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Inside the Minnesota DIY movement

Susan Solarz redesigned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Origami Chair
Susan Solarz redesigned Frank Lloyd Wright’s Origami Chair
E. Katie Holm

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.

"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.

"We've had some involvement, not only in the community, but with other organizations — NAMAC, Art-a-Whirl, Greenway Glow," Steffen says. "One of the things I'd like to do is increase our participation in these events and get more member involvement in them."

Another of Steffen's initiatives is to increase the percentage of women in the organization. Of the 120 or so members, very few are female.

"I can probably count most of them on both hands, for sure," she admits with a laugh. "We do a women's night where Twin Cities Maker women host a night at the Hack Factory the last Tuesday of every month."

Steffen wanted the women's night to have more clear themes — last Halloween they carved jack-o-lanterns using power tools.

"We try to do activities that are a little more geared towards what women are ... I hate to say 'stereotypically interested in,' but there is kind of an issue with some women being intimidated by a lot of men and big power tools."

Being the female leader of a nearly all-male organization doesn't faze her.

"For me it doesn't feel awkward.... It's definitely interesting being the first woman president we've had."

The Hack Factory's success symbolizes a change that has taken place in the Twin Cities, as well as the rest of the country. William Gurstelle of Minneapolis's Kenny neighborhood has been writing DIY texts for over a decade. His breakout book, Backyard Ballistics, showed readers how to build catapults, tennis ball mortars, and other devices for burning and flinging things. When he began building the prototypes for his book in 1999, he had a hard time locating the parts he needed for his projects, as well as finding advice when he ran into trouble.

"There wasn't a level of sophistication in terms of organized communities or a large internet presence, or a place where you could go for help," Gurstelle says. "It'd be difficult, in fact, to get a lot of materials one would need. I didn't know how to get it or where to get it."

For Gurstelle, the rise of the internet and the associated visibility of the DIY community and the specialty retailers who sell parts and tools have made the creation of his projects vastly easier.

"Their whole business is to supply raw materials and tools and parts to people who are involved in DIY projects," he says. "I think that's the biggest change over time."

This online community and associated physical communities, often called the Maker Movement, takes its inspiration from DIY bible MAKE magazine, published by Maker Media, a Bay Area company that prints the magazine as well as puts on huge "Maker Faires" that show off the creations of hundreds of makers, everything from cool vehicles to functional robots and electronic gizmos.

This movement crystallized in 2008 when Dale Dougherty, MAKE's publisher and the CEO of Maker Media, ran into Twin Cities Public Television's Richard Hudson at a Maker Faire and hit it off. Hudson, who produced TPT's Sci Girls program, was interested in producing a maker-themed show.

"I appreciated that he wanted to do a program that would help people and encourage people to make things," Dougherty says, "rather than just a program about geniuses."

Dougherty and Hudson wanted to do something like a cooking show for makers, which would demonstrate to ordinary people how to create the projects on the show. Robert Stephens, the founder of Best Buy's Geek Squad division, underwrote the first season of the new program. Called Make: television, the show featured complicated DIY projects like an automated cat feeder and a pneumatic burrito cannon. Host John Park, an engaging DIY fan working as a Disney animator, was flown in from L.A. to host the show, and William Gurstelle was tapped to serve as producer.

The show lasted only one season, but Dougherty continued his efforts to spread his vision of making.

"Our focus has been how communities support making," he said. "Organizing Maker Faires is a way of identifying some of those resources in your community — help makers find each other, and look for ways this can be sustained in the community."

Dougherty cited schools, libraries, and science museums, as well as maker spaces like the Hack Factory, as places where making can be taught.

 

"It doesn't want to be just one place," he says. "This can be in lots of different places at lots of different levels of complexity."

The Hack Factory isn't the only maker space in the Twin Cities. One of the newest is Nordeast Makers, a group of six tinkerers who are refugees from another space, the Mill, which closed at the end of March after a year of operation.

One of the founders, Micah Roth, works as an ICU nurse at United Hospital, while devoting his spare time to building miniature helicopters and tinkering with 3D printers — devices that extrude plastic layers that form three-dimensional objects.

For Roth, making was simply part of his upbringing.

"I was an electrician and cabinet maker, and my dad was an electrical contractor who fixed his own cars and built his own house," he says. "I've always had projects ever since as I can remember."

Roth was friends with Brian Boyle, who wanted to build his own maker space.

"I hadn't seen him in a while and saw him at a coffee shop, and he was right in the planning stage," Roth recalls. "As soon as I heard about it I was thrilled."

The Mill opened its doors on Kennedy Street in northeast Minneapolis in early 2012. The space offered a laser etcher, plasma cutter, and other high-end hardware. It differentiated itself from the Hack Factory by being cleaner and having more reliable equipment. Where the Hack Factory was nonprofit and run by volunteers, Boyle kept the Mill privately held and hired people to help him run it. Roth headed up the Mill's 3D-printer department, teaching classes and maintaining the machines.

Despite the enthusiasm of a small group of members, the Mill wasn't able to sustain itself and eventually closed its doors, leaving the group without a home or access to the high-end tools that none of them could afford individually.

"When I lost access to that stuff, I was pretty serious about figuring out how to get access again," Roth says.

Roth and most of the Mill's regulars met to discuss forming a new group, eventually creating Nordeast Makers, naming the group after the Mill's old stomping grounds. They found a home on Vandalia Street in St. Paul, and kept the name despite its geographical inaccuracy.

One of the other Mill refugees is local artist Bruce Shapiro, a former physician who has built a reputation as a kinetic artist. He began tinkering in 1990, while experimenting with computer art.

"At the time, I was interested in computing fractals on my 286 computer," Shapiro recalls. "What I was blown away by was that you could create art and beautiful images using an algorithm that computes each pixel's color. I got very into it, but very quickly I realized I wasn't interested in looking at things on the screen. At the same time, I love electronics, and I've always had the habit of going into electronics junk stores."

It was at downtown Minneapolis store Acme Electronics that he was introduced to stepper motors.

"These motors had 4, 8, 6 wires, and I didn't know how to make them run," he says, "but I got the idea right away: This is the pixel in motion."

Shapiro's experiments with motors became an obsession, and he started planning projects around them. His first was EggBot, a small desktop robot that moved an egg and drew on it with a pen. He built it as an Easter project for his children.

"My kids were young and bugging me, 'It's April and you promised us,'" Shapiro says.

To make it work, Shapiro used two stepper motors almost like the knobs on an Etch-a-Sketch, except the motors were controlled by a computer.

"It was a lucky first project because I really didn't know what I was doing," Shapiro admits. "It was small, inexpensive, and not dangerous."

Since the EggBot, Shapiro has been building ever more advanced motor-controlled projects. His current work is Sisyphus, a series of sand tables with magnet-controlled ball bearings tracing intricate paths that take weeks or months to develop. He recently returned from Australia where he was installing a couple of pieces in the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra.

Shapiro keeps a nine-foot Sisyphus prototype in his corner of Nordeast Makers, amid the junk and dangling wires of a half-built maker space. The studio still has just six owners, but once the infrastructure gets built, they hope to attract a few additional members.

"That was the other side of the Mill that really opened my eyes," Shapiro recalls. "For the most part through my 20 years of doing this I've been a hermit, working alone. Not only is it more fun to work with others, it can be way more productive."

 

Not all local maker groups have a headquarters, however. Nationally recognized tinkerers 1.21 Jigawatts (a Back to the Future reference) consists of a rotating group of friends who periodically get together to compete in Red Bull Creation challenges — a promotion by the energy drink company challenging makers to build fantastic machines.

Ben Arcand, a medical device engineer living in the Longfellow neighborhood, found himself being recruited by his friend Dillon Hodapp to participate in the first Creation challenge, held in 2011.

"He just called a few of us up and told us about this new competition with Red Bull," Arcand says.

The team brainstormed over beers. None of the group had worked together to that point, and some of them didn't even know each other.

"When we first started talking about it, we had quite a few beverages," he says with a laugh. "Anything seemed possible. We kind of jumped in with both feet and learned as we went."

The qualifier round stipulated a theme: Take an old piece of technology and make it new.

"We took the concept of a message in a bottle," Arcand says. "We basically took a big champagne bottle and cut the end of it off so we could fill it with a GPS, a text-messaging module, and an LCD display."

A person could text the bottle, in other words, and have the message appear on the LCD within the bottle and relay the bottle's coordinates to the sender.

"It's a kitchy, updated form of this ancient communication technology of putting a note in a bottle," he says.

The project won the group a trip to the main round of the competition, and they were flown to New York to participate in a 72-hour nonstop build session. The group created "Paper Trail," a human-sized hamster wheel towing a spray-paint printer. Viewers could text the wheel and have their messages written out behind it. They ended up winning the competition.

For 2012's contest, the group reconvened and built "The Hunt for Red September," a submarine simulator that called for participants to pull levers and press buttons to save a sub that has been hit by a torpedo. Unlike the previous competition, however, the build took place in the Mill maker space while live webcams looked on.

Brian Boyle, the Mill's founder, watched the team members interacting with each other and with the Mill's staff and regulars. One thing that stood out for him was the interplay between two subgroups of collaborators: artists and engineers.

"It was really cool seeing how the two groups were talking and coming at this issue from different angles," Boyle says. "No one was getting super territorial about their ideas. Some of the engineers were making obvious concessions to the aesthetics of it without really fighting it too much. It was just neat."

The build proceeded, and the submarine simulator went from an idea to a functioning project as 1.21 Jigawatts and Mill regulars bustled around.

"It was amazing," Boyle recalls. "It was absolutely one of the coolest experiences of the Mill. During that period of time, it was exactly what I had always imagined the Mill would be."

Susan Solarz joined the Hack Factory to build furniture. A former University of Minnesota freshwater ecologist looking for something new, she applied to the Women's Art Resources of Minnesota (WARM), where she was paired with an established artist. Her mentor, Jantje (pronounced "YAN chuh") Visscher, works with serious artists in their early stages of their careers.

"One of the first things Susan mentioned was that she didn't really have a studio and she didn't have equipment," Visscher says. "I had learned about the Hack Factory because in the last mentor program I had a protege who lived near the Hack Factory. I went through it and I felt it had a lot of potential for artists."

Solarz joined the collective and began working on her first project, a redesign of Frank Lloyd Wright's Origami Chair, an elegant-looking but poorly designed chair that the architect had created in the 1960s. Solarz wanted to redesign the chair to imagine how it might be manufactured in 2013.

One of the immediate challenges she faced was addressing a design flaw that dated back to the original design.

"It tends to tip forward," Solarz says. "It has that problem."

Wright ended up adding odd-looking feet to the chair. Fortunately, Solarz's colleagues at the Hack Factory came to the rescue.

"When I couldn't succeed at getting the chair to stop tipping, somebody walked by and said, 'Why don't you just make it into a rocking chair?'" Solarz says. "At first I was still frustrated with my failure, but then in the middle of the night I thought, 'Of course! That's the answer!'"

Instead of feet, the chair was given metal rockers. The seat was built out of fiberglass and form-fitted to Solarz's own butt, for maximum comfort.

 

For her next project, she won a commission to create a musical bench for the Central Corridor light rail line in St. Paul, applying for a grant from Springboard for the Arts. The bench consists of dozens of PVC pipes arranged vertically, with open tops, allowing people waiting for the bus to use sets of rubble paddles to make music on the pipes.

While building the bench at the Hack Factory, one of the other members pointed out that you could actually play it with your hands.

"Each different length of PVC pipe makes a different note when you hit with the palm of your hand," Solarz says. "That's one of things that I love about the Hack Factory, that people's little creative remarks can turn to really awesome things."

Visscher, Solarz's mentor, also noted the supportive nature of the Hack Factory community.

"The people there not only are willing to teach — they teach classes to certify people in that particular piece of equipment, and they're helpful way beyond that. Really, a very supportive community."

Michael Freiert, the member who helped build the catapult, noted that one member helped Solarz build a PVC-cutting jig for her bench.

"Having a workshop where you can go and work is great, but having one where you can go say, 'Hey, how do I do this?' That community give and take, I think, makes us all of us better creators of stuff."

Moon sculpture by Greg Flanagan, Tree on a Hill Workshop
Emily Utne

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