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Maker Stories

Centuries of Beauty and Tradition: The History of Czech Glassware

June 24, 2015

Prague and Czech Glassware

Prague Castle over the Charles Bridge (left) and a Prague Bohemian Glass Shop (right)

I’ve always found shopping for my Mother to be a challenge – it’s easy enough, but I try to score as many points with her as possible. Books run the risk of failing to meet her elevated standards, chocolate melts (or is eaten too quickly), and flowers inevitably wilt. I want something that lasts, something that I can reference in passing years after the fact if I’m trying to weasel my way out of something. Jewelry is a safe and durable choice, but as a mama’s boy with decidedly underdeveloped taste in bijoux, that too can get tricky.

We sell plenty of jewelry at UncommonGoods – more than I can process, in fact: a seemingly endless treasure trove of baubles fit to adorn any fine Mother. Yet variety is itself complicated my Mother’s Day shopping this year – how to pick? How to best maximize motherly approval?

Fortunately, a bit of context caught my eye. While eyeing a pair of Mosaic Earrings by Stefanie Wolf – elegant in their simplicity – I was reminded of a recent family trip to the Czech Republic and the amount of time we spent perusing Bohemian glass vendors in the heart of old Prague. Mom didn’t make off with any of the jewels then, but Stefanie’s artisanship evokes the centuries-old tradition of glass artistry in the Czech region of Bohemia, a perfect pick for a woman with a taste for la vie boheme.

Mosaic Earrings and Mosaic Necklace by Stefanie Wolf


Stefanie working in her Martha’s Vineyard studio

The Mosaic earrings use distinctively painted and chiseled beads called “Picasso Windows,” hand crafted in the land of Pilsner with the precise grace of Mucha, and only a dash of the of Kafka’s brooding damper. Stefanie began using Czech beads after admiring their distinctive quality:

“Whenever I was bead shopping I noticed that the richest colors and most luscious finishes in glass beads always seemed to hail from the Czech Rebublic. Often imitated, never duplicated!”

Bohemian crystal is renowned for its vibrant colors and intricate designs.

 Glassmaking itself dates back as far as Ancient Egypt, where crude technology available to artisans led them to wind thin threads of glass over clay objects. Early Egyptian glassware was likewise crude due to imperfect and porous glass, but as glassmaking spread throughout the Mediterranean by the 3rd or 2nd century BC, processes and materials were gradually perfected.

Ancient Egyptian glass and clay sculptures depicting the enemies of Egypt, on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Some of the oldest glass findings in Czech countries date back to around this time, when intraeuropean trade was richly facilitated by the consolidation of Roman road networks. Beads were likely imported from Celtic regions across the Danube, though some may have been of local Bohemian or Moravian origin. Glassmaking itself likely didn’t surface in the Bohemian basin until the early Middle Ages, but has since become a centerpiece of the region’s cultural expression.

The Kingdom of Bohemia, 1367–1635

The glassmaking bubble began to swell in heavily forested Czech regions around the 13th century – medieval glassworks required copious amounts of wood to heat ovens and produce potassium, a key component needed to melt glass. Whole villages would pop up around isolated forest glassworks – and would subsequently disappear or relocate once the area was deforested. Eventually, some Bohemian nobles actually banned deforestation for the purposes of glass production, hoping to preserve sections of woodland for forestry.

Deserted medieval village of Svídna, Czech Republic

Trouble in Christendom was actually a major impetus for the escalation of art glass production in Europe. Cultural exchange brought about by the Crusades in the 13th century stimulated the use of glass for decorative purposes, and methods were further perfected. Bohemian craftsmen became some of the first to use different metal oxides to inject vibrant colors into their glasswork, secrets to which were passed from generation to generation. Ornate colored glass beads produced in the Czech Šumava region were likewise exported throughout Europe as Rosary beads, or ‘paters’ for the first words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Medieval uses for both decorative and utility-oriented glassware sounds like the set up to a bad joke – clergy, doctors, alchemists, and charlatans came to demand glassware heavily, valuing that of Bohemian make most of all for its uniquely fine properties. (left) ‘Paters,’ Medieval Doctor and Patient (right).

By the Renaissance, artistic expression saw newfound emphasis as style and splendor trumped all. Bohemian craftsmen may have actually stolen Venetian state secrets in order to assume the position of premier crystal purveyor of the European Renaissance; a loose tongue regarding Venetian enamel painting techniques was punishable by death, yet somehow Bohemian craftsman were able to emulate and improve Venetian methods. Unique color variations, cuttings, and dynamic designs quickly characterized Czech glass as a priceless symbol of the region’s artisanry.

Baroque Coat of Arms Cup Motif (left), Hunt Motif (right)

Emperor Rudolph II, Habsburg ruler of Bohemia during the late 16th century, was perhaps the most lavish of Bohemian glassware patrons – his extensive commissions helped to distinguish a Baroque style of glass craftsmanship. With the new Baroque wave came important advances in glass engraving; Rudolph’s gem cutter, Caspar Lehmann, pioneered new cutting methods that permitted the depiction of rich and detailed scenes in the Baroque tradition.

Emperor Rudolph II

Emperor Rudolph II, painted by Joseph Heintz the Elder

Considered just about as precious as jems and jewelry, Bohemian glass finery was sought after by monarchs and regents from France to India – today, Czech chandeliers hang in palaces from Versailles to Riyadh.

The World’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs in the Ceremonial Hall of Dolmabahçe Palace: a gift from Queen Victoria.

Bohemian glass craftsmanship has since retained its status as a highly skilled and esteemed profession, though the Baroque gradually made way for new styles. Professional glassmaking schools in Kamenický Šenov and Novy Bor (1856), still active today, are largely responsible for the modern retention of this esteem, as was Bohemian glassworks Klostermühle, which received the Grand Prix at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris.

Renowned for its stability, Czech glassworks even held up under the weight of the Iron Curtain! Notorious for their destructive and repressive actions towards local cultures and traditions, Soviet communists ironically sought to promote Czech glass artisanry during their decades -long stay in Czechoslovakia, seeing it as a relatively inexpressive art form that supported the economy and character of the region. Though the craft form itself was relatively unchecked, some artisans were monitored, though a resistant spirit is evident in their work. 

Somewhat more naturally abstract than other art forms, glass provided a unique opportunity to defy the strictly narrative conventions of Socialist Realism. Left: “Object” by Rene Roubicek (1961), gift of the Steinberg Foundation. Center: “Single Bloom Vase” by Plavel Hava (1958). Right: “Plate with Abstract Decoration” by Vladimir Jelinek (1957). All images used with permission from the Corning Museum of Glass.

Today, the bulk of the Czech glassware and crystal industry is dedicated to the automated production of tableware, but handmade traditions still thrive as an important vein of cultural identity. Consistent with tradition, many glassmakers still work their craft in small, family-owned businesses; Stefanie is able to work directly with a Czech glassmaker for a personal touch to her materials.

Czech Glassworker

A Czech glass artisan working his craft

My glass maker runs family-owned and operated glass bead production facility that has been in operation for generations. His father shapes the iron molds that dictate the shapes and details of the beads. He travels to Prague weekly to scan the available colors of glass rods, selecting his colors and bringing those rods back home.”

“Because we work directly together, I get to custom design the shapes and colors of my beads. Many of the beads I use can’t be found anywhere else but in my jewelry.”



Maker Stories

Alyson Thomas’ Creative Cocktail Illustrations & Other Adventures in Art

June 18, 2015

Alyson Thomas | UncommonGoods

Attorney-turned-illustrator Alyson Thomas has always loved drawing, painting, and making things, but says she “didn’t think anything of it” until she was voted “most creative” in her college dorm. She didn’t exactly leap from law school to illustrating designs like the ones featured on our Cocktail Diagram Glasses, either.

Alyson’s career started in a very different place–the Department of Homeland Security. From doodling on sticky notes in meetings, to turning in her badge and spending a year on a drawing project, Alyson’s love of illustration grew and eventually blossomed into a full-time business. 

She took a break from diagramming delicious things, visiting “nerdy cocktail bars,” and generally being awesome, to answer a few questions about quitting her day job and the creative endeavors that followed.

Bloody Mary Diagram Glasses | UncommonGoods

Continue Reading…


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.


Developed from Photography: Pop Top Six Pack

March 13, 2014

A few months ago, we learned that photographer Barry Rosenthal creates his extraordinary images of everyday objects right here in the Brooklyn Army Terminal—in a studio just a short jaunt from our very own door. As fans of his work, we couldn’t wait to collaborate with him. Then we saw his thought-provoking “Found in Nature” collection, and we knew that we’d found the perfect art for our latest in-house design, the Pop Top Six Pack glasses.

Pop Top Six Pack | UncommonGoods

“I really admire Barry’s work, so it was fun to work with his photo to translate it into a design for glassware. What I love most about this photo is the composition—the way he artfully arranged the pop tops to create a pattern.” —Sarah Stenseng, Senior Product Development Associate

We’re fascinated with Rosenthal’s photographs of found collections, because even though the objects he shoots were once discarded, he presents them as uniquely beautiful treasures. The photos tell stories through their subject matter and composition. By taking bits of the past and bringing them into the present, Rosenthal creates something timeless. Our goal was to translate this timeless quality to a product that can be used every day, but also stands out as something special.

Barry Rosenthal, Pop Tops

The original photograph, Pop Tops, captures an arrangement of meticulously placed pop tabs the artist collected from the parking lot of Orchard Beach in Bronx, NY. It tells the story of the approximately 475 billion aluminum cans produced worldwide each year—cans that don’t easily break down in nature, and can take centuries to decompose.

Some of the tabs pictured date back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, so their unique shapes add unexpected variation to the composition. The tabs also show their age through weathering in Rosenthal’s unaltered piece.

Pop Tops Design Process | UncommonGoods

With Pop Art in mind, our Product Development Team collaborated with Rosenthal to transform Pop Tops into a new design that celebrates his photography and is infused with a bit of our personality. We started by editing the original photo to remove the natural color and accentuate the silhouettes of the tabs. Next, we carefully extended the pattern to fit completely around the can-shaped glass without interfering with the layout as it was intended.


After perfecting the pattern, bright colors were added to play up the Pop Art aspect of the design. Each glass in the set of six is a Pantone color chosen to stand out and show off the pop tab print. As a finishing touch, each glass is complete with Barry Rosenthal’s signature.

Barry Rosenthal

We love the way the final product turned out, and we think you’ll love it too. The Pop Art Six Pack is available now, and we’re looking forward to more exciting collaborative projects to come!



Jason Snyder & Briana Feola Meld Great Design with Educational Artwork

January 31, 2014

As product developers, we get the chance to work with a number of really amazing, talented artists and designers. Since launching our first uncommon product, we’ve connected with incredibly interesting people and learned a lot about working with the design community. There’s a lot we could tell you about working with designers – but we realize that there’s something we don’t know much about at all – what it’s like for designers working with us.

We wanted to find out more about the artists’ take on collaborating with UncommonGoods, so we asked some! Recently, we had the pleasure of working with Jason Snyder and Briana Feola of Brainstorm to create our new Earth Science Glasses and Coasters featuring their vibrant and retro-feeling Earth, Atmosphere, Ocean, and Space prints. Not only was the design duo happy to answer our questions about the inspiration behind their art, but they also gave us some great insights into working with the UncommonGoods Product Development team.

Jason & Briana

What was your original inspiration for this series?
After leafing through some vintage science books and thinking to ourselves that the information is so important but the graphics are always less than pleasing to look at, the series started with our “Atmosphere” print. It was a short run, maybe 30 prints, and they received a tremendous response online. So we re-printed that and started to expand on the layered, graphic concept to create a series and round out the concept. Over the course of a year, “Earth” was second and “Ocean” came third.

Earth Science Glasses | UncommonGoods

How was your love of science born?
Briana: Science was the other subject that kept my attention growing up, aside from art class. It was always the most fascinating but so complex at the same time. Coupled with some really great teachers over the years, I was completely hooked. It only makes sense that I try and merge my favorite ideas from my early school days.

Jason: I think science in general carries with it such an immense range of interesting (and complicated) topics and that really lends itself well to education if executed the right way. I have an Art Education degree, so combining these awesome sciences with education is really how a lot of my ideas come together. I don’t even know if that answers the question but that’s what I came up with.

Tell us your favorite science joke.
A photon walks in to the airport and the ticket agent asks him, “Are you checking any bags today?” and he says, “No, I’m traveling light.”

Earth Science Glasses | UncommonGoods

What was your initial thought when UncommonGoods’ Product Development Team contacted you?
We were super excited to get involved and we were ready immediately. We had both been following UncommonGoods for a long time and after meeting some of the awesome team members at the 2013 National Stationery Show, we had hoped there would be an opportunity to work together!

Breana Designing

What was the most challenging thing about working with UncommonGoods? What was the most exciting?
There’s a lot of correspondence that has to happen to get a product off the ground. And the amount of time it takes to go from “let’s do this” to “the product is online” is much longer than we were used to, having the ability to produce our screenprints ourselves as soon as they’re ready. We adopted more patience. Easily the most exciting thing is the day our first product arrived in hands. Going from idea to real product is the best!

How does it feel to have your art on these products?
It feels a little bit surreal. Knowing that these glasses are in kitchen cabinets and kids (and adults!) are drinking out of them and learning a thing or two, it’s just fantastic. We can both remember sitting at the kitchen table as kids reading cereal boxes and looking at colorful, pictorial cups. And now we are a part of the culture in a way we can be proud of.

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