Open World: A Conversation with Will Holman of Open Works

Education Workshop
Open World: A Conversation with Will Holman of Open Works

The Open World series of articles documents Liam Grace-Flood’s year of traveling all over the world exploring maker culture and spaces.

Trained as an architect at Virginia Tech, Will Holman has worked at Arcosanti, with Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio, and for Theaster Gates. He’s always merging his passion and talent for design and architecture with community advancement. No matter where his work takes him, Holman has always made time for making furniture and posting how-to’s on Instructables. That work has since been compiled in a book called Guerilla Furniture Design, which came out in 2015.

Shopping cart chair

Not only is he a great designer, he’s also really good at writing about it. Outside his book, he’s done a ton of great writing on his site, Object Guerilla, and on his Medium blog. His writing has been published in Vitra Design Museum, Places Journal, and BMore Art. He also wrote a column for Make: called Made in Baltimore, detailing the process of starting Open Works, where he’s the Founding Executive Director.

Although he’s done interviews on both Looking Sideways and MakerCast, I was still curious to know more about his practice and philosophy, and how that dovetails with what he does at Open Works.

Flat pack zip tie chair

We caught up over email – our original conversation has been edited for length and clarity:

What’s your philosophy on making?

My philosophy on making is summed up in Guerilla Furniture Design, and is rooted in a Bauhaus approach: honesty, utility, economy, and beauty. Things should express their materiality; be useful; be efficient with material and time; and bring joy to their users.

I am very big on this notion of open-source design (search through my blog archives for a lot of theory on that), so putting stuff on Instructables, helping start a makerspace, releasing designs for free on Opendesk, etc. is part of my philosophy that good design should be accessible to all.

How would you describe your style?

There are elements of classic mid-century modern design – attention to detail, materiality, economy of line, refinement where body meets object – mixed with an emerging “maker aesthetic” where fasteners are exposed (neatly) and the process by which a product is made is apparent in its appearance.

How did you become a Robert W. Deutsch Fellow?

I was hired on as a fellow after Theaster introduced me to some foundation folks in Baltimore when I told him I was moving back here.

The Deutsch Foundation had established a nonprofit development company, the Baltimore Arts Realty Corporation, a year before hiring me. Through BARCO, they had purchased two properties about a month before I was hired. One was to become an arts hub – the Motor House – and one was to become a makerspace of some kind – Open Works. The Foundation and BARCO folks already had an architect and a general idea of what they wanted to do, but needed a lot of work to be done on the business planning, research, community development, and architectural planning side. So I spent a year working on those things, visiting other makerspaces up and down the east coast and midwest, and trying to put the pieces together on a sustainable business model. At the same time, I was learning the ropes of large-scale development, fundraising, and project management as BARCO worked on the Motor House.

How did you come to start Open Works Baltimore?

So, to be clear, Open Works was someone else’s concept, and I was hired to operationalize it. That said, I feel a fair amount of ownership over the idea in that it evolved considerably based on my research and business planning.

Open Works Baltimore

I have been/am in an incredibly fortunate position in that Open Works is not bootstrapped. We have an anchor patron in the Deutsch Foundation that has been committed to the concept of using making as a tool for grassroots economic development, and has been able to leverage their dollar input 3-to-1 to capitalize this project. The development and funding model behind Open Works is really unique, and something we hope will become a replicable model.

That said, we have an aggressive set of goals aimed towards becoming sustainable and building a business model that really works in a way that has not been proven before. That’s my core responsibility as Executive Director.

What skills, training, etc. are required in your day-to-day at Open Works?

This is a tough question. I am not trained as a business person – I am nominally an architect. I look at and understand Open Works as a systems design problem. On a long-term-level, there is an element of prototyping, design thinking, and iterating that has to be applied to our business model, our programming choices, our community outreach efforts, our marketing strategies, etc.

On a day-to-day level, I am writing grants, posting to social media, raising funds, holding internal staff meetings, driving sales, meeting with partners, planning programming, interacting with members, designing print collateral, designing furniture for our space, talking to the press, working with our accountant, and generally doing everything I can to grow our audience and revenue while keeping our mission focus.

What do you think is most special or unique about Open Works?

R-Credienza (flatpack, held together with a 2-ton ratchet strap)

Open Works is unique in that we are bringing together so much programming that is normally done on its own – traditional makerspace services, contract work, youth and family classes, entrepreneurship programs, workforce development, farmer’s market – all under one roof. Most makerspaces focus on one or two of these aspects, but we think there is a great benefit to mixing them all up together to generate a robust social dimension to our programming. And we are doing it in a city that is mostly African-American, and doing it with a staff and a board that are mostly people of color, all of which is the inverse of typical maker demographics.

How do you reconcile aspirations to open access with the need to pay the space’s bills?

We are working hard to keep prices relatively affordable (membership ranges from $70-125/month) and drive a big audience. We have a lot of capacity, and the numbers will work if we can build a membership base that’s comparable to other large, successful spaces such as Artisan’s Asylum, Dallas Makerspace, or Columbus Idea Foundry.

We are also fortunate enough to incorporate new forms of construction and have all new equipment, which keeps maintenance a little more streamlined.

Third, we have scholarship programs, grant funding, work-exchange memberships, and other mechanisms that expand community access without denting the bottom line.

Can you describe an average Open Works Member?

It really runs the gamut. We have artists, entrepreneurs, freelancers, solo practitioners, young startups, craftspeople, hobbyists, and students. There is probably a core of 20-30 people that make a core part of their living out of the space; 20-30 that would self-identify strongly as fine artists of some kind; and the balance (200-ish) are a jumble of the other categories. That diversity is a great strength of our space, I think. Having all these different folks coming in and rubbing elbows and bouncing off of each other is really neat to watch.

How would you describe the larger maker movement? And how does Open Works fit in?

Will’s winning design for an architectural competition on Rabbit Island. (unbuilt)

I may be rare in this opinion, but I don’t like the term “maker movement.” Using the term “movement” implies a centralized political or unifying ideology, and I don’t think either of those things exist. The agenda of Maker Faires (the dominant public face of “making”), insofar as one exists, seems far more based in adult play, hobbyist pursuits, science education for kids, and the uniting of a lot of previously scattered tech subcultures under one broad umbrella. I would identify that as sort of “first-wave” making: OMG robots! Drones! 3D printing! How to make your coffee maker tweet! Adults racing Power Wheels! Power tool racing!

While none of this is bad in and of itself, it also isn’t necessarily useful. I think the direction that Nation of Makers is going, the direction that Make: magazine is starting to go, the direction that making has to go to become durable, is in the direction of making as work, making as entrepreneurship, making as small business. And you can see sparks of it happening all over the place: Opendesk, Shapeways, 100K Garages, 3D Hubs, and others are working on truly distributed manufacturing. Made Right Here in Pittsburgh is pioneering interdisciplinary maker education as workforce development. First Build, Pier Nine, and Stanley Black and Decker are all using makerspaces as a new version of the research labs that are like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs. There are too many high-quality STEM education initiatives for young people to really count.

Our workforce is atomizing – by 2020 nearly 40% of Americans will be contractual, contingent, or freelance workers. The notion of a “workplace” is radically changing. Many people work, essentially, for an app – be it Uber or Postmates or just efficiency monitoring an Amazon warehouse.

Put these trends together, and I think Open Works is part of this “2nd wave” of making, without being to grandiose about it. It’s about professionalizing modes of practice and understanding making as a career path, it’s about getting past a core early-adopter audience, it’s about creating more “useful” output.

Mac’s House: the 9th 20K House prototype. Will designed and built it with Clem Blakemore and Pernilla Hagbert at Rural Studio – leveraging making to spark social change. Photo by Danny Wicke

I don’t want this to read as a put-down of those that are pursuing making for fun – that is wonderful and I have nothing against it. We are happy to support folks having fun. But Open Works is part of the conversation about how makerspaces can support more than fun.

Can you speak more to the future of making and maker spaces?

I really think makerspaces have a chance of becoming much more widely distributed, under several different models. These models already exist:

  • As a piece of civic infrastructure like Open Works – large nonprofit spaces that support education and small business development as a lever for community and economic development.
  • As small, bootstrapped or organic spaces that arise out of a specific community of folks, subculture, or geographic area.
  • As institutionally-supported spaces within a library, university, government agency, or corporation
  • As a for-profit chain like TechShop that is franchised across different communities

In the future, we may see all of these models, plus:

  • Large-scale, digitally-enabled distributed manufacturing. For instance, an Amazon warehouse may put a small makerspace with a certain set of digital tools in the corner and crank out certain products for local consumption
  • As a reaction against economic stagnation and fierce inequality, more and more worker-owned cooperative spaces that exist outside of a strict capitalist value exchange (gift/barter economy). This is a more radical socialist model that has been widely theorized about but hasn’t arisen yet.
  • Co-production facilities, where say a furniture company, a cabinet company, a signage company, a packaging company, and a prefabricated building components factory all share a flexible digitally-enabled production line and workforce under one roof
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Liam Grace-Flood

An artist, engineer, and researcher, Liam makes all kinds of things, including public policy, fine art, electric motorcycles, and computational models. His passion for making is rivaled only by his dedication to ensuring other people have the resources they need to make, too. In that vein, as a 2017 Watson Fellow he's exploring how open workshops democratize and decentralize education, innovation, and industry to make better things, people, and communities.

You can find him at his website or on instagram

View more articles by Liam Grace-Flood


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