Browsing Tag

Handmade

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.

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!

Veggie Parchment | UncommonGoods

What are your most essential tools?
My mandolin. It a special cutter that lets me calibrate the thickness of the veggies and fruit slices. I have four of these and around 40 blades that are sharpened weekly.

My other essential tools are my custom-made marine hydraulic presses. I have two hydraulic presses, both of which were designed and custom built for me. They are are quite large and heavy, exerting pressure of 175 plus and 125 tons, respectively. They are made of steel and were brought in pieces and welded into place in my studio. One is 7 feet tall and the smaller one is 6 feet tall with a pressing surface of a 3 1/2 ft squaremand 4 1/2 ft square, respectively.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Often just looking at the slices of vegetables or juxtaposition of the parchment sheets will give me new ideas.

I like to keep my studio as unadorned as possible–lots of bare white walls–so as not to have competing visual “noise.”

Cutting Veggies
Veggies

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
I do usually work 7 days a week and more hours than I`d like to admit. I have a fairly strict schedule in my work day. I try to take a long walk in the morning before starting work.

My 16-year-old cockatoo, Bintel (his name means “a little bundle” in Yiddish), joins me in the studio most days and his antics and demands for attention certainly provides ongoing work breaks.

My husband and I make sure we have dinner together every night, and that is always a time to relax and recharge.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Not to over promise in quantity to be delivered or dates to be made–and never, ever skimp on quality. There is nothing that will ruin your reputation faster than either not delivering on time or delivering an item not up to standards.

Sometimes things do happen that are out of your control, and having a strong track record as someone who follows through on commitments will see you through these bumps in the road.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
There will always be new and exciting ideas to try. Always make sure that there is time and enough space put aside to experiment and answer those most interesting questions that start with the phrase “What would happen if I…”

trays

How do you set goals for yourself?
I make a variety of items from fruit and vegetables: vessels, kites, garlands, as well as several lines of jewelry. I work with galleries, museum shops, gift shops and of course UncommonGoods! Usually my goals are set for me via the orders I need to fill.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
A victory or unexpected success usually involves a dinner out with my husband. One that includes chocolate!

What quote keeps you motivated?
“Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked.”-Leonard Koren. Koren wrote the first book on the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, long before it became somewhat of a cliché.

This quote resonates with me because it speaks to a way of seeing and being in the world — and of finding beauty in overlooked and commonplace things- like fruit and vegetables.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I’m trying to refine my skills in what I do–stretching the limits and working on making more complex, multi-layered jewelry and larger, more sculptural pieces.

Veg_Parchment

How do you recharge your creativity?
I love going to Farmers Markets and seeing what is new and seasonal. I am lucky to live in an area where there are not only lots of Farmers markets, but also multicultural neighborhoods where ethnic produce markets are plentiful. Chinatown, Koreatown, and the Hispanic area are all places nearby where I can see unusual varieties of fruit and vegetables that spark my imagination.

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
I am a bit of a loner, and so I haven’t done much collaboration with other artists. I did do a line of handmade shoji screens (daikon with fish and seaweed parchment) with master Japanese craftsmen whose family have made shoji for 300 years. I would love to collaborate with a professional woodworker who would be interested in some projects! (Anyone?)

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.
sugar

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.

Village

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.”

Village

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.

process

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.”