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Handmade

Maker Stories

This Just In-spiration: Meet Alexandra Ferguson

June 1, 2015

Our makers never fail to motivate us, encourage our creativity, and fill us with inspiration. So, when a new design enters our assortment, we’re always excited to learn more about the person behind the product.

What gets an artist going and keeps them creating is certainly worth sharing, and every great connection starts with a simple introduction. Meet Alexandra Ferguson, the designer behind our new handmade, eco-friendly pillows.

Alexandra Ferguson | UncommonGoods

Photo by Gabi Porter

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
My mom, who has a fashion background, was always working on crafting projects with us as kids. So I grew up in a very creative home and learned from an early age that the best way to get something really fantastic was to make it myself.

What was the most exciting thing about becoming a professional artist?
I love working out of my factory. Working with an incredibly talented team to roll up your sleeves and make something is a really satisfying way to spend your day. I also love speaking with my customers – we are so lucky to have such a passionate and dedicated cult fan base. I get so much inspiration from them!

Alexandra Ferguson | UncommonGoods

What does your typical day in the studio look like?
A lot of my day is spent managing the work flow through the room. Our factory is designed to be incredibly lean and agile, handling a large volume of custom orders with a very short lead time. Often I feel like an orchestra conductor making sure that the timing of all the moving parts is accurate. I also spend a good chunk of my day outward facing, working with customers over the phone and email, processing orders and ultimately getting boxes on the UPS truck! The best moment is watching a ton of boxes get loaded up, that’s when I can relax a little knowing that it was a job well done.

Alexandra Ferguson | UncommonGoods

Photo by Colin Miller

Is there a trinket, talisman, or other inspirational object you keep near? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?
My own pillows! I think I have 3 of our “Breathe” pillows in my office. Those are helpful when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

Alexandra Ferguson | UncommonGoods

Imagine you just showed your work to a kindergartener for the first time. What do you think he/she would say?
They’d probably read it aloud! My 5-year-old nephew loves to practice his reading and writing with “Aunt Al’s” pillows. “Here Comes Trouble” is a favorite among the toddler set. I get lots of cheeky twinkles when they read that one.

Alexandra Ferguson | UncommonGoods

What quote or mantra keeps you motivated?
Um, do you have space for 80? “I work hard for the money” is a favorite. There’s no sitting back and relaxing in my factory, and I’m proud of the hustle!

Alexandra Ferguson | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

High Society: Elegant Roach Clip Jewelry Designs

April 17, 2015

More than any other word, “roaring” is used to describe the 1920s. But despite the word being synonymous with “boisterous” and “rowdy,” mention of the decade usually conjures images of sophisticated parties, Art Deco, and beautiful women in stylish clothing dancing the Charleston. Sure, the parties may have been fueled by bootlegged booze and a crazy new style of music, but tales of the Jazz Age often leave today’s daydreamers feeling nostalgia for the class and culture of a decade gone by.

Erin Rose Gardner in her studio light | UncommonGoods

Intrigued by the melding of sophistication and excess that made the ‘20s such an interesting time, Erin Rose Gardner created a line of Art Deco jewelry “inspired by the significant changes in lifestyle & culture” of the period. This is a good place to mention that each piece in this collection of elegant designs also serves as a fully functional roach clip.


Mary Jane's Necklace by Erin Rose Gardner | UncommonGoods

One of these significant changes was the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which ushered in prohibition. During the 1920s it was illegal to manufacture, sell, or transport alcohol. Of course, prohibition eventually came to an end when the 21st amendment repealed its predecessor, and now adults across the nation are free to drink gin that didn’t get its kick in a bathtub.

Today the temperance movement against alcoholic beverage seems like the distance past considering the prevalence of bars and nightclubs across the country, pop culture references to imbibing, and even some evidence that drinking in moderation can actually be good for you.

Erin’s work speaks to a sort of modern prohibition that’s happening now, the war on pot. “The modern prohibition movement is part of the current conversation,” said Erin. “It seems like we may be at the beginning of the end with individual states voting for legalization. I find it interesting to think about how political policies shift social norms.”

Erin working in her studio.
Studying metalsmithing and jewelry at the University of Oregon gave Erin training not only in the technical aspect of her craft, but also foundations in conceptualization and research. “With my work, I am constantly looking for connections and meaning,” she explained. “As a producer of maker-made objects, I want to create things that people find beautiful and well-crafted, but also interesting.”

The layered story of Erin’s Mary Jane’s Necklace and Earrings may seem to start with the style of the ‘20s and a commentary on modern prohibition, but the “connections and meaning” she spoke of go even deeper. In fact, according to Erin, the designs were born from a personal narrative:

It started over ten years ago, I stole my mother’s roach clip. She had not used it in years, but kept it poked into a houseplant as it held sentimental value. As a child I thought this thing was a toy or special pair of medical tweezers. Although I wasn’t sure what it was, I did know this metal thing was special because it was a gift from her sister when they were teenagers. When my parents separated, my mom forgot her roach clip in the plant, so I took it. I lost it within four hours and never told her. (She now knows because my baby sister is a tattletale!)

An online image search lead to a vintage clip that looked like Erin’s mother’s made by a company Squirkenworks run by furniture artist Garry Knox Bennett. Erin became interested in how the artist questioned the “preciousness” of craft and explored non-traditional materials. Squirkenworks sold electroplated roach clips across the country and still operates today as Gold Seal Plating. “The passive income provided by this business has allowed Bennett the freedom make furniture that pushes boundaries and is not constrained by market expectations,” Erin explained.

Each of Erin’s own clips is completely handmade and features a unique sliding mechanism inspired by the one Garry Knox Bennett invented in the 1960s. (She actually had the opportunity to meet Bennett, discuss her project, and take a look at this collection of clips and other works when she visited him in Oakland, CA last summer.)

Erin's Anvil

Using a hammer and anvil, Erin shapes simple brass rods into elegant contours. “I strive for perfect symmetry and function as I make each individual pendant or earring,” she said. “Each piece features a unique sliding mechanism. Simply pull the slide back and the clip springs open. Then to clip, move the slider forward and the device is tightly secured. The tips are serrated which gives optimal grip.” The brass is transformed again during the final step in the artist’s process, when she polishes each piece and electroplates it with 24k gold.

Erin's Materials
Erin commented that, like “every metalsmith,” she fell in love with the material. It’s easy to see this love, and her dedication to the process, when you look at the detail in each handcrafted piece. The collection appeals not only to those with 1920s fashion sense or fond memories of the roach clips that became popular in the ‘60s. The designs are fully functional for the enjoyment of those in legal territory, statement pieces for marijuana legalization supporters, and—as Erin put it herself—“well crafted, but also interesting” adornments for those looking for high quality, uncommon jewelry.



Erin Rose Gardner | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

My Hammock Supports Me (And a Lot of Other People)

April 3, 2015

Do Good Hammock Maker Story | UncommonGoods

Some of my most blissful hours over the last couple of years have been spent lying in a hammock. This would be less surprising if I didn’t live in an old Brooklyn apartment building where the tenants are not allowed to use the back yard. Yes, I’m a little eccentric.

Do Good Hammock Maker Story | UncommonGoods

Green Dome Garden, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo by Wally Gobetz. Creative Commons License.

Like most people who work at UncommonGoods, I’m also more than a little obsessed with sustainability. One hot night a couple of summers ago, some friends and I were chatting in a neighborhood garden. I told them I’d been trying to think of ways to stay cool in the summer without using a lot of electricity.

fanI’d installed ceiling fans in my apartment, and now carried a handheld folding fan with me everywhere. “They’re underrated!” affirmed I.

 

Amir in Green Dome Garden

Plant and hammock enthusiast Amir Yarkoni, co-creator of the Green Dome Garden. Photo by Meredith Chesney. Used by permission.

“Hammocks!” declared Amir. “Hammocks are the best! The air can circulate around you and it keeps you cool!”

Yes! A hammock! I needed one immediately. Wanting eclipsed reasoning, I didn’t bother to wonder where I’d hang it in my apartment, with its flimsy, sheetrock walls.
Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Hammock closeup

Photo courtesy Yellow Leaf Hammocks.

We sell hammocks at UG. I’d never looked at ours closely. Now I did. It looked perfect. What Amir had recommended was an open weave Mayan-style hammock (as opposed to Brazilian style, made of tightly-woven fabric).

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

“The indians sleep in a bed they call an ‘hamaca’ which looks like a piece of cloth with both an open and tight weave, like a net … made of cotton … about 2.5 or 3 yards long, with many henequen twine strings at either end which can be hung at any height. They are good beds, and clean … and since the weather is warm they require no covers at all … and they are portable so a child can carry it over the arm.” –Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, 1535, Wikipedia. Source: ibiblio.

Hammocks were (probably) invented by aboriginal people of the Caribbean and Central America. UncommonGoods’s Mayan-style hammocks are woven by aboriginal people as well–10,000 miles away, in Thailand.

In a small village in the north Thailand mountains, members of a dwindling, endangered tribe called the Mlabri learned how to make what are arguably the best hammocks in the world. Yet hammocks were never part of their culture. Making and selling them was a brilliant business move to preserve their tribe in the face of unwelcome changes to their traditional way of life.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Mlabri dance in their traditional clothing, loin cloths, 1959. Photo by Boonserm Satrabhaya. Northern Thai Information Center, Chiang Mai University Library.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Mlabri temporary shelter made of fresh leaves, 1959. Photo by Boonserm Satrabhaya. Northern Thai Information Center, Chiang Mai University Library.

Up until a few decades ago the Mlabri tribe lived a nomadic, Stone Age existence in the mountains of Thailand and Laos. Hunter-gatherers who believed farming brought bad luck, they ate roots, wild fruits, and small game. They mostly wore loin cloths. They had no written language. For shelter, they built tiny lean-to’s out of bamboo and banana leaves where they stayed for a week or so until the banana leaves yellowed and shriveled. By then, they would have exhausted the area’s food resources anyway. Their beliefs, as well as necessity, dictated that they move on at that point, and build another temporary shelter somewhere else.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

An abandoned Mlabri shelter, with the famous yellow leaves. Photo by Pat Mongkron. Used with permission

Because all that other people ever saw of them were the dead banana leaves on their little shacks, they called them “Phaw Tong Luang” (the spirits/ghosts of the yellow leaves). (The Mlabri, being real people, prefer not to be called “ghosts,” but they’re fine with the “yellow leaf” part.)

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Mlabri in destroyed forest area. Photo by Patrick Aventurier. Used with permission. (http://www.patrickaventurier.com/) Flickr

The tropical jungle where the Mlabri lived began to shrink dramatically during the 1970s. Intense guerilla combat in the area–spilled over from the Vietnam war–along with teak logging and agriculture, destroyed so much forest that the Mlabri eventually couldn’t survive the way they had for nearly a thousand years. Tigers and malaria had always been dangers; starvation was now added to the list. By the 1990s, there were only 300 Mlabri left.

Hmong farmers made them their slaves through a combination of manipulation and force. They schooled them in slash-and-burn agriculture and put them (including children) to work in dangerously pesticide-heavy fields, where they also often ate and slept. Drug traffickers used them; sex traffickers preyed on them; they were made to perform in demeaning faux primitive tourist shows. Not considered citizens by the Thai government because they had no birth certificates, they had no civil rights. Suicide, virtually unknown in the tribe before this, became another danger.

Mlabri women making traditional wild jute bags. They have an open, stretchable weave similar to that of Mayan hammocks. 

An American couple, Mary and Gene Long, moved to the area as missionaries in 1978. Horrified by the condition of the Mlabri people, the couple dedicated themselves to helping them. Gene had an “aha” moment after observing some of the women skillfully weaving net bags from wild jute: If these weaving whizzes learned how to make marketable hammocks, maybe they could earn a decent living.

“A Path to Prosperity, The Mlabri People and Yellow Leaf Hammocks” 

It worked–though not without causing conflict with the Hmong, who weren’t happy about losing their ultra-cheap laborers. Decades later, after learning not only how to make hammocks, but also some fundamental post-Stone Age things like “What is money?”, the Mlabri have largely liberated themselves from peonage. Hammock weaving provides a 650% increase over average hill tribe wages, enough to move families from subsistence living to the middle class.

Having gained strength and confidence through the improvements in their circumstances, the Mlabri successfully lobbied the Thai government for their civil rights, including citizenship, which bequeaths health and education benefits. Mlabri children can attend school for the first time in the tribe’s history.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Mlabri weavers in their village hammock making center. Photo courtesy of Yellow Leaf Hammocks.

Hammock weaving turned out to be the perfect job for many of the Mlabri, because they can do it at home or in their village hammock center, at times convenient to them, without bosses. Mothers (the weavers are mostly, but not all, women) can work around their childcare schedules. It’s safe and sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Photo courtesy of Yellow Leaf Hammocks.

Each hammock is woven by hand on a simple loom. It can take up to 7 days, 150,000 loops and 3.5 miles of yarn to create one. Machines can’t take away these jobs because they can’t recreate the Mlabris’ meticulous craftsmanship and special weaves. The tribe has worked with textile engineers to develop weaving designs that improve on the basic Mayan type, and mold-impervious yarn that holds its brilliant colors without fading.

In 2010, a 26 year-old, hammock-loving American, Joe Demin, bought a Mlabri hammock while traveling in Thailand. So smitten was he by the heavenly hang of this hammock, that he took a 600-mile detour into the jungle to meet the tribe. Right then and there in the village, he decided to quit his job and devote himself to amping up sales so that more of the Mlabri could work without seasonal slowdowns (when they’d have to return to slash-and-burn farming). He convinced his girlfriend Rachel Connors to join him, and together they created a company to accomplish that.

To expand the market for the Mlabri hammocks, the duo has worked with organizations like the Unreasonable Institute and Kiva, and like UncommonGoods, is a B Corp.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Photo courtesy of Yellow Leaf Hammocks.

Because Mlabri hammocks are gorgeous, sturdy, and indescribably comfortable, they appeal to people around the globe. Ever-increasing sales now support over 200 weavers.

Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

As for me, Amir was right. On the most unbearably hot, humid summer days, I hang my hammock on my fire escape with a couple of big dollar store carabiners, prop up a cheap beach umbrella (freegan’d from a subway stop where someone had forgotten it) over my head, and bliss out with my tablet. My sweaty skin catches every cooling breeze. The hammock conforms to every party of my body, with no pressure points anywhere. It’s heaven.

Eddie in window

My cat Eddie likes to loaf alongside me in the windowsill.

Let others drive for hours to get to the beach or the country; I can’t wait for the weather to warm up enough that I can start up my blissfully comfortable, low-carbon, flip-proof hammock summer lifestyle again. I owe 150,000 thanks–one for each loop–to the skilled Mlabri weavers who make it possible.

Get the Do Good Hammock | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Fernanda Sibilia: The Tango, Fileteado, and Freedom From Fashion

February 27, 2015

While some artists and designers have to go out of their way to find inspiration—venturing out to museums or into breathtaking natural settings to rekindle their creative spark—Argentinian jewelry maker Fernanda Sibilia says “inspiration is easy in Buenos Aires” where she has her studio. It’s in the Abasto district, named for the Mercado de Abasto, which was the main fruit and vegetable market for the city for nearly a century. Now a fashionable mall, it remains a focus of tradition and vibrant urban life for Buenos Aires.

Fernanda Sibilia | UncommonGoods

Fernanda observes that Buenos Aires offers many layers of inspiration—natural, architectural, and cultural. “The sky is blue almost every day, and the trees have a different color each season,” she says. “My favorite month is November, when our trees bloom…Jacaranda, Palo Borracho, and Tipas, one after the other.” This vivid natural palette is rivaled only by the colorfully decorated buildings of the fileteado porteño style, where entire facades are adorned with elaborate ribbons, fanciful dragons, and floral arabesques. The spirit of fileteado also finds its way into the patinated floral surfaces of some of Fernanda’s jewelry.

Embossed Patina Cuff Bracelets | UncommonGoods

Fileteado | Wikimedia

Buenos Aires, rue Jean Jaures 709 (Paseo del Filete) façade painted by Tulio Ovando, Wikimedia Commons

Fernanda’s Abasto neighborhood is also associated with the blossoming of the tango in Buenos Aires, a sensuous tradition of music and dance that can be glimpsed in some of her designs where the gestural twisting and layering of metals produces alluringly sinuous forms. She says that she “feels like an alchemist” when combining the qualities of different metals, and “love[s] mixing the green of patina, the red of copper, the yellowish brown of brass, and the iridescences of oxides.”

Cerro Statement Necklace | UncommonGoods

Whatever the influences on her work, Fernanda makes an intriguing distinction between modes of inspiration, saying, “I try to be near art rather than fashion. This makes me enjoy simple things without being aware of trends, so I’m aesthetically independent.” Essentially, she’s pursuing a timelessness in her designs, steering them away from the mercurial influence of fashion, avoiding the limited shelf life of ever-shifting trends.

Design

Frank Lloyd Wright For Our Feathered Friends

January 28, 2015

When I saw the sample of our new Prairie Bird Feeder from across the room, I recognized its inspiration instantly: the so-called “Tree of Life” art glass pattern—probably the best-known motif from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buffalo masterpiece, the Darwin D. Martin House.

Prairie Bird Feeder | UncommonGoods

Prairie Bird Feeder

But I suppose I should be able to spot such patterns at 50 paces. After all, I spent nine years as curator for the Martin House Restoration Corporation, helping to preserve, document, and share such designs with the public. I stopped short of getting a Tree of Life tattoo, but you might say that the Prairie style is in my blood.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed in concert with Nature—with a capital N, he insisted—and Drew Kelley’s Wright-inspired bird feeder design follows that organic lead. The cedar feeder is simply stained as Wright might have done, and its miniature roof is gently pitched and cantilevered like the rooflines of the Martin House and other homes of Wright’s Prairie period (c. 1900-1914). Add the art glass motif applied to the side panels, and those birds will be eating in sublime style.

Darwin D. Martin House

Darwin D. Martin House, Wikimedia Commons

But there’s another connection between Kelley’s bird feeder and the Wright house that inspired it. With relatively free reign on his ambitious Buffalo commission, Wright designed not only an interconnected complex of five buildings for the Martin family, but also an impressive complement of furniture, fixtures, art glass (nearly 400 pieces), and custom architectural details. He even designed custom clothesline poles for the kitchen garden and four limestone birdhouses to adorn the roof of the Martins’ conservatory.

Wright’s birdhouses feature multiple chambers in a colony-like configuration favored by purple martins. So, scholars suspect that the birdhouses were, in part, a play on the name of the client (martin / Martin). And like purple martins, the human Martins lived communally, with extended Martin family (Darwin D. Martin’s sister Delta Barton and her family in the smaller house in the complex) and servants living in the same complex. Beyond Buffalo, Wright also designed a custom birdhouse for the Westcott house in Springfield, Ohio.

Darwin Martin Bird Houses

Birdhouses, Darwin D. Martin House. Biff Henrich /IMG_INK, courtesy Martin House Restoration Corporation.

After challenging American architecture in the Prairie period, Wright went on to design some of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century, such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim museum in New York. His body of work—both realized and conceptual—also includes a mile high skyscraper for Chicago, and a house for Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.

Despite this dazzling portfolio, you can safely say that at least a few of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs were for the birds…and so is our new bird feeder.