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A crafty idea

A crafty idea

The popularity of maker spaces is booming around the world. A new one in Chicago, Lost Arts, brings together design, craft and business

The popularity of maker spaces is booming around the world. A new one in Chicago, Lost Arts, brings together design, craft and business

Tom Vanderbilt | September 2nd 2016

“Ideas are really cheap,” says Charles Adler, as he washes paint brushes in a former warehouse on Chicago’s Goose Island. “We have them all the time.” What’s harder is turning them into reality.

He should know. As the co-founder of Kickstarter, a fundraising platform, he helped launch many thousands of ideas into the world as tangible things – from innovative luggage with “all terrain” wheels to a game called “Exploding Kittens”. The path to production was not always smooth. “I noticed there were a lot of people who had this latent need to get their idea out into the world. But some of them had a hard time producing the thing, fulfilling orders or even making the prototype.”

Adler, 42, left Kickstarter a few years ago, and this month sees the launch of his new venture, Lost Arts. Described as a “blend of laboratory, workshop, atelier, incubator and playground”, Lost Arts is a 10,000-square-foot space filled with machines ranging from soldering guns to 3D printers, where aspiring entrepreneurs and hobbyists can do everything from crafting small production runs to tinkering after work. 

“Maker spaces” like this are on the rise. Globally there are three times as many today as there were five years ago. Their popularity is partly a reaction against the loss of manual skills in a knowledge-based economy, chronicled in Matthew Crawford’s 2010 bestselling book “Shop Class as Soulcraft”. The “maker movement” has attracted the interest of big corporations. GE was looking to tap into its energy when it developed its FirstBuild initiative, launched in 2014. The idea was to encourage people to work on ideas for innovative home appliances. This year GE opened its FirstBuild Microfactory in Louisville, Kentucky. At the other end of the scale is Manchester’s Pilcrow Pub, a community-driven project to design and build a pub from the ground up. Adler’s project is a hybrid between a maker space and a co-working space, with the gentle anarchy of the first and the professionalism of the second (a staffed welcome desk, for instance). The people who become members will be from the worlds of art, craft and business. Adler hopes it will be hard to tell the difference.

Lost Arts emerged from his own problems with DIY. A decade ago he was looking for somewhere to house his DJ equipment, which he kept on what he describes as ugly “wire shelving”. As a one-time student of mechanical engineering (before dropping out of college), he thought he would have a go at building his own bespoke furniture. The first problem was space. Where, in a crowded urban environment, could he deploy a table saw and pieces of plywood? Writing a screenplay at a café is one thing, bending metal is another. His father-in-law’s suburban backyard soon beckoned, as did disaster. “I made a complete mess of this beautiful piece of walnut-veneer plywood,” he says.

The DJ equipment remained on the shelf. But the experience stayed with him. “What I needed was temporary access to tools, and a mentor to provide some guidance for me.” Sensing there were others who felt as he did, last year he launched the “alpha” version of Lost Arts, a temporary “pop up” in a smaller space. It attracted the interest of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which chose Lost Arts as a site for its “Venture Studio”, a design programme in which participants try to take an idea from concept to market (via Kickstarter). By using the Lost Arts space, the School was hoping to get students out of the academic environment, and into an entrepreneurial hothouse.

One early project was the “Beton,” a “coffee-storage vessel” made of concrete (good for temperature control). It garnered contributions from Kickstarter and is now in production. What struck Adler was that its designers, in working on the prototype, employed almost the full suite of equipment in the Lost Arts space. “They used a computer-aided machine to make a beautiful walnut lid that sits on the top. They used a 3D printer to print out plastic molds. They used almost everything minus the sewing machine and soldering gun.” This cross-disciplinary approach is intentional, says Adler. “You can go to a sewing studio, and take classes. You can go to a woodworking studio, and take classes.” But what about the person making a piece of wearable technology who needs a soldering gun, a 3D printer, screen-printing equipment and a sewing machine?

While “Lost Arts” has a nostalgic ring to it, Adler says the phrase stemmed more from the idea of being able to “lose yourself in self-discovery”. He talks about wanting to create a space where people have the freedom they had in school (along with access to good equipment). Even creatives working in converted warehouses are generally walled off from each other. “One thing that is a huge detriment to our economy and society is that we don’t know the creative people who are next to us. They are generally invisible.” At Lost Arts people working in different disciplines, on different machines, will be working in proximity. And not just working. The idea of play, Adler says, should not be underestimated. “If you look back in history, a lot of our technology has come from some form of artistic exploration or creative play.”

Not that his initiative, despite its name, is about the past. “A guy who works on the 3D printer asked me, ‘What place do I have in the lost arts?’ I told him, ‘It’s not about time!’”

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