I’ve talked to several creative people who have distinct memories of watching Mr. Rogers show us how crayons are made, so it didn’t surprise me when jewelry designer Rebecca Stern mentioned being inspired by the great Fred Rogers’ televised visits to interesting factories, where he gave curious kids a look behind the scenes. I even felt a little like I was in one of those videos when I visited Rebecca and her husband (and business partner) in their Red Hook, Brooklyn, studio. Their space is filled with tiny bits of inspiration, interesting models and miniatures, and plans to make their next imaginative designs.
If you’re one of those folks who remembers feeling a sense of wonder as you watched wax pour into metal molds as a kid, I think you’d feel the same way within the walls of the Sterns’ space. From watching images on Cameron’s computer screen materialize in the 3D printer, to trying to figure out how they get their detailed dioramas so darn small, to listening to stories of family explorations and adventures, every moment in the studio left me a little more intrigued than the last. Rebecca even made a few pieces while we were there. Watch our video below to see our own version of How It’s Made, then keep reading to learn how science influences the couple’s work, why they’ll never stop experimenting, and what it looks like when you put two very tiny giraffes in an Erlenmeyer flask.
What are your most essential tools?
Cameron: Our essential tools vary. My designs all start off in 3D space… Once I have finished rendering and processing a model for print, our printer farm takes over, where we use PLA (corn plastic) to print out our designs for either casting or painting for use in our collections.
Rebecca: A flex shaft is basically a foot-pedal-controlled Dremel tool on steroids and is an extension of a jewelers hand. It is used for so much in the studio, and along with a saw frame, was the first tool I was taught in the jewelry studio.
How does your workspace inspire you?
R: One entire wall in our studio is nothing but giant picture windows. It’s amazing to be able to sit in the studio and to have a direct connection to the outside world. Even though we overlook industrial Red Hook, Brooklyn, we are surrounded with tree-lined streets and lots of public park area, so we have a direct connection with nature.
C: As a stay-at-home/work-at-home parent, my workspace is always changing. I find myself doing a lot of work from my phone and iPad, everywhere from our living room in the darkest days of winter, to the benches in the playground or lawns of Fort Tryon Park. Being surrounded by nature really makes work so much more satisfying.
Where does downtime fit into a day’s work?
R: Becca – Snacks are an important part of the day. We stop for goldfish breaks at least once a day… since being a mom, I realized that I may have an addiction to goldfish crackers. They are baked and fantastic, and the perfect way to break up a day of cleaning castings at the grinding wheel.
What was the toughest lesson you learned as two young entrepreneurs starting a business?
R: Failure is a part of the game. Sometimes you have ideas that are really exciting and they fall flat. When you are presenting ideas you care about to the world, be prepared to have a thick skin. Especially if you are working outside of the box, because many people are not shy to let you know when things don’t work, and exactly what they think about them.
What advice would you offer the you of five years ago?
C: Stick to your guns, and don’t put out a product for the sake of a trend. Trends come and go. While they are trending they are safe, but there are thrift store jewelry displays filled with yesterday’s trends.
R: Organization. Make it the first task when starting the day and the last thing you do when cleaning up. We have spent the last few years taking a small bespoke jewelry brand and figuring out how to scale it, and without developing the organization strategies we use now, we would be DOA.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
R: We basically high five, spend a moment to glow in it, and then keep going. We’re young still, we have time to celebrate later. The real celebration really comes with having the time to spend with my family on days off. It’s all worth it when we get to just hang out in the park or zoo all day.
C: The secret family handshake, which I will not disclose here.
What quote or mantra keeps you motivated? What do those words mean to you?
C: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” –Walt Disney
R: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and—snap!—the job’s a game!” – Mary Poppins (We’re Disney people.)
How do you recharge your creativity?
R: A day with the kids adventuring. We are frequent visitors to the Met and the American Museum of Natural History, but we also love finding new places to explore, like hiking in Inwood Hill Park to see to see where wooly mammoths used to roam in Northern Manhattan, and finding quirky museums and roadside attractions wherever we travel.
C: Exploration. I love learning new things, either from books or the internet or from travel. I hate staying in one place; it gives me anxiety and wanderlust really fuels me on a daily basis.
Where does collaboration come into play with your craft?
C: We have always collaborated. So far our collaborations include, a loving marriage, two kids, and a business filled with ideas we have developed hand-in-hand. I can’t think of anywhere collaboration has not come to play.
It sounds like the two of you have pretty different backgrounds. How did you decide to launch a business together?
B: When you spend a lot of time with someone and you keep looping back to the same ideas and building off each other, it doesn’t matter what background you are from, as long as you are on the same page. We wanted to do our own thing, and since we each brought something new to the table, we knew it would be a fun ride with lots of creative twists and turns.
C: Our creative processes are drastically different, but we have always had the same goal of what products we wanted to create. Instead of looking out our differences, we decided to encourage each other’s separate creative processes and figure out where we meshed, because we’ve always had fun working with each other.
When you’re making new charms, dioramas, and “specimens,” where do you turn for inspiration?
C: My mind functions a mile a minute, so if I gravitate to an idea more than once, I explore it, and it’s viability as an idea. Inspiration for me comes from everywhere, museums, pop culture, science… so without being too vague, everywhere.
B: I love exploring the organized collections of museums and seeing how information is curated and shared. In many ways I curate our collections, reigning in Cameron’s wide angle vision into more focused ideas so the work can really bring its own narrative to life.
What’s your favorite piece of jewelry to make?
B: I love the first draft of any piece. Seeing it come to life from the raw materials is what really makes the synapses in my brain come to life.
C: Anything that makes someone think about something in a new way. I don’t actually make any jewelry, I just work in our design lab, so being able to see my ideas fully realized as a finished product is always a complete thrill.
Are there any creative pursuits you’re interested in trying, but haven’t yet? If so, what are they?
C: I’ve been rejected a few times on bringing some Tesla coils into the studio so far… We would like to bring more content creation and teaching into our world. I started in the entertainment industry and we are excited to segue our business into that world over the next year of growth and changes we have been planning. We have a few ideas in the pipeline now which we will be unveiling over the next few months, so stay tuned to our Instagram @sterndesignworks so you can follow our newest developments.
B: I’ve always loved teaching, and connecting the products we make to the thrill I got as a kid watching How It’s Made segments on Mr. Rogers. Incorporating that teaching element into content creation and introducing a series of workshops and after school classes is a really exciting project we are just at the beginning stages of now, but is going to be amazing to share with the world.