Canopies of colorful leaves. Air so fresh it actually feels different when you breathe it in. Wide open spaces and dewy blades of grass. These are things I don’t get to enjoy all that often in Brooklyn, but New Hampshire is another story. I experienced the natural beauty of “The Granite State” firsthand last fall, when I also got a full tour of Arra David and Anne Johnson’s bustling studio.
The state’s nickname is certainly fitting, given the extensive quarries in New Hampshire. It’s also fitting that Anne and Arra make their designs there, considering that their one-of-a-kind creations are made with wood, natural stones, metal, and–you guessed it–granite.
Curious about just how the designers are able to turn solid rock into functional home designs, our Tabletop Buyer NéQuana and I made the five-hour road trip from Brooklyn to Windham, NH to get an inside look.
Anne and Arra welcomed us in, offered us some of the homemade hard cider mentioned below, walked us through the studio and workshop, and let us take some tools for a test drive. With Arra’s guidance, NéQuana even built her own Sea Stone Splash Sponge Holder!
Arra, an engineer, talked to us about designing special tools to tackle heavy-duty work. He also shared thoughts on taking hold of inspiration when it “ambushes,” advice on the importance of collaboration, and a perfectly pertinent Thoreau quote.
What are your most essential tools?
A number 2 pencil. And a big eraser.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Inspiration ambushes me anytime, anywhere, and I welcome it. Sometimes it comes by seeing something eye-catching and letting the idea wander around in my head. Sometimes it comes from paying attention to things that can stand improvement, rather than accepting the typical solution.
I capture these problems and possible solutions on whatever device I happen to be near–borrowed pen/paper, the margin of a crossword puzzle, in my phone, etc.– because otherwise I can easily forget them.
Every so often I compile and categorize them into notebooks, and without feeling like they’re all rattling around in my head, I can take one out of the toy box, turn it around in my mind, and think harder about improving it and making it in a feasible way.
This is also the time when I decide whether the item is something that is only useful for me, or if it might have wider appeal. My house and studio are filled with things I’ve made that fill an artful niche of mine, or solve a problem of mine, but no other person in their right mind would find it a problem they need solved or would pay what it would cost to create the item.
Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
At the end of the day, usually accompanied by hard cider with Anne.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as a young designer starting a business?
Boy, do I need help with virtually every part of running a business. And I’m lucky to know and to work with people who are much better at everything than I will ever be.
What advice would you offer the you of 10 years ago?
Resist the temptation to build tools and start making inventory until there is proven demand. Just because I love a new product idea doesn’t mean the people who matter will. Stay objective by showing prototypes without building specialized tools, but are good enough get the idea across clearly. By doing this instead of working long and hard on the version I think everyone will love best and perfecting the production method, it keeps my mind open and flexible for improvements that will inevitably come as I talk through ideas and options with others.
How do you set goals for yourself?
It would be wonderful to pretend that goals are neatly pre-planned on a schedule and well defined, but the truth is that goals are usually driven by others. For example, trade shows, no matter how politely I ask, never seem to be rescheduled to suit my schedule. Or Christmas, which I’ve never been successful in delaying into January while I finish putting orders together. Urgency must take precedence over importance, and like it or not, that defines goal setting more than anything else.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
After we load a big order onto a truck bound for UncommonGoods, we recognize employees and group accomplishments with a celebratory council fire.
What quote keeps you motivated? What does that quote mean to you?
“The finest workers in stone are not steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.”-Henry David Thoreau
Printed on each of our brochures, this is a reminder that it’s nature that provides the foundation for the beauty in our work.
How do you recharge your creativity?
Two methods:  Show season’s approaching and it’s time to open the notebook and pick the best candidates to make and present. Taking a fresh look at ideas that were stashed away turns on the brain with a fresh perspective and the snowball starts to roll down the mountain.  An urgent project is finished, deadlines are quelled, and the mind is allowed to take a renewed look around and think of new products. This sometimes happens when I see someone putting up with a problem, or I see an object that inspires an idea. My most creative times tend to be early weekend mornings, when my mind can wander distractedly before being occupied with the must-dos.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
Looking over prototypes with people whose genuine, real opinions and nifty ideas I deeply respect always gives useful feedback and improvements. Often from an art or usability perspective, sometimes from a manufacturing point of view. Sometimes collaboration with customers brings products to life, like On The Other Hand [part of the Uncommon Collection]. Sometimes it’s a personal aha moment, like when I was looking for a coaster for my wet beer bottle and placed it into a Cool Coaster, which was the birth of Beer Bottle Coasters.