Stories from middle America

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One alluring aspect of cities like Austin, Portland, or Santa Fe is their noticeable investment in cultivating a flourishing creative community. There’s a buzzing energy that springs from neighborhoods full of galleries, retail and restaurants filled with things crafted by people who live up the street.

Omaha is slowly making strides to follow suit. And I’m excited to see so many of my peers acting as catalysts to help change our urban landscape.

Bench is a fine example of that. It’s a shared workshop and studio space for local furniture makers and artists in North Downtown Omaha. We’ve worked with several of those makers on a number of projects over the last few years. So when Bench’s owner, Ben Petersen, asked for some help pulling together the studio commons at their new location, we were happy to come up with a few ideas!

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The downstairs workshop. 

The studio commons is on the second story above a large woodworking shop in an old industrial building. Several artist studios flank the area which functions as a coworking, break room and event space. The artists wanted to have multiple places where they could work at a computer or sketch designs. As a result, there’s a mix of regular and standing desks, and a group work table doubles as a conference table when needed.

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Birdhouse and Timbersmith Goods collaborated on standing desk designs. (The boards under the legs were there because the desk had just been installed and the floors aren’t perfectly level. Ben was still adjusting things to avoid any wobbling action.) 

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A work table made inhouse by Timbersmith Goods and a small stage that hosts local bands during events. 

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Studio Commons hand-painted sign by Sharon Davis. 

Since Bench is obviously meant to be fairly industrial, we weren’t doing design at the level we would for, say, a residential space. But we did come up with a fun idea to paint the kitchen floor in a plaid pattern to help define the space better. The red pendant lights and yellow chairs add a hit of vibrant color.

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Birdhouse envisioned the wrap-around desks and Timbersmith Goods manufactured them. 

The existing overhead fixtures fit the overall aesthetic just fine (it’s a warehouse full of people that need to make messes, after all), but they didn’t do much for task lighting. We utilized wall sconces around the support beams and cantilevered lamps to bring more light to the standing desks.

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The commons workspace at Bench is basically a large concrete and plaster box, which meant that it originally felt pretty sterile and could be very loud. Some basic white drapery panels added a little bit of softness. I had the idea to dip-dye them originally and approached Ellene McClay to help me implement that concept. Instead, she proposed a hand-splattered look that I love! Kudos to her for that.

The space still needs a few additions, but it’s already getting a lot of use from Bench’s members, as well as for makers’ market events!

All photos by Hooton Images.

coop

It’s the holiday season, and I’m writing a post for a lifestyle blog.

So, what does that mean?

You guessed it: the ubiquitous holiday gift guide!

Rather than focusing on a roundup of gifts made by people who don’t live in my area code, I’d prefer to highlight those doing (and making) cool things where I call home.

In partnering with the Omaha organization Heartland 2050, I continue to realize the importance of positive community development. Shopping local is a wonderful way to support your city’s residents and its economy. (And listen: you live where you live for one reason or another. Don’t you want that place to be a better city? One with a richer culture and greater opportunities? I thought so; you’re smart like that.)

There is a Makers Market this weekend where some of the items I’ve suggested will be available. I’m sure the event will feature plenty of other worthwhile items that aren’t on my list, but could certainly pique your interest.

If you’re not in Omaha, a few of these suggestions are available online.

1. Film Streams Membership

This past Thanksgiving weekend, I went to a late night showing of “Birdman.” I sat alone, drinking a Dark Side (a delicious beer brewed in Lincoln, Nebraska) in this charming nonprofit theatre “committed to screening films based on their creative, artistic, and social merits.” It was a treat – an incredibly relaxed, entertaining, and rewarding evening. I often have those experiences at Film Streams. And I feel proud that it is in my city.

2. Joslyn Museum Membership

Opened in 1931, the Josyln is Nebraska’s largest art museum. An impressive collection of art, ranging from American Indian to Modern, pepper the walls within the beautiful art deco architecture. It also regularly welcomes temporary featured exhibitions. General admission to the permanent collection is free to everyone. But a membership helps supports the museum, and provides free access to ticketed exhibitions and events.

3. The Object Enthusiast:

Emily’s ceramics are stylish and functional. She expertly (and tirelessly )makes everything herself, and each piece feels like a one-of-a-kind. My pick is the large mint teardrop vase with polka dots.

4. Beansmith Coffee

I’m late to jump on this local bandwagon, but jump I have! This coffee is delicious. My favorite is the Mockingbird blend, maybe just for the smell alone. (Oh, and word on the street is they are opening up a second location downtown.)

5. Intro to Woodworking Class at Bench

This is not just for the men. Anyone can appreciate learning basic woodworking skills. And playing with power tools is awesome.

6. Heather Kita Jewelry Design

We interviewed Heather earlier this year, and her work has remained with me. I already own a geometric pendant necklace, and plan on investing in a few other statement pieces. I’ve got my eye on the Turquoise Crescent Pendant.

7. A donation to The Union for Contemporary Art

Art should be about connectivity. It shouldn’t be divisive, and something only certain sects of the population are encouraged to appreciate. With a goal of “the arts to become a bridge, connecting our diverse community in innovative and meaningful ways to create a stronger, more inclusive Omaha,” the Union is doing some amazing work.

8. 1877 Society Membership

I’m the committee chair of this new group of library enthusiasts in their twenties and thirties who support and advocate for the Omaha Public Library, its programs, patrons, services, and staff. Clearly, I couldn’t overlook including a membership to the 1877 Society on my list! And did I mention it supports our library system?

Happy holidays!

 

 

 

 

Making Omaha

I’m not sure if it is how I was raised, studying sociology in college, or just a compulsion to have a great conversation about doing big things, but I’ve always looked at the world through a macro viewpoint.

Most of my motivation actually stems from wanting to be part of a real-life Captain Planet experience – because that would be pretty great.

As I become increasingly passionate about making my city a better place to live and work, I feel fortunate to be a panelist for tonight’s event in Benson, Making Omaha: A Makers Market and conversation on growing local manufacturing and economy.

As a primer for tonight’s event, I chatted with Jeff Spiehs of MAPA. Jeff is responsible for connecting the community with the planning process, ensuring all voices are “at the table” and have the ability to help craft a vision for the future – a future where they can see their ideas, passions, and gifts are tangibly represented in the Heartland 2050 vision.

COOP: Let’s start with MAPA and Heartland 2050. What are they?

Jeff: The Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) has been doing community and economic development and transportation planning for the Omaha/Council Bluffs region since 1968. Heartland 2050 is a project of MAPA to create a vision for Omaha/Council Bluffs that is community-driven in its process, sustainable in its goals, and founded in the priorities of the people who live here.

Heartland 2050 is similar to regional visioning efforts in cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, Des Moines, Austin, and Salt Lake City. All of these regional visioning projects, including Heartland 2050, have been funded by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which is a collaboration between the Office of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. (Trust me, it isn’t as boring as it sounds!)

COOP: Why do you want to focus this event on makers? How does that tie in to the local economy?

Jeff: The mission of Heartland 2050 is to craft a vision that leads to sustainable development. When I talk to people in our community, it is essentially the same list that comes up over and over of the places people love to frequent. (Places like Benson, Vinton Street, Dundee, the Old Market, Main Street in Council Bluffs, and South 24th sSreet.)

What they all have in common is that they are in older parts of our city, have character, history, and a story. They also have all of the physical infrastructure in place. So it makes sense for economic development to be placed in these areas because people enjoy these communities, and the investment through our tax dollars (infrastructure costs) have already been made.

These are all great “main streets.” You can also extend this idea to the smaller communities in our region (Plattsmouth, Glenwood, Wahoo, downtown Elkhorn).

Another reason these main streets are important is if we can place housing and jobs closer to these core parts of a neighborhood, we can create denser development. That’s essential, if we want to grow a robust transit network that provides a reasonable alternative to driving your vehicle to work.

Focusing an event on makers is important because it is exactly the sort of makers involved in making Omaha that are perfectly suited for these “main streets.” Omaha doesn’t need to be “the next Portland” or “the next Austin. Look closely on the fringes, and you’ll see an emerging community that is making Omaha carve out its own identity.

Neighborhoods are the context in which we develop a sense of place and identity. Omaha has strong neighborhoods, but it takes a mix of artists, makers, doers, designers, thinkers, and more to make a place that sticks with you. The makers at this event are community minded with businesses positioned to do well in the future.

As for the local economy, if our city can come together to support these businesses, we can recycle the local dollar over and over. Because these are community-minded businesses, they are much more likely to get their supply from other local businesses, and are more likely to have other businesses spin off, or be created as a result of their work. Most of the makers involved are 1-4 employee businesses. If supported by the community, these organizations are the right kind of companies that could expand and create a larger workforce. A workforce that isn’t content with a job where they are just a cog in the wheel, but have their ideas validated and be part of the creative process of making our city a better place for all. And these smaller businesses are uniquely positioned to forge partnerships with community colleges to help train/mentor others looking to develop a trade that provides an opportunity for empowerment for a higher quality of life.

COOP: What is the main goal of Making Omaha?

Jeff: The makers and panelists that are part of Making Omaha have the potential to create a vision for Omaha that will make our neighborhoods stronger, our sense of identity more clear, and help create a city that attracts the best to move here, and our brightest to stay and put down roots. Actually, those involved have more than potential; they are actively creating strong neighborhoods and an identify for Omaha that is attracting national attention. The goal of Making Omaha is to highlight some of the most creative people and communities in Omaha, and encourage others to realize their potential to help Omaha continue its momentum as a place that makers can thrive.

I (and MAPA) desire to seek community input through innovate methods. Typically, “public input” is done through “public meetings” that have historically had low turnout and don’t lead to new voices or ideas. I hope events like Making Omaha spur other pop-up engagement that will be creative and accomplished through methods where people want to participate.

The entrance to Bench.

When Jessica and I first heard about Bench, we thought it was a fantastic idea–a co-working space, not for the typical tech-types, but for woodworkers. It’s a great way to foster learning using hands-on experience, and a great community-building space as well. Bench launched on September 29, and we met with co-founder Ben Petersen to photograph Bench and interview him.

Ben Petersen, co-founder of Bench.

COOP: How long have you been a woodworker?

Ben: I’ve been operating my furniture company professionally for four years and have been doing some sort of woodworking my whole life. When I was twelve, we lived on a farm in Iowa. My family gave me my first workshop, it was a twelve by twelve outbuilding that they converted. For my fourteenth birthday the building was wired for electricity so that I could work with power tools.

C: What made you choose to enter that field?

B: I chose to start building furniture four years ago because I couldn’t find furniture locally that was well-made and aesthetically appealing that I could afford. So I made furniture for my wife and my apartment. Turned out some other people had the same needs we did.

Petersen hard on work on a project.

C: Why did you create Bench?

B: We started Bench because I kept being approached by people interested in learning to build and some who knew how and just needed space. So we decided to scale the shop up, find some nice storefront property and help people design and build.

C: Are there any other full-time workers at Bench?

B: Nick Evans and myself are currently the only ones who work out of Bench “full-time”.

Nick Evans hard at work at Bench.

C: What are your long-term goals for Bench?

B: We want to expand into more trades. We just got a Singer 31-15–a machine made for tailoring garments–we also are always expanding our metal shop.  We recently added a Hobart stick welder. We’d like to see Bench grow into more trades and get setup for CNC routing, laser etching, and rapid prototyping to facilitate even more building.

C: How do you tie your business to sustainability?

B: We are just starting–more realistically testing a concept–local, responsible, and sustainable milling. We have started to mill some lumber in-house and in the future plan to mill all of the lumber that we sell at Bench. The primary sources will be fallen trees that we can hopefully salvage and trees that we harvest from a couple select groves in Iowa. We plan to replace every tree harvested and to harvest at a slow enough rate that we can watch these groves sustain their current size while still harvesting usable hardwoods.

Some of the many hand tools available at Bench.

C: What’s your advice to others wanting to enter your field?

B: My advice to those wanting to learn this or any related trade is find a shop to work in with people that you can respect that are willing to show you how to do what they do, e.g. Bench.

C: What are your favorite woods and materials to work with?

B: I love working with locally sourced walnut, it’s apparent in my work.  I love including unique imperfections, and characteristics that say something about the life cycle of the tree. That’s how you know you have some real furniture made from real materials by someone who really cares.

Custom signs for machines at Bench.

Whether you’re a professional without a space of your own, or just learning, Bench offers plenty of options; day passes are just $25, with monthly memberships at $150. Classes at Bench are coming soon, and their site lists a full complement of equipment available to workers.

Bench is located at 2452 Harney Street in Omaha, and can be reached at info@benchomaha.com, 402-882-2735, and on their website at benchomaha.com. 

Bench promotional cards.

All photos courtesy Bosley Creative Photography.

 

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