As the UncommonGoods Jewelry Buyer, I see amazing artistry from artists and designers using all sorts of materials. We are always delighted when we find an artist who uses uncommon materials in an unexpected way. Margaret Dorfman is one such artist. She transforms fruits and vegetables into parchments that she then uses to make gorgeous bowls, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.
Margaret’s relationship with UncommonGoods has been a long one, dating all the way back to 1999. Fifteen years later, she continues to delight us and our customers with her lovely organic creations. As a huge fan of Margaret’s work myself, I was super excited to meet her and learn about her process.
Margaret’s studio is tucked away on a lovely tree lined street in Oakland, California. I knew I had arrived at the right place as I walked down the path to her studio entrance. That morning, before my arrival, she had received a delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables and the walkway was lined with boxes and bags containing all imaginable varieties of fruits and veggies. I saw pears, oranges, papayas, cabbages, and bell peppers just to name a few!
Stepping into Margaret’s space was truly like stepping into a secret garden. Shelves were lined with finished pieces and the vivid jewel toned colors of her work popped against the crisp white walls. On the center table of her work space, she had oranges piled high and had pulled finished pieces made from oranges so I could see the “before and after.”
Margaret was lovely–so warm and welcoming–and she let me pepper her with questions about herself and her technique. I love hearing about the path our artists take to doing what they do. Margaret’s path was an uncommon one; she spent many years as a professional sign language interpreter, before leaving in 2001 to concentrate on her art. In seeing her work with such dexterity as she cut into fruits and vegetables, I could see the connection between her years as an interpreter and her current work as an artist.
Holding up her pressed vegetable parchment sheets to the light was magical – the pieces are translucent, and you notice every detail of the intricate structure of the vegetables and fruits. The colors in her pieces are vivid. I was struck by how the original colors were retained, even after being pressed.
As our visit came to a close, Margaret introduced me to her frequent studio-mate, her cockatoo Bindel, a sweet boy with a spirited personality! It was a such a delightful end to a great visit. Meet Margaret and learn more about her colorful world!
What are your most essential tools?
My mandolin. It a special cutter that lets me calibrate the thickness of the veggies and fruit slices. I have four of these and around 40 blades that are sharpened weekly.
My other essential tools are my custom-made marine hydraulic presses. I have two hydraulic presses, both of which were designed and custom built for me. They are are quite large and heavy, exerting pressure of 175 plus and 125 tons, respectively. They are made of steel and were brought in pieces and welded into place in my studio. One is 7 feet tall and the smaller one is 6 feet tall with a pressing surface of a 3 1/2 ft squaremand 4 1/2 ft square, respectively.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Often just looking at the slices of vegetables or juxtaposition of the parchment sheets will give me new ideas.
I like to keep my studio as unadorned as possible–lots of bare white walls–so as not to have competing visual “noise.”
Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
I do usually work 7 days a week and more hours than I`d like to admit. I have a fairly strict schedule in my work day. I try to take a long walk in the morning before starting work.
My 16-year-old cockatoo, Bintel (his name means “a little bundle” in Yiddish), joins me in the studio most days and his antics and demands for attention certainly provides ongoing work breaks.
My husband and I make sure we have dinner together every night, and that is always a time to relax and recharge.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Not to over promise in quantity to be delivered or dates to be made–and never, ever skimp on quality. There is nothing that will ruin your reputation faster than either not delivering on time or delivering an item not up to standards.
Sometimes things do happen that are out of your control, and having a strong track record as someone who follows through on commitments will see you through these bumps in the road.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
There will always be new and exciting ideas to try. Always make sure that there is time and enough space put aside to experiment and answer those most interesting questions that start with the phrase “What would happen if I…”
How do you set goals for yourself?
I make a variety of items from fruit and vegetables: vessels, kites, garlands, as well as several lines of jewelry. I work with galleries, museum shops, gift shops and of course UncommonGoods! Usually my goals are set for me via the orders I need to fill.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
A victory or unexpected success usually involves a dinner out with my husband. One that includes chocolate!
What quote keeps you motivated?
“Greatness exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked.”-Leonard Koren. Koren wrote the first book on the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi Sabi, long before it became somewhat of a cliché.
This quote resonates with me because it speaks to a way of seeing and being in the world — and of finding beauty in overlooked and commonplace things- like fruit and vegetables.
What are some new skills you are trying to acquire to perfect your craft?
I’m trying to refine my skills in what I do–stretching the limits and working on making more complex, multi-layered jewelry and larger, more sculptural pieces.
How do you recharge your creativity?
I love going to Farmers Markets and seeing what is new and seasonal. I am lucky to live in an area where there are not only lots of Farmers markets, but also multicultural neighborhoods where ethnic produce markets are plentiful. Chinatown, Koreatown, and the Hispanic area are all places nearby where I can see unusual varieties of fruit and vegetables that spark my imagination.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
I am a bit of a loner, and so I haven’t done much collaboration with other artists. I did do a line of handmade shoji screens (daikon with fish and seaweed parchment) with master Japanese craftsmen whose family have made shoji for 300 years. I would love to collaborate with a professional woodworker who would be interested in some projects! (Anyone?)