Inside the Minnesota DIY movement

Meet the local makers who are taking technology back

Inside the Minnesota DIY movement
E. Katie Holm
Susan Solarz redesigned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Origami Chair

The Spoonapault sits rotting in front of a low brick warehouse in Longfellow. A small medieval catapult with a business end shaped like a soup spoon, the weapon serves as a symbol both of the creativity and longevity of the organization that built it.

In better years the Spoonapault looked like a medieval interpretation of the iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture, complete with plush cherries that it flung. Its catapulting days over, the Spoonapault now acts as a symbol of Twin Cities Maker, a 120-person organization in south Minneapolis devoted to the do-it-yourself mentality that has seen a resurgence in the past 10 years.

Inside the Hack Factory, as the Twin Cities Maker's warehouse is called, Michael Freiert reflects on the genesis of the project. It dates back to 2009, before the organization's charter had been established and the Hack Factory rented. At the time, the two dozen founders would meet at Uptown's Common Roots coffee shop, drinking Surly and talking about the projects they were working on.

Moon sculpture by Greg Flanagan, Tree on a Hill Workshop
Emily Utne
Moon sculpture by Greg Flanagan, Tree on a Hill Workshop
Becca Steffen, lawyer and yurt-bulider
E. Katie Holm
Becca Steffen, lawyer and yurt-bulider

"We were all showing each other whatever we'd built," Freiert recalls.

Members would bring half-constructed projects, cool tools, and boxes of mysterious electronic components. As a nascent organization, however, the members felt that they should work on something as a group.

"We were building community but hadn't done anything together," Freiert says.

They began brainstorming ideas for an upcoming event at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Called Make: Day, the festivities were to consist of local DIYers and artists showing off their projects. A call for entries had been announced, and Twin Cities Maker responded.

"A bunch of us got really, really excited about doing that as a group project," Freiert says.

He and about half a dozen other members got together in the garage of Freiert's Northeast home, where they built the Spoonapault. They failed, however, to convince the Science Museum of the project's value.

"They were a little bit terrified of letting a bunch of coffee-shop aficionados fling half-kilo plush cherries around their museum," Freiert says with a chuckle.

The following year the group created its charter, voted in officers, and put down a deposit on a warehouse. The Hack Factory was organized as the ultimate workshop for its members, who brought in their own tools and furniture to stock the place. Woodworking and metal-crafting areas were established, and a classroom/electronics lab was created. The Hack Factory is one of hundreds of such buildings throughout the world, called hackerspaces or maker spaces.

The Spoonapault, meanwhile, became something of a symbol for the group. It was hauled out for a few more events, and the spoon was rebuilt once, but eventually lost some of its shine. After a couple of members tried to throw it out, the catapult was put in the Hack Factory's front yard to live out the rest of its days.

"It sat out all winter," Freiert says regretfully. "I'm not happy it's as weathered as it is, but it's also a great icon for us."

Back inside, the group's president, Becca Steffen, holds court in the boardroom. She joined Twin Cities Maker in 2011, and quickly found her professional skills in high demand. A lawyer with her own practice, Steffen helped guide the group through the tumultuous process of applying for 501c3 nonprofit status.

But Steffen originally joined the group to build yurts.

"My law partner and I had decided to build a yurt — technically, a Mongolian ger," she explains.

Gers are traditional Mongolian tents, historically built out of felt, though Steffen and business partner Dan Gorman's was made from canvas and wooden slats from the lumberyard.

"Mongolian gers are kind of awesome because they are portable — you can collapse the walls, the roof poles, you can wrap it all in the canvas," Steffen says. "We've hauled it on top of the Prius. Unlike a pavilion, it's a lot more stable."

Steffen and Gorman had just graduated from law school, and both lived in apartments that didn't have room for a workshop.

"Neither one of us had money for power tools," she says.

They showed up at the Hack Factory and quickly found a receptive audience for the project. The resulting 16-foot ger was shown off on the front lawn of the Hack Factory and made appearances at local DIY fairs. They have used the ger for camping in state parks and have set it up at music festivals.

"We've never had an actual fire in it," Steffen says. "We did have some candles in there."

Once the other members learned of Steffen's legal background, they urged her to run for a board seat. After joining the board she was elected vice president. When the previous president's two-year term ended, the board elected her president in a unanimous vote.

As the group's new leader, Steffen was faced with two challenges: to increase the organization's presence in local DIY events, and to increase the participation of women.

Recently the group created Strange Attractors, an interactive installation for Lowertown's Northern Spark art festival. It consisted of a six-foot panel of full-color blinking LEDs that emulated the patterns of fireflies. In a natural environment, fireflies' flashes eventually synchronize, and the swarm's patterns change in response to ambient light levels. The installation has visitors shine flashlights on the LED wall, which senses the light and changes its flashes in response.

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