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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.

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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.

Maker Stories

A Perfect Design for Your Knitting Nest

September 15, 2014

Aaron A. Harrison | UncommonGoods

The son of an architect father and artist mother, Aaron A. Harrison quickly gravitated towards all things creative. LEGO towers gave way to kindergarten art contest wins, which eventually gave way to an MFA in ceramics and sculpture. Knowing he wanted to play with clay forever, Aaron decided to turn his passion into a career once he started raising a family.

While working in production at a ceramic slip casting company that specializes in bird feeders, birdhouses, and nightlights, Aaron began to shift his focus from artist to designer. “It was here that I learned how to run a production studio,” says Aaron, “making products from clay was preeminent to making clay art.” Working with all the bird-friendly pieces at the studio also fostered an appreciation for the bird form, inspiring Aaron to incorporate the winged creatures into his own designs once he started his own studio in 2009.

Birdie Yarn Bowls | UncommonGoods
Birdie Yarn Bowl | UncommonGoods

On his process, Aaron says, “creativity as a designer follows the need to solve a problem.” In the case of one of his most popular designs, this problem was the unrolling of yarn. After two separate friends asked him if he made yarn bowls, he researched the concept, made some prototypes, literally put a bird on it, and the Birdie Yarn Bowl came to be. Each yarn bowl begins as a ball of clay that is then thrown by hand on the potter’s wheel. Once the bowl firms up, the bird is added, then the hook and holes. After an initial firing and glazing, each bird is painted by hand, then fired one more time to seal it all in.

Painting the Birdie Bowl | UncommonGoods

Aaron works out of his 500 square foot basement, painting each individual bird himself and packing each completed yarn bowl for shipping. “It’s not uncommon to find my children wrapped in bubble wrap or making packing peanut soup for their dolls,” says Aaron of his at-home operation. For inspiration while he works, Aaron keeps drawings from his children around, as well as a LEGO calendar (“my second favorite pastime after ceramics”), and an architectural drawing of an observatory from his father.

Aaron's Studio
Packing the bowls

With all this inspiration by his side, it’s no wonder Aaron’s work has been featured in Knit Simple, Vogue Knitting, and Knit Scene. Though he’s “still waiting for Oprah or Martha Stewart to place their orders,” Aaron gets immense satisfaction from the feedback of others, telling him that his piece inspired them to be more creative. Both this and the opportunity to work from home are the ultimate pay-off. “Sitting at the wheel three to four hours a day, working long into the night to finish an order, and the physical strain of manipulating the clay can take its toll,” says Aaron, “but I am working for myself and I can see my children grow up. In the end, it’s a tremendous blessing and extremely satisfying.”

Buy the Birdie Yarn Bowl | UncommonGoods

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Margaret Dorfman

September 9, 2014

Margaret Dorfman | UncommonGoods

As the UncommonGoods Jewelry Buyer, I see amazing artistry from artists and designers using all sorts of materials. We are always delighted when we find an artist who uses uncommon materials in an unexpected way. Margaret Dorfman is one such artist. She transforms fruits and vegetables into parchments that she then uses to make gorgeous bowls, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.

Margaret’s relationship with UncommonGoods has been a long one, dating all the way back to 1999. Fifteen years later, she continues to delight us and our customers with her lovely organic creations. As a huge fan of Margaret’s work myself, I was super excited to meet her and learn about her process.

Margaret’s studio is tucked away on a lovely tree lined street in Oakland, California. I knew I had arrived at the right place as I walked down the path to her studio entrance. That morning, before my arrival, she had received a delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables and the walkway was lined with boxes and bags containing all imaginable varieties of fruits and veggies. I saw pears, oranges, papayas, cabbages, and bell peppers just to name a few!

Orange Earrings

Stepping into Margaret’s space was truly like stepping into a secret garden. Shelves were lined with finished pieces and the vivid jewel toned colors of her work popped against the crisp white walls. On the center table of her work space, she had oranges piled high and had pulled finished pieces made from oranges so I could see the “before and after.”

Margaret was lovely–so warm and welcoming–and she let me pepper her with questions about herself and her technique. I love hearing about the path our artists take to doing what they do. Margaret’s path was an uncommon one; she spent many years as a professional sign language interpreter, before leaving in 2001 to concentrate on her art. In seeing her work with such dexterity as she cut into fruits and vegetables, I could see the connection between her years as an interpreter and her current work as an artist.

Holding up her pressed vegetable parchment sheets to the light was magical – the pieces are translucent, and you notice every detail of the intricate structure of the vegetables and fruits. The colors in her pieces are vivid. I was struck by how the original colors were retained, even after being pressed.

As our visit came to a close, Margaret introduced me to her frequent studio-mate, her cockatoo Bindel, a sweet boy with a spirited personality! It was a such a delightful end to a great visit. Meet Margaret and learn more about her colorful world!

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Maker Stories

Handmade in India: Uncommon Wooden Designs

August 8, 2014

Based in Austin, Texas, Matr Boomie partners with artisans in India to produce eclectic, one-of-a-kind products that support the aesthetics and ethics of its artists. Some of our favorite pieces, the Hand of Buddha Jewelry Stand and Owl Eyeglass Holder come from two of their non-profits, located in a town at the foothills of the Himalayas. There, over three hours away from New Dehli, is a small rural area historically known for its woodworking.

With such a storied history in crafts, it’s no wonder that most of the artists in this community learned their skills at a young age from family members. This strong tradition helps Matr Boomie create beautiful pieces that utilize the artisans’ skills in intricate carving, filigree, and inlay work. While some of the designs are made out of small woodshops, most workshops are run out of the home, letting large, combined families work together as they see the project through from beginning to end.


Run by Manish Gupta, this collective is devoted to the development of underprivileged artisans. The constant flow of work has helped unearth a great amount of talent that had previously gone under appreciated. “In the five years we have been working with this community, we have been able to provide constant work to more and more artisans,” says Manish, “this starts to build confidence in the community, starts to make the art more respected, and the community can start to think about long term development aspects.”


Intrigued by the designs produced by this region, our founder and CEO, Dave Bolotsky, took a trip to India to see how the artists work within their community. “Most moving for me was seeing newly built schools, pumps for fresh drinking water, and solar panels powering lights,” says Dave. “ These are the hard-earned results of growing handicraft employment for villagers.”

In addition to exploring the town Dave took a trip to their studio to watch the artisans create each design by hand. Each piece is made using sustainably harvested Sheesham wood, sourced through dead or fallen trees. Once procured, the first artist in line uses a man-powered machine to initially cut the wood. They then work as an assembly line to carve down the block into a charming nose or owl-shaped eyeglass holder. A final polishing using natural wax and lacquer completes the process, leaving a one-of-a-kind piece that harkens back to a generations-old tradition.


Looking forward, Manish hopes to continue the community’s long-held tradition of woodworking by attaining economic stability for the artists. “Our partnership with UncommonGoods to bring some of these items to market has been a key part of our work,” says Manish, “it takes time to bring a long-term change but economic sustainability is the key element in that— our work focuses on that.”


Adopt a Unicorn–Elwood the Rainbow Unicorn Mug!

August 4, 2014

Meet Elwood. Magical unicorn. Party animal. Coffee buddy for life.

Elwood the Rainbow Unicorn Mug | UncommonGoods

Elwood’s fairy tale begins in an Effort, Pennsylvania ceramics studio. It may not be an enchanted forest, but it is a charming place, bursting with creativity and inspiration. It’s where JoAnn Stratakos develops original designs, like everyone’s favorite Rainbow Unicorn, by letting the clay guide her imagination.

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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.

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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

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