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Studio Tours

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Nils Wessell

October 16, 2015

Nils Wessell | UncommonGoodsNils in his Brooklyn woodshop, photos by Rachel Orlow

Nils Wessell is the creator of our Tablet Holding Cutting Board , an innovative design that allows cooks to easily prep ingredients with their electronic tablets ready and enabled right in front of them. While heirloom cookbooks are becoming a thing of the past, Nils’ cutting boards are beautifully-crafted and sturdily-constructed, meaning they bring a dose of tactile beauty to cooking in the electronic age. 

When I first read our This Just In-spiration interview with the Brooklyn-based designer and woodworker, I got the impression that he’s not only a talented craftsman, but also someone who is truly passionate, not only about his own craft, but also about art across a broad spectrum. When I learned that his woodshop is located in nearby Industry City, I knew I had to pay him a visit to learn more about his thoughts on the pursuit of creativity and the challenges (and rewards) that come with balancing art and business. 

Once in Nils’ creative space, I saw work, experimentation, knowledge, and–at the risk of sounding a little cheesy here–the magic in the sawdust all around me. Nils’ studio is a mix of books, designs in the prototype phase, power tools, and exquisitely-crafted cutting boards in different stages of production. Read on to see some of these works in progress, hand tools and heavy machinery, and our interview with Nils. 

Nils Wessell | UncommonGoods Studio Tour

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Maker Stories

Inside the Maker’s Studio With Casey Elsass

September 10, 2015

Casey Elsass | UncommonGoods

 Casey Elsass in his Brooklyn kitchen, studio photos by Rachel Orlow

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Casey Elsass at his workspace in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Casey and his employees prepare and bottle Bees Knees Spicy Honey. The operation is located in a food preparation complex featuring local culinary favorites and well-known names like Roberta’s Pizza and McClure’s pickles, so it was clear that Casey’s popularly acclaimed (dare I say alternative?) condiment label – MixedMade – was in the right league. As Casey welcomed us to his facility, my eyes were immediately drawn to two things: 1) his awesome beard and 2) the tremendous stock of honey in the room, and the tremendously large vat that in the next few minutes that honey would accumulate in. It was a beautiful and captivating idea, a vessel of liquid gold large enough to bathe in. But I don’t think the FDA would consider that an OK thing to do.

Bees Knees Spicy Honey | UncommonGoods

When the time came for Casey to crack the seal on one of the massive, 60 lb buckets of honey, a sweet and mildly floral honey smell filled the air. I wondered how he holds back – what’s stopping him from sticking his face in that bucket Winnie the Pooh style? As he prepared to dump the bucket into the huge, silver tank where the contents would get infused with chili pepper goodness, he filled me in on his story: “I’ve always been a foodie – that’s why I started this – but I was actually making my own hot sauce way before we decided to do honey. MixedMade started as our experiment to see if we could launch a condiment in 30 days, but hot sauce is a really crowded market. We kept the hot, lost the sauce, and Spicy Honey was born.”

Keeping Bees in Upstate NY

Bees from Honeybrook Farms

But – it was clear that Casey had acquired a new-found knowledge and appreciation of honey. He sources all of his honey from a family-owned and operated farm upstate a ways in the Hudson Valley, and he frequents the farm to help out with harvests and build hives. “We actually built 30 new beehives exclusive to the company on my last visit – we’re lucky to have such a close relationship with them.”

Read on to learn more about the process behind Spicy Honey – from the hive to your home – Casey’s worst honey-related accident of all time, and what’s next for MixedMade.

Honeybrook Farms

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Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Tricia Wright

August 7, 2015

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I visited Tricia Wright, maker of the Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug, and her beautiful home studio in the heart of San Francisco. From bright pop art, mod furniture, to quirky collections – the moment I walked in I knew that I was very much in a designer’s living space. (Times two because – fun fact -her husband is a designer as well!) While her adorable dog, Major, greeted me as I admired her succulent plant collection and charming outdoor deck, she explained how her home has been a work in progress over the past few years. But now, it’s finally at the stage where she’s comfortable with it being as is – giving her a lot more time to innovate and make “stuff.”

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“Rugs weren’t always my craft. I bought a loom from Craigslist and actually just learned how to weave this year, ” Tricia laughed as she described to me how she “accidentally” got into weaving. A few months back – Tricia noticed she still had a pile of unused bike tubes leftover from an art sculpture she built. And being the sustainable artist that she is – she didn’t want to throw them out. “At the time – I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to make. But I knew something great could come from them.” When she finally came up with the idea of making rugs out of the bike tubes, she suggested that her friend who knew how to loom professionally take the tubes. But her friend – who obviously knew about Tricia’s incredible crafty talents and natural DIY finesse – convinced her that she should definitely learn on her own. When she saw the listing for the wooden loom on Craigslist – Tricia took it as a sign to stop debating, sign up for local weave classes, and just do it. Six months later, the Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug design was for sale at UncommonGoods.

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I was blown away by Tricia’s home and design space (I mean, who wouldn’t be impressed by a wall of beer bottle caps and an entire shelf collection of old-fashioned irons?), but I was even more inspired by her story. I left with a simple reminder: You can’t be perfect in everything, but you sure can try.

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Get inside the head of Tricia Wright and see how San Francisco inspires her work, how she celebrates the little things, and why she associates herself with the Karate Kid.

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What are your most essential tools?
My bike, my camera, and my shuttle.

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Where do you find inspiration within this space?
The act of weaving is calming and the repetition allows my mind to both wander and focus, if that makes sense. Things bubble up while I’m weaving. Working the loom leaves room for a lot of subconscious creativity and inspiration.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Well since my studio is in my house there are plenty of distractions or shall we say downtime. Because of the physical nature and repetition of weaving, I force myself to get up and stretch. I’m a yoga addict so it’s easy to get up and slip into a couple of stretches which is not something you can easily do in an office. And when the dog wants a belly rub or to go for a walk, I can almost always say “let’s go!” That’s not great for productivity, but it’s great for the dog.

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It’s a tough life.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a designer starting a business?
I have learned so much throughout my career. I’ve gotten better at not only knowing when to trust my own design and design decisions; but I’ve also figured out when I need help. This comes from years of seeing what has and hasn’t worked. I’ve learned it’s important to ask for opinions and help when you’re stuck or when something isn’t coming together quite right. It’s great to have a community of friends to lean on when you need input. No one can have all the right answers.

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How did you come up with the concept of your product?
I didn’t know it as design at the time, but I’ve been designing recycled products since I was a kid. I used to sew and reconfigure Goodwill clothes that “fit” into the strict high school dress code. When I see something being thrown away I go into my typical brainstorm pattern: how can I reuse, repurpose, or remake that thing into something worth not only keeping but enjoying again? This particular product started when I created a sculpture for an art show at our local bike /coffee shop. The leftover tires from that project were piled on the floor, and they looked so comfortable to walk on. I started thinking about all the spent tubes that end up in landfills, and before I knew it, I had a loom in my studio and was taking weaving lessons from a master textile artist in Berkeley.

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What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Read more. My sister would say the same thing to me.

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How do you set goals for yourself?
I try to keep my goals to under 3 a day and not get too far down the road mentally. The “future list” is too unattainable and can be overwhelming. I have general ideas of future goals but I believe in keeping it simple. My goals are more like daily achievements so I can see that I have accomplished something, even if it’s small.

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How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
I have a very supportive family and circle of friends. We don’t make a huge deal out of the wins, but everyone is up for a celebratory beer at the local pub. To be honest, we’re just as likely to go to the pub even if we don’t have anything to celebrate (whoo-hoo, it’s Tuesday!), so maybe that’s not a great answer.

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What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“To do good you actually have to do something.” Yvon Chouinard

Action can be louder than words and everyone has a skill that our environment needs. The environment can’t help itself so it’s really up to us as a species to use our own skills, whatever they may be. Doing something positive doesn’t have to be monumental; it can be a simple action. If I keep working towards my daily goals for positive change then eventually I’ll look back and I can see what I’ve accomplished and then maybe a bit of good for our world will have come of it all. This idea drives me to action.

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What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
Ha! Becoming a better weaver will be a life-long process. I was taught by a wonderful weaver and she said just practice and keep doing it. I think of it as a Karate Kid (wax on, wax off) process where I hope to someday have all the weaving knowledge.

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How do you recharge your creativity?
Easy – I go outside. One of the best things about working for yourself is you get to take breaks when it makes sense for you. Late afternoon, I find I need to be outside. I live in San Francisco, where I can wander my neighborhood or go for a bike ride by the bay. The city is filled with color – there are great sounds, smells, and flavors. When I come back I’m always happily inspired – you can’t get a much better city.

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Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
I can’t say enough good things about the weavers I work with. They have not only taught me to weave but they really enjoy helping people as teachers and friends. They have been so generous with their time and suggestions, and they are always there when I have a question. I also rely heavily on new perspectives from my core group of friends when I brainstorm design, marketing or sales techniques, or when need a fresh perspective. I am grateful for all the support everyone has given me.

Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug | UncommonGoods

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

Inside the Artists’ Studio with Seth and Maddy Lucas

June 10, 2015

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Instagram photo taken by @ellothereprintco

One of my favorite meetings at the UncommonGoods headquarters is something we like to call grown up “show-and-tell,” where the marketing  team previews the products that will soon join our This Just In assortment. I was immediately intrigued by the story behind the National  Parks Sticker Map. Assistant Merchandising Coordinator Jillian described Seth and Maddy Lucas as a young married couple who had a goal  of visiting all of the national parks in their lifetime. It might have been because I was in the middle of reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” but I immediately thought “I wanna do that, too!” I started daydreaming about where I would thru-hike one day, imagining myself rolling out a sleeping bag next to a serene lake in [insert middle of America location]. But when Jillian mentioned that the designers were based in Brooklyn, I swiped the serene lake away like an email on my iPhone and thought “Oh, I wanna go there too.”

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

I had never been to a home studio before visiting Seth and Maddy. Upon entering their light-drenched apartment, I think the phrase  “bring your work home” took a whole new meaning. From the nostalgic American pillows on the couch, to the colorful shelves in their kitchen, it was easy to tell that their artistic aesthetic is consistent throughout every detail in their daily lives. When I stumbled  upon their copy of the “Wes Anderson Collection,” everything clicked. I realized that Seth and Maddy had the ability to create an all encompassing visual language similar to what Anderson fans feel when they are lost in any one of his famous films. The  ability to live life with such a distinct style seems to come naturally to Seth and Maddy, whether they are backpacking around another park, or just listening to a record on their couch. Meet travelers and designers Seth and Maddy Lucas, and learn more about their colorful inspirations, their collaborative process, and the delicious way they celebrate a victory.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Where do you find inspiration within this space?

Seth: The lighting is my favorite part about it. We have two big glass doors that bring in lots of light, and I think that’s key with any workspace.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

What are your most essential tools?

Seth: I do my sketching in Paper [by FiftyThree] or Adobe [Illustrator] Draw on the iPad with the Pencil [by FiftyThree]. I love being able to draw and then send my files directly to Adobe Illustrator.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Where does down time fit into a day in a home studio?

Seth and Maddy: It’s never scheduled, but we have lots of really amazing coffee shops nearby in Bushwick. We like to take a break at random times throughout the day and grab bite or a drink.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young couple starting a business?

Seth: I think giving each other our own defined roles was the hardest part to figure out together. There’s just parts of the business that I know Maddy will be better at, not only in organizing our workspace, but in organizing and putting together our online shop. Know that we’ve become comfortable with what we do and how we split up work, our day-to-day process runs much more smoothly.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?

Seth: Mostly in the idea stage. We come up with a lot of ideas together, and if we’re excited enough about an idea I’ll start working on it right away and Maddy will give me suggestions. We really try to only put out products that we love and feel like we have to get it made right now because we want to have that product in our lives.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How did you come up with the concept of your product?

Seth: The National Parks [Sticker Map] came about when Maddy suggest we make a lifetime goal of visiting all 59 national parks, and she wanted me to make a map to mark our journey. We had a hunch that others would want to use this map and sticker design as well, and we’ve been blown away at how many others share our passion for visiting the national parks.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

What advice would you (both) offer the you of 5 years ago?

Seth and Maddy: Relax, you’ll figure it out. Freaking out over our lack of business knowledge has always made us feel underqualified, and we’ve had to make some mistakes to figure out what we’re doing. But moving forward and learning from mistakes has been the best way for us to improve.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How do you celebrate a victory?

Seth and Maddy: Dominique Ansel is our favorite bakery and they make these really cool chocolate chip cookies in the shape of a shot glass and fill them with vanilla infused milk. As soon as we finished our first trade show, we made our way to Dominique Ansel and had cookie shots. It’s sort of become our unofficial celebration when we’ve finished a big project.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How do you recharge your creativity?

Seth and Maddy: We take a lot of weekend trips. We’re not messing around with our national parks goal. We’ve been to 20 now, and they make for a great chance for us to get work stuff out of our minds and just enjoy the outdoors.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?

Seth: “Show up every day.” This is a quote from one of my favorite podcasters, Seanwes. I love how it’s only three words, but it says everything you need to know. Just show up, be there, every single day. If I want to see progress, I need to make new products and come up with new ideas, this process is never ending and to make it work we have to show up every day.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

How do you set goals for yourself?

Seth and Maddy: Getting ready for trade shows has become a great way for us to get out new projects. It gives us a deadline, and we can set up smaller deadlines so we know when we need to be done coming up with new ideas, when we need to design those ideas, and how much time it will take to get those ideas printed.

Seth and Maddy Lucas | Studio Tour | UncommonGoods

 

National Parks Sticker Map | UncommonGoods