Photograph: William Abranowicz
At the small worktable in Anna Rabinowicz's sunny Manhattan office, smooth slices of agate—some as small as coins, others as big as dinner plates, in swirling shades of sapphire, rust, and olive—mingle with wrist-thick hunks of faceted crystal, three knobby yellow gourds, and a dried version of Anna's latest muse.
"A neat thing about sea fans," says Anna, 39, who is wearing silver sea-fan-shaped earrings, "is how they move." She imitates the meshlike creature's undulations with her hand. "They're at the whim of the current; they get their nutrients from whatever happens to pass through." She lifts the stainless steel colander/fruit bowl she recently designed based on her sea fan research, its sides veined with silver tendrils. If a sea fan mated with a Rolex, this would be the result.
I'm spending today dipping a toe into the ocean of Anna's creative output—and the colander is just one of the creatures in a vast and lively sea. The woman draws, sews, sculpts, and dreams things up as naturally as the rest of us breathe. For her company, RabLabs, she designs coasters, clocks, and picture frames from those pieces of agate, along with handblown-glass napkin rings, amethyst bottle stoppers, and lacquered wooden boxes—and at home, her creative juices just keep on flowing. Over eight hours with Anna, I'll discover that her default thought process works like this:
That [sea fan, kangaroo, hunk of quartz, sequined fabric] is fascinating. I must learn all about it and then make something!
Next comes studying, sketching, model-making, and finally, the finished product—which might be anything from a letter opener to a medical device to a fetching new cape.
When I arrived this morning at Anna's apartment, she told me that a full day lay ahead: We'd go shopping for supplies to create a prototype of a new RabLabs bowl (a mission that would require walking about 40 city blocks), we'd have searching discussions about creativity, and we'd get our hands really dirty. Hey, who ever said innovating was a cakewalk? "I tell my students, 'If it's easy to create, someone has probably already created it,'" says Anna, who teaches product design at Parsons The New School for Design. "Work through the setbacks, and you can make things no one else has."
Like the unique items in Anna's home, for example. The light fixture that resembles an upside-down red umbrella. The key ring of plastic doodads she assembled for her 1-year-old, Talia, to teethe on. ("Her body is telling her to bite. She must bite! So I give her these, to keep her from biting me.") The little cloth squares she sewed for Talia and her 3-year-old brother, Izzy, to sleep with—they're soft and worn, and hand-embroidered with trees and abstract whorls and the babies' initials. "I cut them from my husband's old T-shirts," says Anna, whose husband, Aden Fine, is a lawyer for the ACLU. Even Anna's home is an Anna original: Three years ago, she and Aden bought a dim studio in a former sewing factory, then gut-renovated the space into a snug two-bedroom nest, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a kitchen bedecked in vintage red tiles.
Anna's mother, Lisa, arrives to take Talia to baby dance class just as Anna is describing her collaborations with New York's Hospital for Special Surgery. "My dad made surgical instruments," says Anna, who has helped create an artificial knee and an assistive device for people recovering from elbow surgery. "He was a pediatric ophthalmologist and surgeon. He taught me how to sew and solder."
"She has her father's hand-eye coordination," Lisa chimes in. "And such fine-motor control."
"Thank you," Anna says, looking moved. She pulls out her sewing kit from the 1890s—her father, who died in 2001, bought it at an antiques market. "Look at all these crazy needles," she says. There are thick needles, teeny needles, needles that look like fish hooks. "I sew by hand," she tells me, "so the project will be imbued with my love."
Next: What you can make with four packs of clay, 50 pounds of Brazilian crystal, and a Hall & Oates record.
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