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pillows

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Alexandra Ferguson

July 9, 2015

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When I was getting ready to head over to Alexandra Ferguson’s pillow factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with a few other members of the UncommonGoods team, I honestly had no idea what to expect. Not only was this my first studio tour – it was my first day of work, and the word ‘factory’ was emboldened in my head. The automatic image of a dingy, windowless environment I had cultivated growing up clashed with the sense of handmade authenticity and vibrancy I associated with UncommonGoods. Visiting Alexandra’s studio factory was initially an incredibly dissonant experience – but we’re talking a good kind of dissonance: one that adhered to none of my preconceived notions of what a factory was, and rather showed me what a factory could be.

Photo by Colin Miller

Just a few blocks away from the UncommonGoods office in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, Alexandra’s studio is lofted high up on the 6th floor of the massive Industry City complex. We made our way into the building, dodging a slurry of outbound shipments that left us frazzled by the time we reached the elevator. Yet when the doors opened, Alexandra’s head popped into view, and we were immediately greeted by her distinctive brand of inviting pep. She welcomed us in and led us down a short hallway lined with pillow fills towards her main assembly floor.

The space that unfolded around us was – in two words – collected and comfortable. Sewing machines and pinning tables stretched from end to end of the long, bright space, one side of which was almost entirely lined with windows boasting inviting views of the Statue of Liberty and the NY Harbor. The room was warmly decorated but economical, with little (literal) fluff for a pillow factory. As Alexandra walked us along the sunny assembly floor, she gestured towards the colorful walls and washed away the monochromatic filter I was still half-clinging to, saying: “My goal is for my factory to be a colorful place, where we make colorful things, and ultimately to change the way people think about factories.” Not only is this idea sustainable – so too are her exclusively recycled and eco-friendly materials.

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Alexandra is a self-described “factory girl;” having toured assemblies all over the world, she emanated an almost infectious sense of pride as she talked excitedly about her set-up. We moved into her office – open and connected to the main floor – where she energetically floated over stacks of ‘I’ll-get-to-this-later’ mail atop tables and chairs, and decommissioned sewing machines encouraged closer exploration. After she showed us her camera and photo shoot area, she explained that, since locating in Industry City two years ago, she and her six full-time employees have been conducting every aspect of her business in-house.

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Read on for more on Alexandra’s impactful ideals for industry, the story of her six-and-a-half-year-old startup, and that time that Snoop Dogg endorsed her custom pillows.

Studio Tour | Alexandra Ferguson

What are your most essential tools and materials?
Our favorite material is our 100 percent recycled felt. It’s made from PET containers (i.e. plastic bottles). Felt is a matted fiber that cuts clean without fraying. This versatility is what allows us to cut out the letters and stitch them down in our signature applique technique. Of course, my favorite tools would have to be our hundreds of custom-made dies. They are like cookie-cutters for the fabric. We have the whole alphabet in several different fonts, as well as some very special scripted phrases like the Namaste Pillow.

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What inspired you to become an artist, and where does this inspiration come from?
My mom was a patternmaker in London during the swinging 60s, and is an overall craft maven. Growing up, she made lots of our clothes, and some of my favorite memories are days when we would dream something up and spend the day bringing it to life.

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How did you first develop the concept for your product?
I made my first felt pillows as a gift for a friend. The first pillows were all botanical-themed, and I cut the shapes of the flowers and leaves freehand, layering them on top of each other and using my sewing machine to add details such as the veins in a petal. I got carried away over the holidays and made about 40 more so I started selling the extras on the craft circuits. Which, of course, then meant I had an excuse to make more. I liked to have cable news on as background noise, and in January 2009 when I was just starting, Obama was being inaugurated. It was such an exciting and inspiring time that I thought to capture “yes we can” on a pillow. Turned out it was a hit and I was in business. I consider it to be my own little economic stimulus package.

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What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a young designer starting a business?
Scaling up our operations from a small 800-square-foot studio space with one sewer to our current 4,000-square-foot factory with a team of seven was a pretty big deal. It was really important to me that we held onto the artisanal handcrafted manufacturing methods and nimbleness to make custom products in a short time frame even as we more than tripled our annual output. I’m happy to say that two years later, we have an awesome team and a really efficient production flow, but we certainly had our fair share of growing pains along the way.

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Where does down time fit into your day? Is it ever tempting to take a nap on your own product?
I’m really disciplined about ending the work day by 6 or 7, which I can get away with by being hyper-focused when I am on the clock. I’m a big believer that even the busiest person can make time for the things that are important, and for me it’s having evenings at home with my husband.

Ha – I get asked all the time if my factory full of pillows ever tempt me for a nap, but for me when I see that I just think how much work has to be done!

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You’ve mentioned before that you hope to redefine how people perceive factories. Can you elaborate more on how your factory deviates from this stereotype?
I love factories. I love watching all the different machines in action, and listening to the sounds they make. And I love the pride that I see in a workers face when you admire their craftsmanship. There is something so innately satisfying about the visual of a pile of product at the end of the day and knowing that you produced that – a real sense of purpose. Over the last 10 years, I have worked with factories of nearly every scale and specialty, from managing sample rooms for top designers and local NYC garment center work rooms to some of the largest mass production factories in southern China. I’ve seen cut and sew lines, fabric mills, metal stamping, plastic injection molding.

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So you can imagine that opening my own factory two years ago was a dream come true. I remember being so struck though at the visceral reaction I got from some people when I used this word, “factory.” It evoked dark and dingy spaces, overcrowding, mindless work, and child labor. Yes, in my career I have certainly made a bee-line out of some foul spaces with questionable work ethics, but in my experience it was by no means the norm and the opposite of what I intended to build in Brooklyn.

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As a response, I set out to build a factory as beautiful and exciting as I believe it can be. Our loft space in Industry City is lined in wall to wall windows and overlooks NY harbor and the Statue of Liberty. I installed 150 feet of custom turquoise industrial shelving, and painted accent walls with chartreuse and fuchsia. And obviously we are in full legal compliance with all local laws and labor practices! But more than that, I want to show how the economics of domestic manufacturing CAN work. Yes, our labor and overhead is more expensive than our overseas competitors, but we have many other advantages such as no minimum order quantities, fast turn around time and no risk of my goods getting held in customs indefinitely. All in, this means that we don’t tie up our cash in materials and inventory, and can capture a ton of business making custom items such as the Zip Code and Family Name Pillows on UncommonGoods. Not to mention, of course, creating jobs for our local community and supporting the national economy. So we’ve got some big advantages. Not to mention that I get to listen to sewing machines click away all day long. Music to my ears.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
The best thing for me was to just take it one day at a time. Otherwise it can get pretty overwhelming.

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Where does collaboration fit into your day and your craft?
I love working on custom pieces with our customers. Maybe it’s a nickname you have for your significant other, or the punch line of an inside joke. I love knowing what huge smiles will be on the recipients face when they open that perfect present made just for them.

Please elaborate on the sustainable materials you’ve incorporated into your product.
We work with all eco-friendly materials. Our felt and pillow inserts are made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles (PET containers). Our cream canvas is a hemp and linen blend, and our other canvas bases are all 100 percent organic cotton.

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What inspires you to keep designing?
My customers. I do a lot of listening to their needs, and then try to design into it.

What do you think people appreciate most about your product?
We make an effort to curate phrases that are part of our common lexicon – things we collectively are saying and thinking all day long – boil them down to their absolute essence, and write that on a pillow. When we’ve done it right, it’s something that you can immediately relate to, almost like we’ve lifted your thoughts right out of your head! Or maybe it reminds you exactly of your sister-in-law who is always saying that thing. Either way, our products tend to create this very intense emotional connection with the buyer. It’s not just a pillow anymore, it’s a piece of you.

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What is your favorite product design (pillow), and why is it special to you?
It changes all the time depending on my mood. Right now it’s “I Love This Place” – it lives on the set of the TODAY Show, and they recently posted a photo to Instagram of Snoop Dogg posing with it. We have it taped to our refrigerator at the factory. Totally epic.

Instagram photo from @alexandrafergusonllc via @todayshow

 

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

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Ronda J Smith

November 14, 2014

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Studio tours are one of my favorite things about being a part of the blog team here at UncommonGoods; it’s impossible for me to leave a creative space and not feel fascinated, energized, and most of all – inspired. (Okay, and maybe a wee bit jealous.) There’s always new designer lingo, unusual tools, or interesting processes I discover when stepping inside a vendor’s creative haven, and my social media-obsessed alter ego immediately wants to Instagram and tweet everything I see.

Ronda J Smith’s In The Seam studio is absolutely no exception. From her super-duper mega printers to real life Pinterest-like wall quotes and images to her beloved chair that’s showered with eye cut-outs, my curiosity ran wild – and then ran some more. Yet, as much as I adored her studio, it wasn’t exactly In The Seam’s home that got me pumped up for life and wanting to run out the door to simply make something, anything. It was Ronda. She led me to not only feel like I took two shots of espresso, but was ready to conquer the world. I was on a high. Ronda’s energy and enthusiasm towards her craft, projects, and space was overwhelmingly contagious and uplifting. It taught me that whatever I’m doing in life – I should always have that much passion for it, nothing less.

Meet spunky Ronda J Smith, maker of our Indulgent Foods, Elements of NYC, and Custom Pet Pillows. Step inside her studio and be prepared to feel your creative juices flow.

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How did you come up with the concept of your product?
The idea came while I was relaxing with my cat, Keywan, one afternoon and decided to take his picture. Inspired by my love of photography and sewing, I decided to print the image on fabric, cut it out and sew a pillow. That’s how In The Seam got started.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
The toughest lesson is learning to run the business.  I went to school for photography, not business or marketing.  I’ve learned so much and have enjoyed the challenge. I must thank Google and my family and friends – I’ve asked them all a lot of questions along the way!

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I’m working on extending my product line and brand! I want to use my photographs on other objects so I can produce more items in addition to pillows.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” -Henry Ford. This quote means anything and everything you want it to mean.  Your thoughts and mindset are more powerful than you could ever imagine.

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
I celebrate everything, every step, even the small stuff with a jump and high-five!

How do you set goals for yourself?
I write them down in sharpie on my calendar.  Once I write it there, it’s pretty much set in stone and I must follow through.

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

What are your most essential tools?
My most essential tool is my camera, which is obvious. Besides that, I couldn’t live without my strong sturdy silver spoon, I use the tip of the handle to inside-out the tiny corners and crevasses of each pillow.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Tucked in my tiny office surrounded by all my boxes and “stuff”.  I feel safe and secure.  It gives me the ability to concentrate and create.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
It doesn’t. I’m not even sure what down time means!

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
I collaborate with someone each and every time a custom pillow is created.  Customers send me the image they envision me to cut and shape into a pillow.  I print, cut, and sew that pillow for them.  Custom Pet Pillows are a large part of my business, it keeps me on my toes. And with the cast of characters that come out of my printer, it keeps me smiling too!

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Learn to negotiate and don’t undersell your products.  You can’t let people take advantage of you, especially when you are crafting a handmade product.  Which is tough advice sometimes, because I always want to make everyone happy.

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How do you recharge your creativity?
I recharge by either taking a long walk around the city, or a long weekend away from the city. I always have my camera at hand, so the work is never far, but it gives me a chance to step away from my studio and get some fresh air.  If I’m close to a body of water and can take a swim that helps too.

Ronda J. Smith Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Design

Constellation Collaboration: Creating the Zodiac Pillows

April 15, 2013

All great designs start out as great ideas, and while we often think of great ideas as masterpieces that burst forth from the minds of individuals, in reality, many are actually the product of collaboration.

For our product development team, collaboration has a major part in creating dynamic new goods. Sometimes the idea for a new exclusive designed-by-us product is conceived in a brainstorming session, sometimes it’s the result of discussions with our buyers, and, as in the case of our colorful Zodiac Pillows, sometimes the idea is built around existing artwork.

Senior Product Development Associate Sarah Stenseng, Product Development Associate Tiffany Jyang and their zodiac characters

Before our product development associates Sarah and Tiffany got to work designing these plush pillows, the adorable astrological characters featured on them started out as illustrations by artist Mark Poulin.

“Mark’s artwork informed the materials,” said Tiffany. “The characters are bright, fun, and colorful, so we knew the product had to be huggable.”

Mark agreed that UncommonGoods had to take his designs in the “huggable” direction. “It was all about the cute,” he said when asked what (besides the zodiac symbols themselves, of course) inspired him. He continued, “My goal was to make cartoon characters that would appeal to anyone with a heart and with a sense of goodwill. After all, you do have to feel comfortable snuggling up on the couch with these guys!”

Since there are 12 original zodiac signs, the team knew they had to create a product that could be consistent across several styles, while letting each character’s personality shine through. They decided that pillows were the perfect way to display Mark’s creations, because they are soft, squeezable, and fit into a variety of home decor styles.

“Part of what makes these zodiacs uncommon is that they are lovable, which isn’t something you usually think of when you think astrology,” said Sarah.

Mark himself jokes about his own feelings about astrology. “Secretly I’m a zodiac fanatic,” he said. “Not the reading the columns kind of guy, but the always trying to guess peoples signs based on their behaviors kind of guy. There’s nothing wrong with a little astrology mixed with numerology and maybe a dash of tarot, as long as you don’t talk about it in interviews…whoops!”

Artist Mark Poulin

That idea of blending the symbolism of the zodiac characters into everyday life was also a factor in creating these pillows. The team wanted the youthful series to appeal to fun-loving folks of all ages. And, since they really are functional pieces, that look lovely on your bed our couch, but are also soft and comfy when you rest your head on them or snuggle up with them, they had to be durable.

Fortunately, Tiffany and Sarah didn’t have to look far to find a vendor who could produce quality plush products. UncommonGoods has worked with Green 3 for years, and knew they were a great choice to help take the zodiac pillows from a concept to an uncommon good.

This next level of collaboration started with Jim Martin, who co-founded Green 3 with his wife, Sandy. “Our reaction to the designs was positive as soon as we saw them,” Said Jim. “We liked the icons and felt that had a very modern feel. We also really loved the saturation of colors.”

It was important to Jim and the team at Green 3 that the artwork was reproduced faithfully, without limiting the usefulness of the pillow or making the price point too high.

Zodiac Pillows in production, photos courtesy of Green 3

Since these factors are also important to our product development team, Tiffany and Sarah worked closely with the other collaborators creating mock-ups, working out kinks, making needed tweaks, and striving to hit a deadline–motivated to get the product perfect in time to appear in our next catalog.

The team also reached out to our online community, through the community voting app, to get feedback before releasing the final version of the product.

“We saw a fair amount of positive comments, ” said Tiffany, “which helped us gauge customer reaction to the product.”

Our product developers were encouraged by kind words from our voters, and couldn’t wait to see the finished pillows, and when the first shipment came in, they were both relieved to see that the product was finally here and excited to be able to start getting the cuddly characters out to customers.

Although seeing a product like the Zodiac Pillows through from an idea inspired by charming artwork to a tactile piece does involve a lot of moving parts and collaboration, it’s definitely worth the time and effort to see the end result–a design that can’t be found anywhere else!