblers | UncommonGoods

Our Product Development team spent countless hours of research, combing through the endless supply of adorable online videos, in order to determine the most charismatic, most popular and most iconic types of celebrity cats.

We then worked with artist Patricia Carlin on how to capture that star quality, with its mix of undeniable cuteness and think-out-side-the-box, sit-inside-the-box attitude.

“Refuses to be Typecast”
That’s right. You can’t pigeonhole a performer of this caliber. Unless you have an actual pigeonhole for it to climb into. Or a shoebox, cereal box, milk carton, or pretty much any container of any size. It’s been proven before that, for a cat to find a place in your heart, it merely needs to find a place in your empty packaging.
Refused to be Typecast

“A Finely Nuanced Performance”
A true cat celebrity is a master of subtlety. Extreme subtlety. Verging on laziness, even. But with the kind of artistic integrity that you’ll never find displayed by their online rivals. That’s right, sloths—we’re calling you out. Because anyone can move slowly, but it takes genius to convey such a total disdain for effort.
A Finely Nuanced Performance

“Ready for a Close-up”
A-List cats maintain a very complex relationship with their fans. They’re not going to pay attention to you just because you ask. But they will occasionally allow a devotee to massage their back, or provide them with food. And those times when a cat stares deeply into your eyes and wonders what you would taste like—that’s a kind of love, isn’t it?
Ready for a Close-up

“Catapults to Stardom”
Ultimately, the cats that reach true stardom are simply different than the rest of us. And not just because we’re different species. No, they are the beautiful ones. The risk takers. The ones with the courage and dignity to carry on, even as the paparazzi revels in their supposed failures. Also, totes LOLZ when tha fuzzy kitteh falls down. ROFL!
Catapults to Stardom

So raise a glass (or a mug) to your favorite feline celebrity, whether it’s online or in your own home.

Maker Resources

Videos from How To Make It: Pricing Your Designs

June 16, 2014

Videos from How To Make It: Pricing Your Designs for Retail | UncommonGoodsLast month we hosted another How To Make It design panel event at Brooklyn’s Union Hall where Seth Walter from our Purchasing Team and Jason Feinberg, the CEO & Creative Director of FCTRY, discussed the decisions you should make while pricing your designs for retail. We got a little off-topic as the guests in our audience had really great questions, but we think you might get some great advice from our answers. Check out clips from the event and the conversation it its entirety below!

How much should you pay yourself for a handmade design?

MAP (Minimum Advertised Price)

Should a wholesale price be fixed?

How to price a collection of designs.

Is scaling up always the best idea?

How does UncommonGoods find new artists?

Two common mistakes made in pricing handmade designs.



Ceramics Design Challenge Winner Announced!

May 29, 2014

In the past, the judging of our design challenges have occurred behind closed doors, either discussed through a conference call or in a room with our buyers and guest judges. Last night, we decided to take quite a different spin with our judging: to make it live for the public and contestants to watch via Google Hangout! (Yes, even including the critiques!) We’re a company that values transparency and we want all of our finalists to benefit from our judging as much as possible. Sure, we can jot down a few notes, and send the comments in an email the next day — but I think we all can agree that nothing beats hearing what the judges have to say in real time.

Below is our very first Google Hangout judging session for the Ceramics Design Challenge. The judges we invited to spill their expertise onto the table about each individual piece were Joanna Hawley, a designer and the voice behind the blog Jojotastic, and our Assistant Buyer, Hannah Weber. (Gaby and I joined in on the fun by moderating the conversation and putting in our two cents when we felt it was needed.)  Be sure to watch and see who our Ceramics Design Challenge winner is!























Congrats, Ronald and Jeni! Your ceramic piece is beautiful!


How the Bike Tote was Born

April 30, 2014

When developing a product from scratch, we need to think through all of the details. We think about functionality and ask ourselves basic questions. When we created our Bike Tote those questions were: How will the bag hold objects? How much will it hold? How will it be secured? How will it be carried? What materials do we use to make sure the job gets done?

Here’s how we answered some of those questions.

Bike Tote | UncommonGoods

The tricky thing about this project was making sure the bag would fit the needs of a bike rider. Safety is integral. First, the bag needed to be well-secured to a bike’s handlebars without interfering with the front wheel.

How we made it happen: Sourcing the right buckles.

Bike Tote Buckles

This was our greatest sourcing challenge. We recognize that depending on the style of the bike or gears you have, strapping the bag on or off could be a challenge, so we made sure to source components that would work for as many bike styles as possible.

The buckles needed to open up so that we could completely detach the straps and fasten to any bike. They also needed to firmly and securely support the weight of the bag, without breaking, loosening, or slipping on the bike. After evaluating several different buckle and strap options, we chose these cam buckles.

In addition to securing the bag to the bike, we had to refine the cotton shoulder strap, making sure it made sense for a bike rider. We wanted to develop a true tote bag with a longer shoulder strap, but we didn’t want the strap to fly around in the wind or interfere with the bike in any way.

How we made it happen: A floating zipper.

Bike Tote Zippers

The zipper is isolated from the rest of the bag, which means the bag can be opened fully. It allows a bike rider to place the entire shoulder strap into the bag, with the zipper closed on top of it. The strap is securely tucked inside the bag, instead of hanging loose.

We know that when you’re on the road, dirt and gravel fly up, and things get pretty dirty pretty fast. We wanted to make sure the bike tote would stay as nice as possible, despite being an active bag.

How we made it happen: Black bottom panel.

Bike Totes| UncommonGoods

We lined the bottom of the bag with black fabric to hide any smudges. Remember – because of the buckles, the bike tote can’t be machine washed or dried, so hand-washing and line-drying are your best bets for keeping it in top shape.

As a final design touch, we wanted to help bike riders increase their visibility both from a distance and in the dark.

How we made it happen: Reflective tape around the bag. The strip of reflective tape allows for more visibility of riders as they cruise along and show off their very cool bike tote.

Safety first--reflective tape!

Testing the Bike Tote

Once the product met all of the criteria we outlined, we we needed to make sure it was truly road ready. To test it, one of our team members gave it a try on her road bike to make sure our claims were holding up. “I’m basically going to try and break it,” she informed us.


In her words:

“I filled it with as much heavy stuff as I could. I started with books and when that didn’t break the bag, I tried weights (two 5 lb. weights) and large bottles (3 wine-sized bottles). The bag was a bit too big for the bike handlebars on the bike I was testing it on, so for the actual weight test I attached it to the bike cross bar and left it hanging overnight.”

The tote successfully held the weight, and we were pleased to find out that it is capable of transporting a lot of wine. (You never know when you might need to to perform just that function!)

Overall, creating the Bike Tote was fun, we got to work with awesome artists Jason Snyder and Briana Feola (who created the art featured on the tote’s fabric), and we can be proud that we developed a product that’s stylish, high-quality, and super functional.

Maker Resources

How To Make It: Instagram and Your Creative Business Videos

April 9, 2014

On March 25 we invited Ronen Glimer of Artists & Fleas, Ronda J Smith of In the Seam, and local members of our design community to a panel discussion about using Instagram to market your designs and build a following. The event was hosted at Union Hall in Park Slope and guests stuck around afterwards to swap business cards, meet our marketing and buying teams, and make connections.

If you’re ever in the hood you should check out one of our events, but watching the highlights are always a great back-up plan.


Creative Design to the Rescue! (Of Homeless Cats)

March 7, 2014


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.


“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.


“Cat Hive” by Incorporated Architecture & Design


by Carlton Architecture PC


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


“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.”


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.)


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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!”


“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…)


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

All photos copyright Marisa Bowe, unless otherwise indicated.

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