Today we meet a maker of eco-friendly wooden toys, Michele Chiaramonte, the founder of Little Miss Workbench. Examining the unique career evolution, which has taken her from business marketer, to schoolteacher, to mother, and finally to woodworker, there’s no doubt that she has explored her creativity and professional flexibility on various fronts.
Chiaramonte’s work as a toymaker began when she and her husband relocated from New York City to the picturesque town of Bellport, New York, after the birth of their daughter. Quickly exhausting the many projects and activities she’d dreamed of completing while her daughter napped, Chiaramonte decided to remodel her home on her own.
After purchasing some basic tools, she began undertaking woodworking projects around the house, creating furniture, bookcases, and soon, an activity table for her daughter, Mali. Chiaramonte says, “There is something therapeutic about creating by hand. The concept of going from a sketch to an actual piece with raw materials is satisfying. Hand-making the collection allows my ideas to grow with the item. It evolves into a better piece each time I go through the process. There are always design and finishing touches to improve on. As I learn new techniques, the collection becomes better. Our workshop is small, so we have to create systems that are efficient and effective to produce products that meet the highest quality standard.”
Chiaramonte continues: “I love learning, playing, and building. My daughter, Mali, inspired me to take my hobbies in a new direction. The Flash Zoom Mali camera was the first wooden toy I made for her. Photography is a hobby of mine, and Mali has always tried to use my SLR camera. I decided to make a wooden camera for her that had similar movements to my camera. After making the prototype for Mali, I gave one as a gift to my nephew, and he loved it. I gave several more to friends as gifts and received the same response. Friends started asking where they could buy the camera. It took off from there, and we began a shop.”
Each item is made by hand using American hardwoods and plant-based dyes, and is finished with an all-natural beeswax sealant to create a fun, safe and eco-friendly toy appropriate for children of any age. “We source our materials here in the USA,” Chiaramonte says. “The process of completing a set of cameras takes several days. Initially, and up until recently, it was just me in the workshop from start to finish—designing, cutting, sanding, routing, drilling, dyeing, waxing, sewing, and packaging. Now I have three people in the workshop with me.”
Further to her mission, Little Miss Workbench products support Four Girls for Families, a charity that helps provide clean water in rural Cambodian villages.
Chiaramonte has created two exclusively customized camera styles for us at The Met Store: the “Flash Zoom” and “Say Cheese,” both of which feature our Metropolitan Museum of Art logo stamped into the leather handle and on the burlap carrying case. She has additionally created an array of colorful yo-yos, also adorned with our new branding. Now featured as a part of our new concept store, Rock Paper Silk, these unique playthings spark imaginative play and creativity.
On visiting the Museum, Chiaramonte says, “The Met is one of my favorite indoor places and it is located in one of my favorite outdoor places, Central Park. When I lived in the city, I would often go for a visit just to focus on the architecture of the building itself. There are so many nooks to explore, you could get lost so easily, and I have! I also enjoy the furniture and drawing galleries (kind of random, I know). I took a drawing and painting class and would spend hours each week there. It was so peaceful and powerful to be in a room with so many great works. Sketches have always appealed to me because they are simplistic and complex all at once. They are often much greater than imagined.”
Shop the cameras online here and visit our new store for a selection of wooden home objects, jewelry, and toys inspired by techniques showcased in the Museum’s collection. Learn more about our Rock Paper Silk store here.