Robert Mahar during an episode of NBC’s crafting reality show, “Making It”.
Photo courtesy of NBC Universal
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me about your background as a maker and a craftsman.
My educational background is in studio art and art history. When I came out of school, I actually found a job within my area of specialization, which doesn’t always happen with a field like art history. I spent a total of 13 years as an appraiser of modern and contemporary artwork, starting as an apprentice, and later getting my certification.
In 2005 — the year that Etsy launched — I decided to stretch some entrepreneurial muscle, and started an online retail shop called Mahar Dry Goods. I partnered with about 50 different artisans to create a product line for kids.
After I closed the shop, I took an interim position with Paper Source. At the time I thought of it as a survival job, but it ended up being one of the best things that I’ve done. I hadn’t worked in a corporate setting before, so that was educational. I also met some of the most wonderful people, one of whom introduced me to Kin Community, that later hired me to produce online creative videos. That was pivotal in changing the trajectory of my career.
I’ve worked with Kin Community for several years, and done longer-format educational classes with CreativeLive. Now I’m freelance, and I do many things that fall under a creative umbrella. I have a product line with Knock Knock that’s all craft inspired. I continue to do video work, photo styling for product catalogs, and creating props and installations for events. It’s never boring, which is great! It’s funny — getting to work with so many different materials and genres of craft was like a preparatory boot camp for Making It.
What did you learn while working in the online creative video space that has been helpful as a contestant on Making It?
In a practical sense, it helped me develop a comfort level with being on camera, which didn’t come naturally to me. I look back at my earliest videos and I can see the nerves, and the hesitation — not that there wasn’t some of that on Making It, because it was a completely different scale. When we shot short-format tutorial videos for Kin Community, it was eight people in the room with a couple of cameras. On Making It, there was a crew of over 100, and cameras everywhere you looked.
That experience also led to exploring all sorts of different media. The short-format tutorials that I’ve done have been everything from soap making to woodworking, which gave me the opportunity to play and get familiar with lots of different materials.
Many crafters share that curiosity about materials, and bring a sense of play to their work. How does that dynamic work in a context with rigid game show rules?
It definitely is a competition. Working under time constraints was a really interesting component. It really made me realize how much I can get done in 12 hours! [laughs] Being able to complete a big project and see it fully realized in a day was empowering and fun.
How did you first hear about Making It? Were you invited to participate? Did you apply?
Last March they put out the call for applications. The thing that drew me to it was that it was put in the same context as The Great British Baking Show — one of my all time favorites, as far as reality competition goes. It was such a revelation the first time I saw it: there was constructive criticism, and the contestants were collegial with one another, and when you were sent home, you were sent home with hugs. With GBBS there was no monetary prize, so they were doing it for the love of their craft. That got me excited, so I decided to throw my hat in the ring.
I filled out a lengthy application with multiple image submissions, then there was a Skype interview, and later I was invited for an in-person interview. Then there was a boot camp, where we were given some challenges to work out. Going from God-knows-how-many submissions down to 8 contestants… I still pinch myself.
I can see how Making It would be compared to GBBS, another show where the contestants are basically the opposite of cutthroat [both laugh] — everyone’s friendly, and stopping to help each other. What was your relationship like with the other contestants?
Once the show ended filming, I wrote a letter to the producers thanking them for the thoughtfulness and care they put into vetting the other contestants. I found myself in the barn with seven other incredibly talented and really nice human beings. That camaraderie was entirely genuine. Since we’ve finished, we’ve had a text chain going amongst the eight of us, with almost daily communication. Win or lose, that has been such a cool thing.
I’ve always experienced that sense of collegiality with other makers — in their generosity with their time and sharing information with one another. It was amazing to find myself in a room with these strangers, who, in a sense, came from the same maker community, and to find that was the pattern with them as well.
From left: judge and Etsy trend expert Dayna Isom Johnson; hosts and Parks and Recreation power duo Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler; and judge Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador for Barneys New York.
Photo courtesy of NBC Universal
What was it like interacting with the hosts and judges?
Nick and Amy — I came in as a fan, and I came out as a super fan. They couldn’t have been sweeter, and they set such a nice tone from the get-go. That level of kindness and collegiality really came from them.
Since they didn’t have to judge us, they acted as advocates for us. You don’t always see that on-screen, but during the periods of judging, if they felt that something was overlooked, they took it upon themselves to bring it up. I really appreciated that! You could tell they were really rooting for all of us, which was cool.
I had a lot of empathy for Dana and Simon going into the competition. They had never been in a position like this before either — it was new for everybody. Getting the tone of the judging, figuring out the through line, what are the standards we’re looking at… I think it was challenging! Thankfully we all had enough self-confidence to take things with a grain of salt. Some of the criticism was really constructive, and I took it to heart. Others, you just shrug your shoulders and move forward. [laughs]
Did your professional experience give you a thicker skin?
Mid-way through the master craft projects, the judges would accompany Nick and Amy on a walk-through to check in with us. They would give us their thoughts on what we were making, and it was hard to hear something and go, “Ooof… should I change direction? Do I stick with what’s in my head?” There were times when I’d tweak a color, a shape… I have a certain amount of people-pleaser in me, and these were the judges! If they wanted to see something that was relevant to the project, and it didn’t compromise what I was trying to pull together, I thought, “Why not?”
What are you feeling now that Making It is on the air, and we’re all waiting to see who wins?
Having to sit on this information for as long as we have has been really challenging. They asked us to be tight-lipped about the results, so I took the approach that, aside from my partner, I wasn’t going to tell anyone — including my mother… much to her displeasure. But I think it’s fun for my family to get to experience this, not knowing what’s going to happen. People have been so kind, supportive, and enthusiastic.
I’ve been aware that I would have this very short window of elevated exposure, so I’ve worked hard to leverage that in a variety of ways.
To keep the conversation going?
Yeah, exactly. I knew that social media would play a big part in that. I worked hard to plan out social media programming, I invested in upgrading functionality on my website, I focused on growing my newsletter, and it’s been amazing to watch the numbers on Instagram tick up. It’s really something else.
When we went into this, we knew that only one of us would win the prize. You have to set that aside, and look at the bigger picture: how will this position me, career-wise? What opportunities might it afford me? I just want good work to come out of it. I want someone to see me on the show and say, “He seems like a stand up guy that does really good work. Let’s give him a call!”
When you’re an entrepreneur and a freelancer, it often feels like it’s either feast or famine. I’m at the age and stage of my career where I’m ready to have more and better work opportunities come my way. I’m hoping this will facilitate some of that.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching Making It?
The company line, the standard answer to that question is that we hope people will take a break from their technology and decide to explore, try a new project or material and make something with their own two hands. And I am 100% sincere in my hope that that does happen.
But also, especially for American audiences — this is a new type of reality competition show. I would hope that people will see how we interact with one another, even in a competition setting, and take that to heart. There’s just too much shit going on in the world for us to continue in the manner in which we have been.
Photo courtesy of NBC Universal
Part of that is going to necessitate a cultural shift where we are a little more self-aware — willing to forgive things that annoy one another, choose to be a little kinder, select that higher path to put us in a better place.
How has this experience changed you as an artist and a maker?
It’s funny, this is the first time I’ve been asked that in an interview context!
What do people normally ask you?
Oh, “What would you spend the money on if you won?”
“Does Nick Offerman’s beard smell like woodchips?” [both laugh]
How has it changed me? Well, when I won the first challenge on the first episode, it was an internal validation that I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That was a cool thing. I looked around the room, and everyone was making and working and producing cool stuff, and I just thought, “Yes!! These are my people! This is my tribe. This is really freaking cool!”
Also, it’s been good practice, as far as having to talk about my work. As makers, we’re often hesitant to delve into the details of what we’re doing especially with someone who is unfamiliar with terminology or materials. To go through this experience where Amy really plays the role of the novice on the show, of the “everyman.” Sitting down and explaining why we’re doing the steps in this order, why we selected these materials… that sort of thing has been good for me. As artists, we have to sell ourselves as much as our work. That involves choosing your words wisely, and using them effectively, and doing a little song and dance and commercial for yourself.
Being on the show seems like a masterclass for that.
It was such a rigorous schedule that sometimes you felt like you couldn’t breathe. You’d do your best to get a really good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and just do good work that day. To have that go on for as long as it did — yeah, it felt like a masterclass.
We’re excited to keep following along! The Craft Industry Alliance folks are rooting for you as one of their own.
That’s so awesome! The community from Craft Industry Alliance has been so supportive. I truly appreciate all of that.
Erin is the textile designer and artist behind the home décor company, Cotton & Flax. She licenses her surface designs for fabric, home décor, stationery, and other clients. She’s also a teacher, writer, and enthusiastic advocate for small creative business owners. She lives in San Diego, California.