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Design

El Anatsui: All That Glitters Isn’t Gold

May 14, 2013

Like most Americans, I’m pretty unaware of artists who aren’t American or European. Embarrassing but true: interpreting the art of very different cultures takes work, and I tend to approach art (as I do most things) impatiently, wanting immediate pleasure. So I’d never heard of Ghanian-born, Nigeria-based artist El Anatsui when the Brooklyn Museum opened his first solo exhibition in a New York City museum. (Which runs through Aug. 4, 2013.)

El Anatsui, Ink Splash, photo by Aaron Bunge

Ink Splash, 2010 – Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Gravity and Grace (detail), 2010, photo by Aaron Bunge

Gravity and Grace, 2010 (detail) – Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Now, thanks to Kevin Dumouchelle, Associate Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Pacific Islands at the museum, who organized the show, this lazy ethnocentrista has been gifted with a reward she didn’t deserve: a broad, deep encounter with overwhelmingly spectacular art. Totally accessible on a number of levels, El Anatsui’s work drew me in, motivating me to spend much more time learning about it than I normally do at an art show. I went twice. I watched all the videos. I never do that.

Afor, 2010

Afor, 2010 – Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

I thought this show would be of interest to the UncommonGoods community for two reasons: first, because it bridges the same fertile territory between “art” and “craft” that a number of pieces in our collection do, and second, because we love art made of recycled and upcycled materials. El Anatsui is perhaps the maestro of this practice.

Drainpipe, 2010 and Peak Project, 1999 – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Using tools ranging from chainsaws and welding torches to improvised small crafts tools, he has marked, joined, and shaped materials ranging from yucca graters and railroad ties to driftwood, iron nails, and obituary notice printing plates. More recently, he has focused on condensed milk can tops and used aluminum liquor bottle caps, with various brand names, from a distillery in the university town and contemporary art mecca of Nsukka, Nigeria, where his studio is.

Red Block, 2010 – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

Anatsui prefers not to call what he does “recycling,” and in fact, the connotations of that word are too narrow in the context of his work. The discarded materials he uses are so miraculously transformed into beautiful, shimmering, sumptuous works of art that his preferred word, “metamorphosis,” does seem more apt. At least one critic has dubbed it “alchemy,” and I can totally see why. (They’re metamorphosed into money as well; at least one piece is rumored to have sold for about a million dollars. So UG will not be offering his stuff any time soon, unfortch.)

Earth’s Skin, 2007 – Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

The show I saw (twice!) at the Brooklyn Museum consists of 30 works in metal and wood, the largest and most visually dominant of which are huge, mosaic-like, hanging tapestries made of the aforementioned bottle caps.

Earth’s Skin, 2007 (detail)- Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

A tremendous amount of meticulous craftsmanship goes into every tapestry, as you can see in this short Art21 video. Each is composed of thousands and thousands of aluminum liquor bottle caps. Anatsui’s 40-odd assistants cut and fold the caps into a seemingly endless multitude of shapes. “For each new pattern or texture that I’m introducing,” explains the artist, “I have to show them how it’s done. Because I find that, as an artist, if you don’t maintain physical contact with handling the material… the work might end up not having a soul.”

Earth’s Skin, 2007 (detail) – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

They then painstakingly “sew” them together with copper wire, patchwork-style, in a dazzling variety of color and texture groupings, Many depict traditional Ghanian symbols and patterns, while also evoking the history of the African slave trade, in which liquor was a commodity that Europeans exchanged for human beings, as well as the contemporary reality of global consumption and waste. Surprisingly, Anatsui received his early education in a Presbyterian mission with a European curriculum, and was isolated from his own culture until, in his late teens, he decided to “indigenize [his] consciousness” by immersing himself in Ghanaian culture. That probably at least partly explains someone like me found his work so easy to engage with.

El Anatsui creating his wall installation, Gli (Wall), 2010 / Commission, Rice University Art Gallery, Houston, Texas / Photo: Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

El Anatsui doesn’t like to tell curators how to hang the pieces, so they have to be strong from every angle, as there’s no way to predict what kind of stress any given area might sustain. Before uniting all the sections of a piece, his crew pulls each section this way and that, to test their strength and make sure they’ll withstand being hung and re-hung in indoor and outdoor installations around the world. Without this careful craftsmanship, Anatsui’s brilliant, painterly compositions couldn’t perform their artistic function for long.

Black Block, 2010 – Photos by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

There’s no way to adequately describe in words or photographs how stunning, and varied, his work is. Some of the hangings, pieced of solid color blocks of flattened parts of caps, are monolithic and imposing, even though they’re made of what’s easily recognizable as garbage. Some, made of cap parts shaped into circles that are loosely woven together, are semi-transparent, and hang above and around you making the room you’re in look transcendentally magical, as if dust motes had turned to gold.

Gli (Wall), 2010 – Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. Brooklyn Museum photograph

Photo by Aaron Bunge of Aesthetic Perspectives

One of the most amazing things about his work, to me, was that usually in the art world, consumer items, brand names, and garbage are used to say something negative and depressing. We’re meant to be reminded of the way consumer culture and advertising infiltrates nearly every aspect of our lives, usually degrading the environment in the process. When I see this kind of work, I often think, “I didn’t need you, Mr./Ms. Art School Graduate, to tell me about this. We all already know it.”

Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

But Anatsui’s work lifts you up and inspires you in all sorts of ways: artistically, environmentally, physically, and, dare I say, metaphysically. Anatsui shows us that the possibilities of re-use to create value of all sorts are unlimited.

The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet Melissa Bishop

April 17, 2013
Melissa Bishop, UncommonGoods Senior Buyer–Children’s, Leisure & Desktop

My hometown is…
Los Angeles, CA

My favorite product that I’ve brought into the assortment at UncommonGoods is…
Kinetic Sand.

I’m inspired by…
The amazing friends, family, and colleagues I am surrounded by. Also I’m a huge tech geek so I’m inspired by Kickstarter and TechCrunch.

My guilty pleasure is…
Goldfish crackers, sour candy, and young adult fiction novels.

An uncommon fact about me…
I play on two nationally competitive kickball teams. (Yes, really.)

My favorite place to eat in New York City is…
I’m a sucker for restaurants with twinkle lights and candles – and great wine lists.

My style is…
Completely mood-based – I’m a chameleon. California casual, if I had to pick a lane. Learning how to dress for my first winter has been a comedy…

Working at UncommonGoods, I’ve learned…
How to navigate the subway & survive in New York City. (I started at UG the day after I moved to NYC!)

Would you rather… Have a front row spot at any sporting event you choose for the rest of your life OR get free stuff from your favorite clothing store for the rest of your life?
Definitely front row at any sporting event! (!!!) – I’m a football and baseball fanatic. Hopefully this choice comes with transportation to get me there, too, since I’m far away from my Cali teams now!

The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet Candace Holloway Gregory

March 27, 2013

Candace Holloway Gregory, UncommonGoods Senior Merchant Manager

My hometown is…
Sherman, TX (GO BEARCATS!)

My favorite product that I’ve brought into the assortment at UncommonGoods is…
That is a hard one. I love them all! I guess I would say the MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY KIT – CUISINE. I did a gift lab on the product and had a BLAST making all the different dishes with my friends. I’m not much of a cook, but I felt fancy doing all these complex food alterations in the kitchen. (Secret: the kit makes everything super easy.)

I’m inspired by…
I’m inspired by my friends and family every day.

My guilty pleasure is…
The television show So You Think You Can Dance! And I will scream it from the mountain tops. I have been a die-hard fan from the first season, first episode. I like to think I can dance and critique like I know what I’m talking about. But my dance experience is……ummm……pretty much zero. LOVE EVERY SECOND OF THAT SHOW.

An uncommon fact about me…
I dabbled in acting. Lots of people thought that is why I moved to NYC, but I never wanted to have a career as an actress. I just wanted to live in the greatest city in the world!

My favorite place to eat in New York City is…
Another hard one! Vinegar Hill House is simply delicious. We usually go for “special occasions” so every time I have gone I have left with great memories.

My style is…
Simple and comfortable…in fashion and decorating.

Working at UncommonGoods, I’ve learned…
I have learned a lot about sustainability and B Corps. I am very proud to be a part of a company that cares so much about their customers, employees, and community. I also learned how to ride a bike in NYC. I still hold my breath going through busy intersections but I’m getting more comfortable every day.

Would you rather… Entertain guests every night for a week OR spend a whole week all alone?
I guess I would have to go with entertain guests every night for a week. My husband can put together an amazing party platter.

The Uncommon Life

Help Us Let State Officials Know that NY State’s Min. Wage is Not Enough to Live On

February 6, 2013

Dear New York State UncommonGoods Customers:

As you know, UncommonGoods, since its founding, has pursued the goal of running a sustainable business. We seek out goods that are handmade, recycled and organic, and print our catalogs on recycled paper approved by the Forest Stewardship Council.

But to us, “sustainability” means more than just being “green.” We believe true sustainability starts with integrity in everything we do. Being a founding member of B Corporation is one example of that philosophy. So is our Better to Give program. Integrity and care in our dealings with you, our customers, is another. And so is providing a living wage to our employees.

At UncommonGoods, we pay all our workers, including people who are just here for the holiday season, well above the minimum hourly wage. That’s because New York State’s current minimum wage, $7.25/hr, is too little to live on.

I, along with 80% of New York State voters, feel strongly that all of our state’s workers must be paid a fairer wage, asap. We’ve gone 6 years with zero increase. 19 other states have higher minimum wages than New York. If minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1970, it would be $11.15 an hour.

A vote about raising New York’s minimum wage, and automatically adjusting it to inflation, is coming up soon in the New York State government. Signing one of the below petitions could truly make a huge difference to a great number (hundreds of thousands) of your fellow New Yorkers.

I’ve written up my thoughts on the issue in this piece:
http://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Yearly-minimum-wage-hikes-help-everyone-4209844.php

If you agree, please let our state officials know that New York State’s lowest-paid workers need a raise to help get them out of poverty.

Business owners, sign this one. (The signatures of business owners will have the most impact on our politicians.)
http://businessforafairminimumwage.org/New-York-Minimum-Wage-Statement-2013

Individuals, sign this one.
http://action.groundswell-movement.org/petitions/raise-the-new-york-minimum-wage

Thanks for reading, and, I hope, for signing. Please share this message with other NY State businesses that you think would want to support this.

Dave Bolotsky
Founder and CEO, UncommonGoods

If you would like to do more, contacting your local state senator will have a real impact:

Find my New York State Senator: http://www.nysenate.gov/senators
(Enter your address and it finds yours.)
You can also Google “Twitter Senator (add their name)” and find their Twitter feed.
Ditto for Facebook.
For example:
https://twitter.com/dianesavino
https://www.facebook.com/SenatorDianeSavino

To contact the Governor:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
Tel: (518)474-8390
Email: gov.cuomo@chamber.state.ny.us
http://www.state.ny.us/governor
https://www.facebook.com/GovernorAndrewCuomo
https://twitter.com/NYGovCuomo

If you’re interested in reading more about minimum wage, this website is chock-full of clear and understandable information: http://raisetheminimumwage.org/.

The Uncommon Life

B Corp Status Renewed: The Mission to be a Responsible and Sustainable Business

August 8, 2012


When you think UncommonGoods you probably think unique, creatively designed and, well, uncommon products. Perhaps UncommonGoods is even your go-to place for gifts for those hard-to-buy-for family and friends and maybe even the place to gift yourself (don’t we all do that occasionally).

What you may not know is that UncommonGoods is voluntarily meeting higher standards of social and environmental performance through the B Corporation certification. The B Impact Assessment, conducted by the non-profit organization B Lab, aims to look beyond the marketing efforts of a company to assess the true impact of a business on their workers, community, and the environment.

Earlier this year, I led the effort to recertify UncommonGoods as a B Corporation, working with cross-departmental team members to assess how we’re doing. A founding member of B Corp, we’ve now reached our third term and our score of 91.3 shows that we are committed to upholding a higher standard when it comes to our stakeholders, including the environment, our employees, and the community.

(source, B Corp)

Our founder David Bolotsky has been making a continuous and strong effort in running a sustainable business ever since the company was founded in 1999. We are passionate about changing the way business is conducted by making sustainability a part of every decision we make. An important focus is to have a positive impact, not only in our own work place but in the world at large. For example, some benefits available to employees are that 80% of health insurance premiums are paid by UG (50% for families), whenever feasible alternate work schedules like part-time, flex-time or telecommuting are an option, there is a health and wellness program in place, including offering fresh organic fruit in the break rooms and incentives are given to encourage low-impact commutes to and from work.

Dave speaking to fellow NY B Corps.

A positive impact also means offering our customers creative and exciting merchandise that is built to last and made without harm to humans and animals; giving talented artists and designers a platform to sell their unique and often handmade product on a larger scale; making truthful and substantiated claims around all our products and avoiding the pitfalls of green-washing; and making smart packaging decisions when we ship the goods out to our customers and their friends and families.

(source, B Corp)

While not always an option in every product category, we prefer to work with local, sustainable, and fair trade suppliers. As a matter of fact, 14% of sales last year was generated with local and independent suppliers alone, ‘local’ meaning suppliers within a 200 mile radius. About half of our sales came from items made in the US, a little over a third from handmade products and about a fifth from products made of recycled content.

Being an internet and catalog retailer, we understand that producing a catalog uses the earth’s resources. Our goal is to minimize that impact by shifting more business online, limiting how many catalogs we mail, and continuing to print our catalogs on either recycled paper or paper sourced from FSC certified forests.

We love to give back to the environment and the community whenever we can. In 2011, we helped plant hundreds of trees (1,400 to be exact!) in Marine Bay Park as part of the MillionTreesNYC initiative. After over a year of tenacious persuasion tactics we also convinced city officials to make the landscape more appealing by planting street trees around Brooklyn Army Terminal (our offices) and we are volunteering our time and resources to help keep them in good health. I’m happy to report that so far they look quite happy!

Planting with MillionTreesNYC

Beautifying tree beds in and around Brooklyn Army Terminal.

Through the Better To Give program, UncommonGoods supports the mission of local and national non-profits. The Better To Give program gives our customers the opportunity to have UncommonGoods contribute to a non-profit organization each time they shop with us. Also, a portion of the sales of our Plates with Purpose, the Be The Change Paperweight and the Pelican and Sandpiper Nightlights is donated to non-profit partners – each item listing tells our customers exactly how much is donated and which organization it’s donated to. Last year we donated about $120K through our Better To Give program as well as $75K in product donations!

Our products that are making a difference.

On an ongoing basis, employees from all areas of our company are given the opportunity to discuss how we can make UncommonGoods more environmentally friendly, socially responsible and an ever-more rewarding place to work. Our four company goals serve as our guiding principles to be a responsible company; these goals are to be a great place to work, to be our customer’s favorite place to shop, to have a positive impact on the outside world, and to produce strong financial results.

Some members of the Certified B Corp community in front of Independence Hall in Philly. (source, B Corp)

The great thing about the B Corp seal is that it certifies the company as a whole, not just an individual aspect. It gives a customer insight on how a company is doing overall, from providing a living wage, to employee wellness, to lessening the environmental impact, to giving back to the community.

Fellow B Corp BBMG conducted a study on why B Corps matter and found that 73% of consumers care about the company, not just the product, when making a purchasing decision. Another interesting finding is that less than 1% of consumers actually trust company advertisements or statements when assessing a product or company. The more consumers know about the concept behind the B Corp certification/Benefit Corporation, the more consumer-spending will be influenced by this knowledge.

Check out this infographic to learn more about B Corps.(source, GOOD)

The bi-annual assessment and re-certification process is an excellent way to share our achievements with our customers and team members. More important, it helps us to set benchmarks for the social and environmental impacts of UncommonGoods and identify opportunities for future improvement.

We strive to be a driver of positive change and are convinced that collaborating with fellow B Corps and other industry leaders will have a positive impact. The certified B Corp community is made up of over 550 companies from 60 different industries and represents about $3.1 billion in revenues. It’s a large community of value-driven companies wanting to make a positive impact that are open to sharing advice and insights.

The holy grail of 100% sustainability is no small task to achieve – after all, the most sustainable product is the one that was never made – but we are very dedicated to making responsible, thought-through and well-informed decisions in everyday operations and to leading our business with integrity.

Design

Germaphobes Rejoice! Cleaner Kitchens, One Sponge at a Time

January 5, 2012

Some people aren’t too picky about their cleaning supplies. For those less-than-germ-conscious types, any old sponge will do. Engineer Michael Frank was one of those folks, but his roommate was far from it. Although Michael now admits that kitchens can be pretty gross, when he first designed his innovative two-teared sponge rack, the Spongester, he did it with the germaphobia of others in mind.



Of course, those germaphobes aren’t scrubbing up the wrong sink. According to WebMD, your kitchen sink can actually contain more germs than your toilet bowl. Fortunately, cross-contamination may have met it’s worst enemy. Spongester is made of industrial-grade stainless steel, is slanted just right to prevent water from pooling up, and features semi-perforated shelves for extra drainage.

Here at UncommonGoods we think the idea is pretty ingenious, but Michael faced a few hurdles before his clever system made it big. The designer took a moment to tell us about how Spongester came to be, describe what makes a Sponge evil, and make us laugh.

Q.In your video, you explain that the product was created to keep the good sponge and the evil sponge from getting mixed up. What makes a sponge angelic or evil?

The original prototype, and the one in the video I made while I was living in Singapore, said “Dish” and “Misc”. I didn’t come up with “Good” and “Evil” until I was back in NYC. Something about this city. But in reality, I always thought the counter and sink were a bit “grosser” than dishes, especially my counter and sink.

Mike sent us this cartoon by Tony Murphy, which he says “proved to me I was not alone.”

Q. You said that your former roommate is a germaphobe. Any other examples of the lengths you would have to go to keep things clean/prevent cross-contamination?

I’m actually pretty bad about this, and I have to admit I sometimes clean the counter with the good sponge, then feel bad about it. I’m a biomedical engineer by training, so I do spend a lot of time wondering how much mold I’m ingesting when I use a smelly sponge on a drinking glass.


He also passed along this image from his alleged germaphobic friend Sean’s Facebook. He assures us his ol’ roomie was just kidding.

Q.Spongester has been a big hit among germaphobes and those who like to stay organized. Did you expect such a great response?

The idea to actually sell them outside of my friends was formed during business school last year in NYC. My professor said it was the stupidest thing he ever saw, and I also got rejected from the entrepreneurship funding program because no one understood why anyone would want one. Despite this, I always thought there were at least 100 other people out there who shared this problem, so I kept pushing it despite the skepticism.

Q. Be honest-would you rather lick a used sponge, dirty dishes that have been sitting in the sink overnight, or the kitchen floor?

For me that is an easy question; I have a niche brand of OCD which requires me to lick the kitchen floor three times whenever I open the fridge and microwave. The sink I only have to lick on Thursdays. And I don’t use dishes, just ice-cube trays to partition food by color and type of animal.

Not coincidentally, I live alone with my cat, Eki, in Soho.

We’re pretty sure he’s joking about the last one, but we know that there are some interesting cleaning quirks out there. What’s the greatest length you’ve gone to avoid germs?

Design

Share the Love!

July 30, 2011

I Heart NY

We’re proud New Yorkers, so of course we’re excited to see Milton Glaser’s iconic logo on this ceramic “paper” cup. Like the Ceramic Greek Coffee Cup and The Original I Am Not A Paper Cup, this design is worthy of a double-take.

Do you want to sip your coffee while showing off your NY pride? If you love the I Love NY Cup, give it a thumbs up in our community voting app.

The Uncommon Life

Opportunity Network

November 3, 2010

The Opportunity Network works to equal the playing field for high-achieving, low-income high school students by creating access for them to career opportunities, professional networks and college. They believe influential networks are essential ingredients for success not emphasized in career development programs for youth, so they take an innovative approach by underscoring the power of personal connections and professional relationships as vital complements to skills and experience. Through unique interaction with executives, intensive college counseling, networking training, coursework in careers, and paid internships, their students dramatically change the course of their futures.

Here’s what Seneca Iscove, UncommonGoods customer service supervisor, has to say:

When I was first introduced to The Opportunity Network, I selfishly wondered, “Where the heck were you people when I needed you?” I wish that there had been a place that I could go to that would not only help me with the daunting and sometimes frightening task of college applications, but also the tools to sustain a successful career once college ended. To go even further, The Opportunity Network has an amazingly successful program of internships that span from Fortune 500 companies to theaters and non-profits. The Opportunity Network recognizes students’ dreams, one at a time, right here in New York City.

I was a New York City high school student and regrettably, there was nothing like The Opportunity Network for me. I was a latch-key kid in a low income neighborhood, raised by a single mother who worked three jobs in order to care for my sister and I. Our focus was to get as far away from our neighborhoods as we could. The only alternatives seemed to be entertainment, sports and college. But the reality was, many kids in my neighborhood were unprepared for college.

Over worked and under paid educators began to speak to us about “realistic goals,” goals that did not include college for many of us. Although my mother worked too long and too hard to have much involvement in my schoolwork, I somehow made it through.

“On my own” is the theme of many high school students who struggle with getting out of their desperate situations and create a better life for themselves. Students like Eric, a Bronx native like me who was not only the first in his family to get as far as junior year in high school, but also the first in his school to be accepted to an ivy league school through the help of The Opportunity Network. The first in his school! Imagine that!

Imagine how many more can be helped through the dedicated work of The Opportunity Network? Now that I am a mother there is nothing in the world that means more to me than our children. They are indeed our future and there is no reason that they should continue to struggle and miss out on their dreams because of the misfortune that has befallen them. With the amazing work of The Opportunity Network, they no longer have to.

Vote for Opportunity Network on Facebook today.

– Seneca Iscove, UncommonGoods Customer Service

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