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Sustainability

Maker Stories

Uncommon Impact: Clean Water and a Cleaner Earth – One Drop At A Time

August 13, 2015

As a B Corp certified company, UncommonGoods is excited about sustainability. That means more to us than just being “green” – we strive to offer products that reflect the environmental and social best-interests of everyone. So, when our makers are as concerned with sustainability as we are, we’re always excited to learn more about their process and the positive impact they’re having on the world.

While many of our makers rely on sustainable practices at one point or another in their process, we’re especially excited about those who place the wider world at the forefront of their craft – those who are making an uncommon impact. Continuing the water theme from our interview with Margaret Dorfman, we spoke with Vince Purino – the Vice President of Aquaovo – about the sustainability implications surrounding the new Adventure Filter Water Bottle.

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Vince Purino – Vice President of Aquaovo – with the Alter Ego Adventure Filter Water Bottle

“Sustainability to us is simply being accountable for the well-being of the Earth’s limited resources… in our case water.”

The Adventure Bottle was designed by Aquaovo cofounder Manuel Desrochers as an eco-chic solution to replacing bottled water. “Our goal is to enhance the experience of drinking water with beautifully designed objects that pay homage to this precious resource,” said Vince.

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Maker Stories

Uncommon Impact: Margaret Dorfman Strives to be Sustainable in Drought-Afflicted California

July 17, 2015

As a B Corp certified company, UncommonGoods is excited about sustainability. That means more to us than just being “green” – we strive to offer products that reflect the environmental and social best-interests of everyone. So, when our makers are as concerned with sustainability as we are, we’re always excited to learn more about their process and the positive impact they’re having on the world.

While many of our makers rely on sustainable practices at one point or another in their process, we’re especially excited about those who place the wider world at the forefront of their craft – those who are making an uncommon impact. Meet Margaret Dorfman, designer of fruit and vegetable inspired jewelry and tableware like the Parchment Blossom Earrings and the Vegetable Parchment Platter, and see the ways that she’s striving to be sustainable in the face of drought in California.

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“Sustainability is important simply because the trajectory of consumption and waste around us is not supportable.”

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Design

Inside the Uncommon Collection

July 13, 2015

Uncommon Collection by UncommonGoods

Visit the Uncommon Collection

One nice thing about UncommonGoods is that you don’t have to think too hard to get what we’re all about. In fact, it’s right there in our name—a collection of goods that are, well…uncommon. But the name also plays with the concept of the “common good,” and that’s another big part of what we’re about—the conviction that doing good in the world is also good business. Now, we’re proud to introduce the Uncommon Collection, an exclusive assortment of products that meet our highest standards for uncommon design, sustainability, and doing good. We don’t want to make this debut uncommonly complicated, so we went to our founder and CEO, Dave Bolotsky, for an inside look at this exciting new initiative.

UncommonGoods Founder and CEO David Bolotsky

UncommonGoods Founder & CEO Dave Bolotsky

How was the Uncommon Collection conceived and when?

It’s connected to the founding of the company itself. The ideal is really to offer the best of what we sell and put a special designation on that. From the beginning of UncommonGoods, we had a handmade symbol and we had a recycled or environmentally-friendly symbol that we would put on products on the site. I always thought that that was a good first step, and that we ought to do more because I felt that told part of the story, but not the whole story. Back then, I had seen articles written about sustainability seals and how various companies were giving a scorecard for their products, and I thought that would be a great thing for us to do. When I started looking into the complexity of that, it was extremely daunting. B Corporation—which we joined back in 2007 when it was first created—has an entire Nonprofit and Standards Committee organized around this, but as a relatively small independent business, we didn’t have the resources to do something like that. But two years ago, we started talking about it seriously again: creating the Uncommon Brand. We own the legal rights, not just to the trademark UncommonGoods, but we actually have the legal mark ‘Uncommon,’ and I thought it would make a lot of sense to use that name to signify the product that we were most proud of, both from a design and sustainability perspective as well as product that was only available at UncommonGoods.

Was part of the decision to renew interest in the past two years based on having a critical mass of the collection? Some of those products have been around for a little while. Why do it now?

It’s a combination of, as you pointed out, a critical mass of the products. It’s also a resource question. We have a deeper and stronger team today. My belief – and I think [Director of New Business & Product Development] Carolyn’s belief – was that we’re capable of pulling it off today and doing it well, whereas in the past I think both because of the products we had and also the number of things we had on our plate, it would have been more of a struggle.

Gilded Branches Jewelry Tree | UncommonGoodsGilded Branches Jewelry Tree | by Michale Dancer and Still Life for the Uncommon Collection 

Can you talk a little bit about the responsible business practice piece of it – particularly the fair wage issue? You’ve been an advocate for that, and it’s one of the five factors for the Uncommon Collection.

It starts here, meaning that I don’t want to advocate that other people do things that we’re not willing to do or proud to do ourselves. From the beginning, UncommonGoods has paid meaningfully above the minimum wage, principally because: number one, we want to attract great people; number two, we want to treat people with dignity and respect, and paying people a fair wage is part of that. From a policy perspective, one of the often-overlooked elements of the minimum wage debate is the fact that when other businesses pay a wage that somebody cannot live on, our society has said “we need to give that individual help.” And so we as taxpayers are spending money on social support in the form of food stamps, in the form of housing assistance, and in other ways. That in effect is a transfer payment from us as taxpayers to the business that is paying the substandard wage. I don’t believe in that. I believe in fair competition and I don’t think it’s reasonable from a businessperson’s perspective that we should have to compete against another company that’s getting government assistance to support its workforce. I also don’t like it as an individual taxpayer. I also think that, as an individual, there’s a lot more dignity in getting the money from your employer for the work that you do than having to apply for food stamps or medical assistance or housing assistance.

It’s almost like some companies deny that connection—as soon as the person leaves work there’s no responsibility, they’re not making that connection between all of that public assistance and work life.

Right. People are not tools. People are not machines. The fact is that as a business, you can look at human beings as simply an item on your profit and loss statement. The problem is that we are brothers and sisters and I don’t think it’s healthy to compartmentalize your life and say “I’m a businessperson during the workday, and I’m a human being and I care about my community and my society outside of my work.” You’ve had folks in the past like the Carnegies and others who amassed tremendous wealth—and late in life perhaps felt tremendous guilt about how they went about achieving their financial gain, and then did these wonderful philanthropic things. My view is: run your business on a day-to-day basis in a way that has a positive impact on society and the environment, and then you don’t have to have a crisis of conscience when you’re older and wondering what your legacy is going to be.

Pistachio Pedestal | UncommonGoodsPistachio Pedestal |  Created by our Product Development team and J.K. Adams for the Uncommon Collection

 

What other tenets of the Uncommon Collection have roots in the core values of UncommonGoods – in particular, in your original vision for the company?

If you think about other living things in the world, like a tree: What does a tree do? A tree provides shade. A tree gives many positive things. It takes and gives. And there’s some sort of question about what we as human beings give compared to what we take.

Does business inherently do good? Well, on one hand we’re a jobs program. We employ people. We provide health insurance. We provide opportunities for learning and personal development and growth. But there’s also a lot of damage that business does to the environment. So I think about how we are shipping packages to customers’ homes and that requires the use of a lot of natural resources. Some of the idea is “how can we do this in a way that has the minimal negative impact?” If we’re selling product, do we want to sell product that’s harmful to individuals or harmful to the planet? From day one we have not sold product that involves harming animals, and continue to do that. I think that’s a positive step. We also won’t sell anything, and haven’t for years, that has PVC or BPA—other harmful chemicals. That’s something that we promote pretty aggressively. We’ve gone further in the Uncommon Collection in terms of the materials standard and in terms of the packaging standard. We’re working with a handful of our suppliers who share that vision.

So it stands to reason that we’ll work with more and more suppliers whose practices are aligned with the standards that we provide?

I would say there are two ways to look at it. Do we want to work with more suppliers that have a positive impact and work to limit their negative impact? Absolutely. I would love it if our existing suppliers travel on the same journey that we’re on. I view this as climbing a mountain with lots of false peaks. Meaning you think you might be getting close to the top, but there is no top. It’s a very humbling exercise. The idea is that we want to keep working to get better and we have to draw the line somewhere. With the Uncommon Collection, this is the bar that we have to hold ourselves and our makers to—and we’re going to work to continue to raise that bar. We’re going to work with artists and makers to help get them over that bar. So I would say it’s less about finding new suppliers that share that vision and more about helping existing partners adopt more of these practices.

Jayne Riew | UncommonGoods

Designer Jayne Riew’s Meditation Box is featured in the Uncommon Collection.

What was the hardest thing about getting this project up and running?

Well, our Product Development team did the hardest work, but I think it’s extremely difficult to create commercially successful, brand reinforcing products. If you then layer on top of that the social responsibility standards you end up making it perhaps twice as difficult. It potentially increases the cost, and you potentially lose suppliers. So there are products that we’re offering that we designed and developed that we had hoped would be part of the collection, yet we couldn’t get our supplier to adopt or achieve all of the standards, despite our best efforts. So I would say that was the most difficult part. I think there’s an emotional element and as an independent business person, as an entrepreneur, the thing I like least is being told what to do. There’s an element of Big Brother in this that doesn’t sit totally right with me, where we might be perceived as telling our vendors how to run their businesses. As uncomfortable as that may be for me, I think that it’s an even more uncomfortable thing for some of our vendors. Articulating that this isn’t coercive—this is a voluntary program where we want to highlight those companies that we think are exhibiting best practices. I think that’s the most effective approach.

Were there other challenges?

The issue of transparency has been a big hurdle—we’re requiring that all participants, including UncommonGoods, disclose their environmental and people standards, including starting wages and benefits. We’ve been doing this since 2007 as part of our B Corporation certification, but it’s a new request for our suppliers. We think it’s essential to do this. Having to publicly state your policies makes it far easier to verify the statements.

A second challenge was that we have been basing most of our wage work on the MIT living wage calculator. There was recently an update to that which dramatically increased wages across the board. Apparently, that calculator had not been kept current and the most recent update ended up being much greater than we had anticipated, so we had to modify, but not eliminate, the wage standard that we used.

What do you hope the Uncommon Collection does for our brand and collection as a whole?

I think our main goal with this is to encourage more socially-responsible practices among our vendors. This program will be successful as we see more of our suppliers adopting or meeting the standards that we’re setting out. From a branding perspective, I’d like customers to see what we do behind the scenes. People don’t think about the fact that we’ve got a very sizeable chunk of space here in Brooklyn dedicated to warehousing and shipping products out to them with workers who are paid close to double the federal minimum wage. We could’ve chosen from the beginning to outsource our shipping, and most companies in our position have done that; and I think getting our customers to think a little bit more about the implications of where they shop and what they buy would be a hope for this program. Ultimately, the product’s got to look great, it’s got to be reasonably priced, and it’s got to be something they’re going to love or the recipient is going to love. To me, that’s number 1 through 9 in terms of importance, and number 10 would be “hey, is this product having a positive impact?” I think for many of our customers, that’s on the radar. For some of them, my hope is that this will get it on the radar.

Catherine Weitzman | UncommonGoods

Jewelry artist Catherine Weitzman’s My Lucky Stars Necklace , Four Season’s Necklaces, & Seasons Terrarium Necklaces are featured in the Uncommon Collection.

What about the Uncommon Collection’s focus on tabletop items and jewelry?

In the case of jewelry, I would say both the jewelry maker’s philosophy and the skill required to create the product lend themselves naturally to meeting these standards more easily. In the case of tabletop, our Product Development team—which is behind the Uncommon Collection—has spent many years focusing on this category and I think has great vendor relationships and a fairly high level of expertise around production and materials in that category. So I think that it’s more of a function of our history, and my hope is that we’ll see this expand to be represented throughout our assortment.

Where do you see this collection a year from now?

Ideally, I’d like to see it double in size, if not more, while not lowering the standards and hopefully gradually raising the standards.

What is your favorite item in the collection?

We’ve chosen to highlight the On The Other Hand Clock, and I think that’s a great combination of design, environmental sustainability, and a company that treats its people well. I also really like the ampersand Cheese & Crackers Board and the newest product form that partnership—the Pistachio Pedestal—as someone who happens to love both cheese and crackers and pistachios. I think that design is really clever, as is the Cheese & Crackers Board.

Cheese & Crackers Board | UncommonGoodsCheese & Crackers Serving Board | Created by our Product Development team and J.K. Adams for the Uncommon Collection

Anything else you want the customer to know about the collection?

I’d love to hear from our customers in terms of what they think about what we’re doing, any suggestions that they have, any other companies that they’ve seen who have ventured into something like this where we might find inspiration, and any other ideas that they might have. I’d also say I’d love to hear from our vendors, both existing and potential future parts of the collection.

Please tell us what you think of the Uncommon Collection by emailing feedback@uncommongoods.com.

It was interesting that at some point we were thinking about calling it ‘The Uncommon Brand’ and that changed to ‘Collection.’ Is that a good way of characterizing it?

Yes. We went back and forth quite a bit on the Uncommon Brand versus the Uncommon Collection, and it may seem like a very minor thing. But I would say that in our eyes, regarding the Uncommon Brand, when you think of a brand, you think of a singular aesthetic: a singular look and feel. Part of the charm of UncommonGoods has been that we’re a big design tent. We love modern design. We also love handmade products. And we felt that if we created it as a brand, it would be difficult and potentially confusing to have products with widely varying aesthetics living under that same roof. A collection felt more natural to us in that this is a standard. The product has to be well designed, yet it doesn’t have to be a particular design or look, but it does have to meet a certain set of criteria.

So ‘Collection’ allows it to be more eclectic.

Yes, more like UncommonGoods itself.

We invite you to browse the Collection and see how our focus on people and the planet—plus lots of exacting work with our suppliers behind the scenes—has produced an assortment of some of our most uncommon goods.

See the Uncommon Collection from UncommonGoods

The Uncommon Life

Making a Difference through Handmade Designs

July 11, 2015

Dave in India Last year, we introduced you to Matr Boomie, a long time vendor and producer of traditionally made wooden goods. Our founder and CEO, Dave Bolotsky, took a tour of their artisan community in India, prompting a personal relationship with both the collective and the history surrounding the area.

Since then, we’ve begun a rolling donation partnership with the collective’s founder, Manish Gupta. For every dollar UncommonGoods donates to the collective, Matr Boomie will match that, lending both resources and opportunities to the artisans and their families. With this shared goal, we hope to provide a better way of life for those who produce and sell the items that have become customer favorites.

Owl Eyeglass Holder | UncommonGoods

Owl Eyeglass Holder
While the purchases themselves support the artists by offering them a continued means of income, this donation program will offer even more to the community. With the UG partnership, Matr Boomie has developed programs to hit two major areas of impact:

Health & Sanitation
Health camps offering free checkups, medicines, and eye exams will be set up in three different areas. There will also be a department for women’s health, a subject that is traditionally taboo in the area. This program will provide sanitary napkins by installing a napkin-manufacturing unit, which will also employ 2-3 women.
Artisans Receiving Eye Exams

Wood craft artisans receiving eye exams.

Education of Artisans & the Next Generation
Being in such a rural area, computer literacy is a major challenge. They have access to one computer center, but monthly expenditures are a concern. This program will strengthen the facility and even produce the funds to open an additional computer center, offering access to the artisans and their families.

English class

Artisans and their children now have access to English classes and other educational opportunities. 

To learn more about this program and the history that’s passed down into each piece they produce, check out our blog post about Dave’s visit to India. We’re looking forward to watching the community grow!

 

Wooden Items Handmade in India | UncommonGoods
See the Collection | 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