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Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio
with Vedat Ulgen

March 10, 2016

Vedat posing on the patio of his Redhook Studio | UncommonGoodsVedat Ulgen outside his Brooklyn studio, photos by Rachel Orlow

UncommonGoods is a place that celebrates entrepreneurs and makers and wholeheartedly embraces creativity. If you’ve spent much time shopping with us or reading our blog, you’ve seen this celebration shine through the stories we tell about our products and the designers who make them. These stories share what really makes the pieces we sell and the artists we work with unique.

While every product we sell meets standards that make it an uncommon good, every once in awhile something comes along that is truly weird. Weird in the best sense of the word: In the way that weird, new music makes you want to listen again and again. In the way that a brilliant invention makes you ponder how in the world someone actually came up with that. In the way that an eccentric person makes you want to get in touch with your own beautiful inner weirdo.

Vedat Ulgen’s Worn Sleeve Vase and Worn Jeans Stool are perfect examples of this type of “weird” design. They are totally unexpected, look one way and feel another, and are as useful as functional products as they are intriguing as art.

Thislexik Designs Products | UncommonGoods

These designs are made from upcycled clothing, so they should be soft, right? But they have a unique texture that’s smooth and doesn’t feel anything like you’d imagine.  It seems like the sleeves shouldn’t stand upright and the stools shouldn’t hold the weight of a full-grown person, but they do.

Like his products, Vedat’s studio, Thislexik, isn’t exactly what it seems. From the street, it looks like a stack of shipping containers. Get a bit closer to the five colorful containers, and it becomes clear that the stack is actually a building with a living roof and windows perfectly placed to let in enough light. Inside, Thislexik is rooted in sustainable practices, fueled by experimentation, and filled with dozens incredible designs.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Red Hook, Brooklyn studio myself recently, and as a proud proponent of the aforementioned brand of weird, I was in paradise. It’s hard to convey how inspiring this space is to someone who hasn’t been there, how cool these designs are to someone who hasn’t interacted with them, and how innovative Vedat is to someone who hasn’t met him, but I hope these photos and this interview are at least a start.

Continue Reading…

The Uncommon Life

This Just In: Our Top 5 Most Creative and Head-Turning Greener Materials

April 22, 2015

Back in February, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver opened his show with a hilarious segment of reporters who all agreed that “infrastructure is important, but not sexy.” As crucial as infrastructure improvements are, Oliver proclaimed that “most people actually think it’s boring!” (Unless, of course, the infrastructure is blowing up in an action movie.) But in reality, Oliver admitted that he thinks infrastructure is quite fascinating.

Greener Materials | UncommonGoods

Photo via

I would argue that the same holds true for manufacturing. It’s not a word that typically riles up the masses. It’s never trending on Twitter, and there isn’t an app that would make manufacturing any more sexy (with the exception of 3D Printing). Yet, the manufacturing industry touches almost everything we use. As you may have read in our latest Uncommon Design School post, in the decades preceding the first Earth Day “the manufacturing industry was more interested in making green than going green: factories belched out clouds of black smoke; toxic chemicals were dumped carelessly, polluting the soil and groundwater; and bottles, cans, and paper were all destined for the landfill after just one use.” Well, could that sound any less sexy?

Greener Materials | UncommonGoods

Photo courtesy of Barry Rosenthal’s Studio Tour

Lucky for us, this 20th century model of capitalism is becoming less and less acceptable. According to B Lab Co-Founder Jay Coen Gilbert, we are moving toward a stakeholder capitalism, where business is not only concerned about creating value for shareholders, but also concerned about creating value for society, the workforce, the community and the environment. Organizations like B Corporations are making sustainable business more important and attractive to consumers. In this way, I would argue that sustainability is one of the main factors that make manufacturing a really cool topic. Green design is only becoming more innovative and valuable than it’s ever been.

This realization got us thinking: What are some of the most surprising, head-turning green materials in our assortment this Earth Day? What are some of our newest items that make us excited to talk all things materials and manufacturing?

Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug

Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug | UncommonGoods

The Reclaimed Bike Tube Rug immediately caught my eye the day it entered our assortment. As I was reading the product description, I was particularly impressed that this artist uses the discarded bicycle tire tubes, gathered from bike shops in her area, and yarn scraps reclaimed from industrial production. I was even more intrigued how this hand woven rug seamlessly combines Old and New World techniques. But it was one concept in particular that made my head tilt sideways: this item is “waste negative,” meaning it removes waste from the environment, rather than adding to it. Brilliant!

Recycled Plastic Duck Family

Recycled Plastic Duck Family | UncommonGoods

Whereas reuse is the reinstallation of materials in their original form, recycling is the collection and remanufacture of materials into a new material or product, typically different from the original material. Handmade from recycled newspaper, recycled water bottles and clay, this Duck Family is a very creative example of attractive recycling.

Fire Hose Products

Fire Hose Products | UncommonGoods

Here at UncommonGoods, we are huge fans of upcycling, the process of converting old materials into something useful. When you upcycle an item, you aren’t breaking down the materials, but refashioning them. As the Upcycling Fashionista puts it, “upcycling only requires your own creativity and elbow grease.” Micah Landworth’s line of fire hose products is a really unique way to transform discarded materials into something beautiful and true to its original character.

Pride & Prejudice Throw

Pride and Prejudice Throw | UncommonGoods

I immediately loved this throw because P&P is one of my favorite novels and movie adaptations. What makes this throw truly special, though, is how it’s made. The makers repurpose, or adapt, pre-consumer cotton scraps, and shred and spin them into new yarn. How cool is that?

Vegetable Parchment Platter

Vegetable Parchment Platter | UncommonGoods

Artist Margaret Dorfman has been part of the UncommonGoods family for more than 15 years. She has an extensive jewelry collection that’s made by hand from over 40 different varieties of fresh fruits and vegetables that are cured, dried, pressed and aged in a 10-14 day process. She calls this Vegetable Parchment, because the texture and translucency calls to mind the vellum parchments of medieval Europe. I was really excited to see that she is expanding this technique into other products besides jewelry. Even more awesome, her new Vegetable Parchment Platters are made with recycled glass.


See More Recycled Gifts | UncommonGoods


Uncommon Design School: The Origins of Earth Day & the Green Design Movement

April 9, 2015

As Earth Day celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, it’s hard to believe that the concept of “going green” is still relatively new. While we’ve come a long way as individuals to evaluate our environmental impact, the countless designs that we interact with on a daily basis have, too.

Planting Flowers

The UncommonGoods team planting flowers for Earth Day.

In the decades prior to the establishment of Earth Day, the manufacturing industry was more interested in making green than going green: factories belched out clouds of black smoke; toxic chemicals were dumped carelessly, polluting the soil and groundwater; and bottles, cans, and paper were all destined for the landfill after just one use. At the time, most people remained blissfully unaware of the consequences of overconsumption and how negligent manufacturing practices were wreaking havoc on the planet.

After witnessing the ravages of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson had the idea of bringing environmental issues to the public eye by creating an event infused with the same energy as the anti-war protests occurring at the time. On April 22nd, 1970, his simple idea for a teach-in exploded into a national event uniting 20 million people under one common goal: raise awareness about environmental impact. The little holiday that could led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

During the same era of change, Vienna-born designer Victor Papanek quietly penned his cri de coeur, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, an impassioned plea for reform that laid the foundation for the emerging sustainable and humanitarian design movements.

Design For the Real World

 Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Paperback, Second Edition, Published August 30th 2005 by Chicago Review Press (first published 1972), image via Goodreads

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few,” he writes at the start of his 1971 manifesto. In addition to pillorying his peers for producing shoddy, stylized work that wasted natural resources and aggravated the environmental crisis, he also introduced the idea of socially responsible design. Calling designers “the handmaidens of capitalism,” Papanek advocated for a triple bottom line policy, in which people, planet, and profit are interconnected and should be considered together.

Dave Bolotsky meeting with Artisans in India

UncommonGoods Founder & CEO Dave Bolotsky meeting with artisans in India.

To Papanek, ecological and social responsibility are the twin pillars of the design practice and his advice has gone on to influence a generation of designers as well as businesses like ours. As a founding B Corp, we meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. We’re also proud to support designers with a similar agenda, who make it their business to come up with better design solutions for people and the planet.

Bike Chain Designs by Graham Bergh | UncommonGoods

 Reclaimed Bike Chain designs by Graham Bergh

In 1991, after getting a flat tire while riding his bike, Graham Bergh was inspired to salvage the materials to make something new and totally unexpected. Every year, his team of bicycle craftsmen collects thousands of pounds of used parts, drawing from bike shops nationwide, and revives them into creative home accents.

Graffiti Jewelry | UncommonGoods

Graffiti Jewelry Collection by Amy Peterson and Diana Russell

After encountering the crumbling walls of graffiti throughout Detroit, Amy Peterson and Diana Russell found the inspiration to turn these bits of urban detritus from around the Motor City into one-of-a-kind remnants of its vibrant street-art scene. Together, they work with women from local shelters to create beautiful works of art that also have a beautiful mission to improve the lives of the people in the community.

Puppet Pals | UncommonGoods


Edgar and Ollie the Puppet Pals by Jen List and Stacey Waddington

When Jen List and Stacy Waddington stumbled upon a heap of unwanted sweaters and shirts, the duo decided to transform the old fabrics into a line of snuggly and imaginative children’s toys and accessories that encourage early learning and individual expression through creative design, wonder, and storytelling.

How do you plan on celebrating Earth Day, and what “green” practices do you incorporate into your life?

Maker Stories

Graffiti Jewelry: Off the Streets, into Art

December 17, 2014

Amy Peterson and Diana Sebastian Small | UncommonGoods

Detroit got its nickname, Motor City, from its once booming automotive industry. For the last few decades, as the American automobile industry has declined, Detroit has deterioriated along with it. But over the last decade or so, creative types have been attracted to Detroit’s low real estate costs. Entrepreneur Amy Peterson is one of the creative small business owners helping to give Detroit a new identity–and she’s making a positive impact on her community in the process.

Amy, who has lived in Detroit for 8 years now, saw the beauty in chips of fallen graffiti around her neighborhood. While those flakes of old paint were once reminders of the city’s decay, Amy and a team of artisans are now turning bits of urban detritus into stunning symbols of rebirth.

Graffiti Jewelry Collection | UncommonGoods

Amy and her business partner Diana Russell work with area women from local shelters to transform the fallen paint into unique jewelry designs, including necklaces, earrings, and cufflinks.

Although Amy and Diana both have backgrounds in jewelry making, their current business wasn’t founded solely to produce fashionable pieces. According to The Daily Beast, when inspiration for the Graffiti Jewelry Collection stuck, Amy was already on the lookout for a way to help her community. Since she lived near a local shelter, she had spent time listening to the stories of women in need. She realized that the short-term housing provided by shelters doesn’t provide a long-term solution to the problem of unemployment.

Through experimentation with the graffiti pieces, Amy and Diana developed a technique for creating stone-like paint “gems” with brilliant layers of color, reminiscent of (and sometimes even more vibrant than) the original street art.


Creating Graffiti Jewelry

No existing art pieces or buildings are harmed to gather the paint. “We collect the graffiti once it crumbles off the walls in the city of Detroit, ” said Amy. ” We take it through a special process to reveal all of the layers that make up the scrap piece of graffiti.  It creates a beautiful palette of colors that serves as the inspiration for the women we hire. They cut out whatever shape and color speaks to them.”

The Detroit Free Press beautifully describes this process as turning “nondescript sheets of paint scavenged from alleyways and weedy lots” into  “a shocking kaleidoscope of color.”


Graffiti Jewelry Process

Amy said that she considers herself fortunate to have met each and every one of the six woman that her small business now employees. “We plan on continuing to grow and help more women in our community,” she said. “Each piece of jewelry that we sell goes directly to supporting that mission.”

In addition to giving the female artisans she works with full-time employment, Amy’s company also helps them connect with organizations that provide further assistance.

“We have been able to offer [our employees] free legal aid thanks to the generosity of Foley Lardner, women’s empowerment classes thanks to Yodit Mesfin at Lips and Hips, a host of supportive services thanks to Focus Hope and Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), Digital Inclusion provide[s] affordable computers, [services from ] Community Social Ventures, and financial advising from Lauryn Williams at Waddell & Reed Inc.,” Amy explained.


Making Graffiti Jewelry | UncommonGoods

The financial management, business education, and life wellness skills that these programs teach allow the women to successfully transition from shelter situations to independence.

Taking part in the creative process and developing the technical skills required to produce the jewelry pieces also has a positive impact on the women who craft these designs. “It really helps enhance their confidence when they create beautiful works of wearable art that customers are proud to wear,” said Amy.

That confidence shines through in every perfectly polished piece of Graffiti Jewelry; and, much like the many customers who have told Amy and her team how proud they are to wear these designs that are as meaningful as they are beautiful, we’re proud to show off this collection in our assortment.


Graffiti Jewelry Artists


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 ©

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.

Maker Stories

Inside the Designer’s Studio: Tiffany Threadgould of TerraCycle

October 12, 2012

This month we have the pleasure of hosting our fourth design event, How To Make It: Implementing Green Practices in Your Designs, at which Tiffany Threadgould will speak on our panel. Tiffany is the Chief Design Junkie at TerraCycle, a long time vendor of UncommonGoods with a penchant for turning trash into treasure. Now operating in 20 countries across the globe, Terracycle offers recycling services to large companies and creative products for consumers, like our Upcycled Mail Sack iPad Case. Tiffany leads the team of designers who are tasked with taking an unwanted product or package and creating a piece that will impress.

We were unable to take train ride across the river to Trenton, New Jersey to visit the TerraCycle headquarters first hand but Tiffany was willing to share her studio with us. Enjoy!

What are your most essential tools?
The industrial sewing machine and heat press machine are two machines we can’t live without. Just about any solution from flexible waste can be solved with one or both of those machines.

Where do you find inspiration within your space?
Inspiration often starts with the material itself. We work with a lot of waste that has logos and branding on it so we’re always tying the original purpose of the material back into the finished product. Colgate toothpaste tubes can be transformed into a travel kit. Baby food pouches become a diaper bag or bib. Toothpaste tubes and food pouches are surprisingly easy to sew.

Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
There’s not a lot of down time in the office. If we don’t have urgent sample requests for our brand partners, then we’ll refocus on new, upcycled décor for the office. [Decorating with repurposed materials] is not only an inexpensive way to refurnish our office, but is also the best sales tool to demonstrate our commitment to what we do. An old bowling alley was turned into a conference table, soda bottles and vinyl records became room dividers. Nothing is waste to us. It’s all material for our next project.

What was the toughest lesson you learned as a designer?
Measure twice, cut once.

What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Try to get the word “NO” out of your vocabulary. I’ve worked at TerraCycle for over 4 years and it really has taught me to push the upcycled envelope on waste materials. Prior to working here I was always choosier about the materials I worked with. At TerraCycle there is a need to find a solution to everything that comes our way – yogurt lids, cigarette butts, you name it. My job is to make sure we find an upcycled product for any material that comes to us.

How do you set goals for yourself?
Goals come directly from our project assignments. We hit a goal whenever we finish a big project like an office makeover; complete a challenging project for a brand partner, or creating a new product line for our awesome retail partners like UncommonGoods.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Our CEO, Tom Szaky, started a tradition of “gong hits”. We have an actual gong in the office and whenever something major is accomplished you actually ring the gong and then send an email to the company. TerraCycle is in over 20 countries now, so we can share good news and positive energy with our distant offices this way.

What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
Traditional crafts techniques can always be applied to new waste materials. I recently learned to braid with bread bags and food wrappers and that was a fun “twist” on an old technique.

What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
This quote came to me from Daniel Freitag when I was working on my graduate thesis titled Trash Nouveau – “Waste is a natural resource in the wrong place. Change the context and you have usable products.”

How do you recharge your creativity?
Caffeine is always the perfect tool to help recharge.

Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
I work with an amazing design team at TerraCycle. We all bring different skills and talents to the table (a table made from upcycled wine barrels and doors, of course). We do a great job of blending our backgrounds of Industrial Design, Textiles, Architecture, and more to create unique design solutions for recycled materials. Hurray for upcycling!

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