Artist Spotlight: Debby Arem of Debby Arem Designs

Debby Arem creates the most eclectic pieces out of none other than old circuit boards for her company Debby Arem Designs in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Reclaiming these pieces saves so much plastic from being placed in landfills and repurposing them into such fun Geekery has given the unique items a very well deserved second life. Debby enjoys her niche market and does very well creating everything from home goods to jewelry; even cufflinks for men! She loves the environmental impact her work has as well and had fun sharing her thoughts on all things eco friendly.

Can you tell us a little about what it is you do?

For close to 16 years, I’ve been committed to recycling circuit boards into useful and functional as well as decorative products. I design a line of jewelry (pins, earrings and men’s cufflinks) as well as clocks, picture frames, sun catchers and light switch plates all using recycled circuit boards as the main component. My husband works with me and we also make a line of green office products such as clipboards of all sizes (including magnetic ones), bookmarks and key chains. New products are constantly being brain stormed and added to the line such as our most recent merchant clipboard for credit cards which also doubles as a coupon holder to be used in the kitchen! We also recently introduced eyeglass or badge holders that are made out of recycled circuit boards, anodized aluminum and colored wire.

What was the motivation behind the creation of Three Ring Circuits (3RC)?

Back in 1990, my husband had a company that assembled PC’s. One day I was in the back room where these computers were being assembled and I saw a circuit board for the first time in my life. Being an artist, I was fascinated by all the gorgeous patterns of circuitry and I remember that I immediately thought “WOW, what great jewelry you could make from these things!” I was a bead artist at the time, creating designs for the Smithsonian’s museum shops and mail order catalogs as well as doing quite a bit of custom work for my own customers. But having worked with beads for about 12 years by then, I was excited at the prospect of having a new medium to work with!

Oddly enough, we had a neighbor who had a company which manufactured circuit boards. Any boards which were found to be defective had to be hauled away and destroyed by being burned or dumped in a landfill. We stepped in and acquired these circuit boards and after a lot of trial and error, found a way to cut them into interesting shapes to be used for my jewelry line.

There were also circuit boards which were prototypes and made in limited quantities to verify functionality. After two years, our neighbor’s manufacturing company was no longer obliged to keep these prototypes so once again, we were able to rescue these boards from being destroyed. The huge variety in size and color of these prototype boards fired our imagination and got us thinking about many different products that could be made from them. My husband came up with the idea for the green office products line when we realized there were so many other uses for these discarded circuit boards besides my jewelry line. Around this time, I also began designing clocks, picture frames and then light switch plates as well as Three Ring Circuits line began to really expand.

Are people surprised to learn what your items are made out of? What is their reaction?

People usually do a double take when they realize that my jewelry is made from recycled circuit boards or that the clipboard they are holding was intended to be a motherboard when manufactured. When I first began creating my recycled circuit board jewelry line in 1992 (Three Ring Circuits) people weren’t as aware as they are today of the need to recycle – we really were ahead of our time in that respect and always joke that finally the world caught up to us in terms of salvaging circuit boards (or other found objects) and repurposing them into other new and useful items. What was once met with skeptical looks and indifference, is now applauded as a great way to recycle circuit boards into new products and everyone I meet thinks it’s terrific what we do with these otherwise useless circuit boards.

Where do you acquire the pieces that go into each design?

In addition to the enormous amount of circuit boards that we acquired back in the early 1990’s, we continue to find new sources all over the United States and even Taiwan believe it or not ,who are happy to see their boards repurposed in imaginative ways. As far as my jewelry line and other decorative objects such as my clocks and picture frames, I am always searching for vintage components. I’ve also done my fair share of dumpster diving at scrap metal facilities where I’ve found all sorts of wonderful metal pieces. The phrase “What’s one man’s trash is another’s treasure” is the essence of our business!

Why is it important to you to use salvaged pieces in your designs?

The concept of our business has always been recycling and repurposing of what would otherwise be scrap material. Salvage literally means “saving” and so the word itself defines what we are all about! To be able to create art from what would otherwise become trash, just makes me feel good – not only in a creative way but in helping to promote a green way of living.
What inspires you as an artist?

I have always had the ability to see art and utility in what others might consider junk. Again, back in the early 1990’s, people didn’t quite get it when I would get all excited when we acquired a new batch of otherwise useless circuit boards. And all these circuit boards that we use weren’t just destined to be used in computers – some were to be used in radar equipment, some for telephone switches – just about anything electronic. When others were discovering old buttons and watch pieces as items to be used in art, I was seeing the potential in electronic products such as diodes, transistors, and resistors. Anything was fair game! And again for me, there’s almost nothing that matches the rush of finding a new source for scrap metal, circuit boards, or electrical components or coming up with a new product that I can make from these discarded circuit boards!

What is the creative process behind your art? How does an idea take shape?

Everything usually starts when I see a circuit board with an interesting pattern or color. Many times the size and shape may determine what the product will ultimately become. Other times, I have a new product in mind, and then I begin my search in my studio to find recycled items that will help me create this final product. My palette may consist of vintage jewelry pieces, electronic components, brass stampings, anodized aluminum, vintage beads and colored wire. Then it’s just a matter of sitting down and designing. If I know I want to make a pin that resembles an animal or insect, I will look through all my various metal stampings to find pieces that will help create this image which will then be mounted on a recycled circuit board to create what many call mini collages.

How long have you been selling your art?

I have actually been selling my art since I was 15 years old and made earrings from beads and wire!

After graduating from college with a degree in Fine Arts, I was fortunate enough to have a number of positions within the Smithsonian Institution such as an exhibits specialist and then the matter/framer at the National Gallery of Art. I’ve always found it ironic, that many years later, I was back at the Smithsonian but as a vendor – selling my Three Ring Circuits line to the Air and Space Museums’ gift shop! During this same time period, I also sold my beaded jewelry line (which goes by the name of Beadles and uses vintage beads from the 1950’s – 1980’s) through the various Smithsonian museum shops and their mail order catalog. So I guess you could say I’ve been selling my art for a long time – but professionally for over 25 years.

Do you remember the feeling of your first sale? How has that feeling changed after selling so many items?

It’s always gratifying when someone appreciates my work so from that point of view, every sale is exciting. I do vividly remember my first sale when I was 15 years old and sold a number of my earrings to a gallery in Provincetown, Mass on Cape Cod. I remember the thrill of marching into that shop and leaving with cash in my hand and a look of shock on my face! It was the first time I realized that I could create a piece of art that someone would want to buy other than a family member!

Now I think it’s almost more about seeing the look on someone’s face when they realize that I am using circuit boards in my work and of course it’s wonderful to realize that my work has caught on and so many people appreciate it .

What does the Green Movement mean to you?

It means never throwing anything away that could potentially be used for something else! And unfortunately, my studio attests to this with boxes of circuit boards waiting to be turned into something new, bins of brass stampings, boxes of vintage beads and cabochons, containers of electrical components and reels of colored wire just about everywhere you look. It’s also exciting to know that being green is now a movement which means that many people are concerned about preserving our natural environment. Our society used to be referred to as a throw-away society and to know that people are working hard to change this image and way of living is extremely gratifying to both myself and my husband.

When did you first become interested in living and working green?

The Green Movement is something that has been a part of our lives since the early 1990’s. When I saw my first circuit board and learned that so many of them were discarded I think was the pivotal moment when I realized that I could make use of these beautiful hi tech items and turn them into something other than their original intent . I realized that there was SO much trash being dumped in landfills that need not be and we made it our business to do our own part not to contribute to this disaster but recycling whatever we could at the time.

What inspires you to take care of our planet?

The thought that if we don’t, future generations are going to inherit a world that has even more air and water pollution than we have now. How can you live with yourself if you don’t?!

Has any one green practice become second nature, something you personally do every day?

Every time I go food shopping, I bring my own bags to carry my groceries home in rather then keep on bringing home more and more plastic! And we try to remember if we’re going out to eat in a restaurant, to bring our own containers to bring home any leftovers rather than bring home a Styrofoam container.

What green practice do you recommend readers try?

My husband and I recycle all our packaging materials. We re-use padded envelopes and tissue paper. I have also approached a large local department store that sells a lot of breakable objects and they are happy to let me dumpster dive to recycle all the bubble wrap they get in on a daily basis. It gets me sick to see how many POUNDS of this stuff are thrown out each day by this one store. So I highly encourage any artist that ships their art, to try to use as much recycled packing material as they can and to seriously consider asking a local store if they can have their bubble wrap! For years I’ve also saved all wrapping paper from presents so I could re-use it -which I used to get a hard time about from my family but now I think they all see I wasn’t so crazy and I was recycling before it was even called that!

Is there an eco-friendly product you use that you would recommend?

We use energy saving light bulbs and whenever possible, I try to use natural cleaning products like vinegar or baking soda.

As an independent artist what is your greatest challenge?

Actually my greatest challenge, believe it or not, is putting restrictions on myself not to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week! I’m always trying to come up with new products and I spend countless hours each week promoting my work online, so to put limits on how many hours I’m going to devote to my business each day is hard for me and something I’m working on.

What has been your greatest success to date?

I have sold my work in many galleries in the U.S., Canada and even Europe, but I think that my greatest success to date has been selling my work in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum shop. Having people from all over the world come to that museum and see my work is a wonderful feeling!

What is your advice to a fellow artisan who is new to their industry?

Let your imagination run wild! I think the worst thing that an artist can do is to put restrictions on their creativity. Don’t be afraid to try something new because you never know if it’s going to work if you don’t try it.

I also know that as far as marketing is concerned, you need to get your name out there. I started out doing craft shows back in the early 1980’s and from there I branched out to selling my work in upscale department stores, art galleries and then mail order catalogs. Of course when I first began, there was no such thing as the internet but now with so many online boutiques I think that networking is of the utmost importance and contacting people and asking them to take a look at your work in hopes that they might want to carry it is necessary if you want to have a successful business and an online presence.

Do you have an online presence where your work can be viewed?

I actually have three online presences. I sell my Three Ring Circuits line on my own website where you will find my jewelry items and green office products.

I always ask though that people contact me first before placing an order as many of my items are one of a kind or may be out of stock.

I also sell my work in my Etsy shop where I sell not only what I sell on my own website, but more of the one of a kind items such as my clocks, picture frames, light switch plates, sun catchers, and eyeglass or badge holders.
I [also] sell in my DaWanda shop

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5 thoughts on “Artist Spotlight: Debby Arem of Debby Arem Designs

  1. Judi FitzPatrick

    Fabulous reuse of circuit boards. There are so many items we just don’t think about that end up somewhere. Glad to see another artist with more great ideas.

    Wonderful interview, too; please keep ’em coming.

    Peace and hugs, Judi


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