In this episode, recorded in February 2016 Siobhan talks with Anna Lise De Lorenzo, a designer and creative community leader, and founder of MakerSpace &company, located in Marrickville's creative precinct.
To hear more about the creation of the MakerSpace &company continue listening after the main interview for an extended discussion including Newtown entrepreneur Jason McDermott and designer Meng Koach.
Siobhan: What is the maker movement all about? What is the difference between craft and design and does it really matter? And what does it take to make a space where people can come together to make things from timber, leather, metal, clay and most importantly learn from each other?
Anna Lise De Lorenzo is the founding director of the MakerSpace &company, Sydney’s first public workshop for designers and makers. [ed: several readers, including Anna Lise below, have let us know that many makerspaces have predated MakerSpace &company].
Creating theMakerSpace &company has been her passion for more than the past seven years, and she also lectures in design and entrepreneurship at UTS.
Anna Lise perhaps if you could start off by describing what the MakerSpace &company is about. Is it a hub, a place to learn, work or pop by?
Anna Lise: All of the above. But perhaps I need to go back a step to counter something you said in your introduction – which is that we’re the first public makerspace, because people have been making in spaces in Australia, forever, and there are lots of spaces for people to make things. I think that what we do is take that to a new scale, and a new level, and perhaps a new type of organisation.
The MakerSpace &company in Marrickville is a 1200 square metre warehouse that currently is equipped with a metal workshop and a ceramics studio. Soon to come will be a wood workshop, we’re going to be setting up a photography studio, a darkroom, we’re going to be loaned some gear for a printing studio, and it keeps on growing. It’s an organised space that is a community centre, but it’s also a professional space for designer makers to come in and run their businesses.
Siobhan: So can you hire space, or do you go and learn? How does it actually work?
Anna Lise: So there’s two main ways that it works. Anybody can come in to take a class to learn how to make things at a first time, beginners level, all the way up to more advanced masterclasses where we want to increase the depth and breadth of the skillsets of makers in Sydney. You can also come as a member. Which is something that’s pretty special, because a lot of the hands on classes that you take, you learn how to use equipment and then the class finishes and you’re left with all these ideas, and you’ve got the beginning of an inkling of how to use stuff but you can’t go back to it, you can’t keep going in your own time. So you can come back as a member either to drop in for a day here and there, or to come back regularly throughout the month. And whether you are a hobbyist or a tinkerer or an engineer or a designer/maker you can come back and use the space as a member.
Siobhan: So you founded &company back in 2009 – what did you imagine it was going to be back then, and what did you see as the central purpose? What had led you to identify this gap, this thing that you were looking to create?
Anna Lise: I remember a lecturer of mine at uni, I think it was Selina Griffith, she made the comment about sustainability that she was at a gathering and somebody asked when we looked back [in future] at this period in time, what will we call it, what will we name it, and somebody said ‘the great muddling’. We’re at a point where we know that we’re doing things that are detrimental and challenging to the environment and communities. We don’t know what the solution is, but we know that something needs to change. We’re muddling our way through the fog taking one step at a time to get somewhere. And that’s probably a really good way of explaining how MakerSpace &Company came about – of knowing that there was a problem, not having a clue what the solution was, but needing to take some steps to figure out try to work that out as we went.
I studied design and I taught design at a couple of different universities and colleges, and just saw all these peers and students who were so driven, so passionate and so talented at that student level, come out and graduate into an industry that doesn’t really exist. They’d come out into this industry, ready to grab it with both hands, and there was nothing, there was this void.
So what we’re trying to do is work out how to stop these people from going overseas or from dropping out from being makers and product designers altogether. How do we help bridge that gap between being a graduate and being a design professional. And what the hell is a design professional if you make things in Australia anyway, because we don’t have the same models, the same manufacturing hubs, the same distribution options, that exist in other parts of the world.
So we started that process trying to do things like provide opportunities for getting new work made and out. Doing exhibitions and events, doing business skills training for designers and makers, and also trying to connect them to local manufacturers and stores. In the end it came down to the simple fact that if you want to make things in Sydney, really the hardest thing for getting that idea out of your head, or off the page, is the tools and equipment to make it – to start prototyping and testing your ideas.
And that was the biggest thing – all these people graduating from educational institutions that had amazing facilities and they left, and there was nothing. That’s where the MakerSpace &company began.
we’ve gotten to a point that we’re quite disconnected from how things are made, and that it’s really exciting to be able to reconnect
Siobhan: How do you define who is a maker?
Anna Lise: I have a very broad interpretation of what a maker is, which is that you’re a maker if you make things. Whether that’s as a hobby or whether you’re a fabricator or a manufacturer. If you make food you’re a maker. If you make things that have a tangible end-point, then you’re making something.
While what we’re doing because of where we started from is very much geared towards trying to service designer makers, who want to make a career from designing things, making them and selling them, once you have a space and you have those machines and those facilities it only makes sense to open that up to everybody. So to us a maker is anyone who wants to make something.
Siobhan: So you talked a bit about what you studied at uni, and you’ve talked about the MakerSpace &company, but what was the pathway in between?
Anna Lise: I fell into teaching before I finished university, then about a year after I finished university I started the first version which was called &Company. I was working with a very talented metalsmith called Sonya Scott, who was working on a great project with Chris Thé from Black Star Pastry [ed: see our 2014 interview with Chris Thé]. We had a bunch of different people coming together to work on a special commission. We did some chairs, and some plates. Sonya was working on sporks. She had been trained at Enmore TAFE, and so she had amazing metalsmith skills. She hand-fabricated the original prototypes. She went through dozens of prototypes, hand hammering and cutting them. And when we wanted to scale up – I think it was 20 or 30 units, it wasn’t a huge run, we had some tooling made which was a couple of grand, we had the blanks cut, and all we needed was the hydraulic press. This is the big heavy thing that you put your tooling in, which is the two parts, which gives the side profile of the spork. You put your blank in, squeeze it between the two parts and you get your finished form. These presses are in every mechanic's workshop, they're also a basic piece of equipment in university and TAFE workshops. But between us, despite our all our connections because it was considered a commercial product, even though Sonya was never going to make a living out of 40 units of sporks, it wasn’t allowed because of the red tape around how those spaces are used by graduates, by alumni, by staff. And that was really the starting point where we were like ‘it just shouldn't be this hard – it shouldn't be this hard to start’. And I think that goes further still, because even that first batch that Sonya made changing the type of metal from her prototypes to using stainless steel – that metal behaves differently, but she came up against the same problem that lots of designers come up against – that if you need to pay somebody else to prototype for you it limits how much prototyping you can do. And you prototype to learn. So she learnt about the basic form and how she wanted it to look with her first prototypes. As soon as it went to stainless steel, it behaves differently, it moves differently – but she’d already paid her money to get all those blanks cut, and she couldn’t afford to do another run. So she had to hack it as best she could and they look beautiful – nobody would ever know. But that’s one of the biggest problems here – that if you don’t have the tools yourself you have to pay somebody to prototype it for you, and that cost is so prohibitive that you stop iterating. If you want a table designed, you send it to someone to make – if it looks like a table and it smells like a table, it’s kind of good enough because you can’t afford to keep trying that out and keep testing. So that really started the whole process.
A couple of weeks later we heard that the Rocks Pop-up Project was happening and they were looking for tenants. So we applied and moved within a month. We had seven months down in the Rocks to test run this idea that was really small. The word ‘makerspace’ hadn’t come to Australia yet – the maker movement hadn’t really registered here yet, and we didn't know what to call what we were doing. But we tested it out and people got really excited about it, and came in for classes. We closed that after seven months with a crowdfunding campaign. We raised $20,000 which was really exciting coming from artists and designers, but also half [what was needed] for a half decent laser cutter.
We took time out then to work out how to make it viable, how to make it last. To do that we had to set up a charity, we had to raise half a million dollars in funds, we had to find a property that was big enough to accommodate what we needed to do. That process took four-and-a-half years with the really incredible board behind us helping out along the way.
Siobhan: I remember those sporks, I’ve eaten with those sporks – and they are so memorable. In terms of how you’ve come to be a maker you talk about your grandfather and how he had such a profound influence on you. Is this where you fell in love with making and messing about with tools?
Anna Lise: I actually never met my grandfather, but my grandfather was a fitter and turner – and I think my great grandfather was a blacksmith. My dad is an engineer and I grew up with my dad’s and my grandfather's tools in the garage. I don’t think I ever made anything particularly memorable even, I just remember making things, and being able to, having my dad there to show me how, or usually to do it for me. And wanting to know more about how to do it myself. I remember making weird little sculptures with his soldering iron, and just playing, and that was always encouraged. I was always given paints and pencils as a kid. It was always encouraged to be creative in the family, and I think that while I enjoy making things, I think I was lucky enough at university to be given opportunities to curate exhibitions, and that actually opened up a whole other approach to what being a designer could be. That you could be a producer in design, that role doesn’t exist but it’s quite exciting.
Siobhan: And there’s something about playing around in a garage where you can discover, there’s no right or wrong way, you can much around. Is there something of that playing for you?
Anna Lise: I think so. In the more broad sense of being allowed to be creative. I think that because I did a lot of arty stuff as a kid, that became my label very early – that I was creative. So I don’t know whether that was a self-fulfilling destiny that was put on to me. I feel like I’m less creative now than I was as a kid, because I feel that it’s more management stuff that I do now, and more project development, programming and bringing people together to be creative.
... if you want to make things in Sydney, really the hardest thing for getting that idea out of your head, or off the page, is the tools and equipment to make it – to start prototyping and testing your ideas.
Siobhan: I know that feeling very well. You studied in Australia, but you also studied in Milan. How did design education differ in Milan to Australia.
Anna Lise: I did a really interesting course when I was there. I was only there for six months. The course was called ‘Product Service Systems Design’ which I think was an early version of some of the ideas that go into design thinking, which wasn’t really a buzzword back then. It was also some really interesting stuff that Ezio Manzini was doing around communities, where the design projects that he was working on weren’t actually designing things – it was watching people. Observing how people were designing their own solutions to their own problems, their everyday problems. Whether that was walking school buses or early signs of collaborative consumption where neighbourhoods would pitch in to share the one washing machine, because they realised that was all they needed. It was documenting how these people were developing their own solutions so they could then share those ideas with other people. To me that was really groundbreaking – to think that designers didn’t have to deliver a product. To think that a designer could be a facilitator, or that design could be more subtle than a shiny thing on a shelf. While I’ve always loved making things, I think I’ve always known I was never going to make commercialisable products, and mass-produce things that I was going to sell. Mainly because that’s my skillset at all. Being part of that course I guess gave me permission to embrace having a different role as a designer – despite being trained as a designer – that it was ok not to make my living from designing things, and to explore other things like project management, like curatorial practices, and also looking at how design can be something that supports and enables communities in ways that perhaps provide a more tangible connection or reason for gathering people together.
Siobhan: You mentioned Ezio Manzini – are there other designers or design educators, or people operating in this broad space that you seek inspiration or guidance from?
Anna Lise: Oh, so many people. MakerSpace &company, and before that when we were just &Company, only exists because of the many many people who have helped us get where we are.
From the makerspace side of things – a couple of years ago we went over to the UK through the British Council’s Realise Your Dream Award, and met a whole bunch of makerspaces to see how they were working. A lot of them referenced Daniel Charny, who is seen as the godfather of makerspace thinking in the UK. He’s fascinating – equal parts philosopher and doer – and has instigated the Maker Library Network – which basically says that if you have some [equipment] and you have some books, and you have the space where people can show their work – it can be a corner of your office, or a whole makerspace, then you are Maker Library Network participant, and you can be part of this global movement. He also has some really interesting ideas around why making matters so much – it’s such a fundamental part of who we are. That everyone in their life has made something, that everyone from a four-year-old to an 84-year-old knows what it is to get in the zone of making something, and that incredible satisfaction that you get.
Seeing how the other makerspaces in the UK were collaborating, are all friends, are all helping each other and supporting each other, are sharing resources, are promoting each other in a way that incredibly refreshing and exciting to see. I think perhaps sometimes Sydney can verge on being a bit of a small pond. I never believed that till I got over there. It’s partly because there’s enough people and there’s enough financial resources – because there are so many more pockets of resources for the arts, especially in comparison to here. But it was realy thrilling to see how much bigger everything becomes when people collaborate. You know this, but it’s easy to forget and lose sight of.
There’s also been lots of other individuals that have helped us get here. An early one was one of my lecturers, Karina Clarke, who was one of the first people who to encourage me to embrace not designing things, but designing systems and programs. She also got me teaching.
When we had our makerspace in the Rocks, towards the end when we had our crowdfunding campaign running, I came home one day to an email – it was just a one-liner: “I went past your shop. I think I might be able to help. Give me a call.” It was from a gentleman called Adam Simpson who is the Managing Director of Simpsons Solicitors, who’s now been a massive part of the journey. I remember calling him, having never spoken to a lawyer before, and he was asking questions – and I realised that he’d listened to, and read, everything about me on the internet. He’d watched every talk that was about me on YouTube, and there wasn’t much content. It was equal parts creepy and flattering, but he’d really done his research. He straight away jumped on to help out. So he set us up with Tony Shannon at the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, which has since really sadly shut down and been de-funded, and he helped me a board of directors around. He helped set up a charity. He’s been a massive support over the four years that it took, which is a huge commitment to a stranger that you walk by on the street – to help them make their project and their vision a reality.
Siobhan: To create a makerspace it takes more than just grit. It also takes money. You've talked about crowdfunding. How did you build the campaign, how did you attract the philanthropy, how did you make those elements come together from a commercial perspective?
Anna Lise: The crowdfunding campaign was a six week campaign and everyone says there’s no such thing as free money – my god that applies to crowdfunding! It was six weeks where that was all we did. We thought we’d start the campaign, search for a new property, seamlessly line up the end of our time in the Rocks with our new money and move into a new property. All of those plans had to get dropped. All we did was raise funds. But it was fantastic because it forces you to get out and meet people and talk to people. I can be a it shy about doing that sometimes, when it’s just one on one, but you just had to get out and tell your story to people which is a fantastic thing to do.
Then when we realised that we wanted to make it viable I guess we had quite a simple basis for making it viable – which is that everything that we’d done up to that point was done on volunteer steam, including myself. The one thing that I knew the project needed was full time paid staff. So our equation was to run the programs that we want to run how many full time staff do we need, how much do we need to pay them, how much money do we need to make to be able to pay those people, how many people do we need to have coming through the doors to use our space to make that money, and therefore how much space do we need. That’s when we realised we needed a 1,200 square metre warehouse, and needed to raise a minimum of half-a-million dollars. And then it was with the board, with Adam, Prabhat Sethi, Bruce Jeffrey, and many other people.
People reached out to their contacts, and we had to pitch and pitch. I rewrote our information package I don’t know how many times. There was a lot of conversations, and a lot of support from the board to help us reach out to the right people. We had a hoped to be set up as a company and get investment, but when it’s a brand new model, and a brand new kind of business in country like Australia, and Australia can be quite risk-averse, and also it’s not like a new tech startup, where all of the costs are computer-based internet costs, but you need to have plant and equipment and there’s quite a big outlay of cash. It became very clear that the same people who might support as investors were much more open to the idea of supporting us as donors in a charitable context.
Siobhan: So here you are, you’ve got your makerspace and you’ve been on this incredible journey. What would be your advice to someone starting out on a design or a craft based startup?
Anna Lise: I think you just have to start – which is a really frustrating thing to hear, for somebody starting out. But you need to create work – and you need to get your work out there, whether that’s through exhibition, or selling things, or through markets, because if people don’t know what you make, then they’re not going to come towards you. You need to talk to people because if you’re a crafts-based maker, or a designer maker, it implies that you want to sell the thing you’re making – which means that you need to talk to the people who might buy it. You need to find out what they might want, and what they’ll pay for, and find a happy medium between what you love doing, and what might be viable as a product that’ll sell.
I think that one of the most under-discussed parts of running a business – and I think it applies to any business – there is a stigma that creative aren’t, and shouldn’t, be business people at the same time. That numbers and creativity don’t go together.
It was when I first met you Siobhan, which was through the program we ran for Vivid, called ‘Design your day job’ in an effort to find out how other people who are running integrity-filled businesses were managing to marry the integrity of what they were doing, without selling out, but making a profit. We spoke to lots of different people in the food industry, in other aligned industries where they had a strong sense of purpose behind what they did – I spoke to maybe thirty people in the process of preparing that program. The one, continual, returning theme, was that no-one in business knows what they’re doing. They’re all making it up as they go along. Which when you don’t know that everyone else thinks that is terrifying, because you think you’re the only one that doesn't get it. But when you realise that no-one knows, that there’s a few rules and a few laws, but otherwise it’s up to you – how make what you make, and how you get it to the person who’s going to buy it. That fundamentally makes business and running a business the most creative thing you can do.
So I think that for a designer/maker/craftsperson who wants to start a business, to embrace that fact that it’s up to you to design your day job to make it how you want to make it. Reach out to people to learn from them, find mentors, get advice from people for things that you don’t know about, but it’s ok to not know. It’s ok to make it up.
If we’re successful we’ll be full, and we’ll be teaming with people making incredible things. Whether they’re students for the very first time coming in to make something, or whether they’re seasoned pros coming in, making their own stuff, sharing their skills with other people.
Siobhan: So when you’re making it up along the way, there must be a few moments where you’ve made a bit of a mistake, and you've learned some lessons. What have been some of those moments?
Anna Lise: I’m sure there’s been a lot. I think it’s more slow and gradual insanity, rather than key moments of major fuck-ups. I think telling the people who supported our crowdfunding campaign that it would be up in six months, then finding that it would stretch out to four years just made such a heavy load of guilt on my shoulders. You just feel so [groans], and is it even going to happen. Now it’s really well known that a lot of crowdfunded things don’t actually get up off the ground. At the time it was all still quite new. I’m glad that we have got it off the ground just for that reason.
There is a level of insanity talking about this incredibly ambitious, large scale project that doesn’t exist. You keep talking about it for years, because you just feel like you’ve got an overactive imagination. That you’re talking about this crazy castle in your head that doesn’t exist. You have moments when you just think ‘why am I still talking about my imaginary friend like this’. I know that my husband Meng and I had the conversation many times – how much longer do we give this? At the end of the year do we call it quits? How much longer do we give this? And my issue is that I never knew what I’d rather be doing, so I had to continue with the madness of trying to work it out.
Siobhan: And the voice inside the head…
Anna Lise: And the voice in the head!
A friend of mine I remember making the comment when I was saying that I felt like I was going a bit mad, she said “No, no it doesn't just exist in your imagination – it exists in our imaginations too.” That was kind of mind-blowing and really lovely, also probably a sign that it’s all I ever talk about. They were forced to join my imagination.
Siobhan: We often hear designers say that Australians don’t really understand design, nor craft, that Australians love artisanal food, and they love getting busy with a bit of hardware. I think you made the comment that 2 out of 3 Australians went to Bunnings last year, but we haven’t quite yet fallen in love with design. What will it take, and how will we value design?
Anna Lise: That’s a really hard question. I remember hearing a long time ago, and it was just recently debunked, but I still like the story – that in Denmark a typical 21st birthday present is a chair. I was talking to a Danish woman recently – and she said ‘that so doesn’t happen’. She then went on to say that the ‘household I grew up in was full of beautiful, functional things’ and that ‘in Denmark if something doesn’t work, it isn’t made.’
There’s a lot of shit that we buy here that doesn’t really work, but it’s made, and we buy it. We were talking the other day about the new laws in the EU about replica furniture. It’s all been criminalised, and that as of April 2016 all of the replica companies have six months to sell their stuff, otherwise they could go to jail. We were speculating – will it come to Australia, because we’re still quite happy to buy it, and we haven’t got laws to prevent it.
And it is really hard – at the end of the day it costs so much more. If you buy a hand-made plate it’s going to cost you $40, but if you go to Ikea you can get plates for $2. Sydney’s an expensive city to live in, and it’s hard to make those decisions.
Amory Starr, who is an economist, who you’re referencing with the local food movement, made that really beautiful point that somehow we’ve managed in the last ten years or so to make such a big change about our culture with food, where we’ve really embraced locally made food. That locally made artisanal food is made with traditional food skills, with high quality ingredients, it’s sold at a premium, we love buying it, and we love telling everyone that we’ve bought it, and we feel good about, and we enjoy it. In many ways artisanal craft and design is the same. It’s using traditional skills, that have been passed down through generations, usually with a preference for high quality materials rather than ingredients, and it has to be sold at a premium to acknowledge the cost of the labour here, as opposed to the cost of labour getting something made overseas. But we’re not yet telling that story well enough, and we’re not yet explaining that value. So we’ve got a gap there with people not being so excited yet about buying it.
I think that part of it also having a go yourself. If you make a pot, and throw a pot yourself, you realise the skill and time that goes into that. And it changes how you value and appreciate what goes into the things around you. Arguably everything around us is made – whether it’s made locally, or by somebody in another country, and I think the more we can understand what goes into it – it’s a little but like the Jamie Oliver realisation for kids that milk comes from cows rather than a supermarket – we’ve gotten to a point that we’re quite disconnected from how things are made, and that it’s really exciting to be able to reconnect with how things are made.
Siobhan: And yet we live in a digital age, how do you see these two different worlds coming together – a world of craft and handmade, and digital, and this idea of old meets new, meeting the future, and how might it shape the MakerSpace &company?
Anna Lise: I think that we’re on a really interesting timeline. When we first moved into our current space, before the the previous tenant moved out, there was a beautiful safe in there that had the maker’s mark on it as ‘Makers of Adelaide’. This safe was 100 years old, and it was beautiful, but they identified as makers.
We’ve gone from making things locally to sending things offshore to be made, to this age of knowledge where that’s valued above making. Which has led to the internet, and all of a sudden finding out how to make things has become much more accessible. I think there’s a craving to get your hands on things, and learn how to make things again. There’s an immense satisfaction, both physical, and emotional, and intellectual satisfaction of making things that people are reconnecting with, and really getting excited about. I think when that all started with the internet of things, started and people were going ‘wow, I can take all these ideas that are coming through the internet and program them, and apply them to electronics that can do things’ which is really exciting. I think that’s where a lot of the maker movement began.
What we saw in the UK is that these makerspaces were talking about their 3D-printing and their laser-cutting as tinker-spaces, and their real makerspace were the big guns of the wood workshop, and the metal workshop, where people could do much more ambitious projects. We embrace all those different approaches to making.
We haven’t prioritised the digital fabrication, partly because that’s what other people in Sydney are doing. There’s this great group called Makers Place, which are based in the Commune in Newtown [ed: Maker’s Place has now moved to new location in Waterloo]. They specialise in 3D printing, and bio-hacking, and all this crazy new stuff. Why tread on their toes when they’re doing so well. We want to provide something that doesn't currently exist. It’s exciting where it’s all going, it’s just different tools, a whole bunch of different tools that can open up new pathways for how to do things.
Siobhan: So when you look back on this time right now, and what you’re doing right now, how will you know that you got it right?
Anna Lise: There’s a space in Adelaide called the Jam Factory, and they have tools and facilities but they run it on a program where you join for two years, and work on your own stuff, but work on other commissions as well. You go through the cohort. Brian Parks, who runs the Jam Factory, made a comment that their mark of success is their commercial viability. If they’ve communicated well enough their story, and what the value is, so that people value it and buy their products, that is a sign of success. In many ways we’re the same – if we’re successful we’ll be full, and we’ll be teaming with people making incredible things. Whether they’re students for the very first time coming in to make something, or whether they’re seasoned pros coming in, making their own stuff, sharing their skills with other people. I think the level of activity gives a very clear sense of whether we’re successful or not. We have no government funding, so we’re only as successful as our community makes us. The more people that participate, the longer we’ll be around for.
Siobhan: Thank you Anna Lise for sharing your ideas about craft, and design, and your new, amazing space of making in Sydney’s Marrickville.
Anna Lise: Thank you very much for having me.
Recorded in February 2016.
Interviewer: Siobhan Toohill
Producer: Adrian Wiggins
Photography: Meng Koach
Art Direction: Meng Koach
This interview has been proudly sponsored by Pure and Applied.
Published by: Adrian Wiggins in Interviews