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This Super-Cool 'Hackerspace' in Old Zenith Spot Lets You Build Anything

By Benjamin Woodard | February 19, 2015 5:23am
 The Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center will give makers and artists access to industrial tools.
Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center
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ROGERS PARK — North Side hackers, tinkerers and makers — rejoice.

The newly formed Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center is converting a gray three-story commercial building into a "hackerspace" powerhouse, featuring $300,000 worth of welding, woodworking, casting and 3-D printing equipment.

And there's nothing like it in Chicago, said artist Matthew Runfola, founder and president of the center set to open this spring at 6433 N. Ravenswood Ave.

"If you can get people in the door and expose them to the empowering nature of being able to make your own object, then 90 percent of people fall in love with it," said Runfola inside the center's future home, loosely defined as a hackerspace or makerspace, where people who love to build things — "artists, do-it-yourselfers, craftsmen" — can collaborate and create.

But Runfola said the center would also offer classes to inspire beginners to make "furniture, garden sculptures, a sculpture for 'Burning Man' — it doesn't matter at all."

"I don't care what material you're working with — what method, what process — you realize you can actually come up with an idea and work with your hands, work with tools, and output a real world object," he said. "It's pretty darn cool."

Founder Matthew Runfola stands in the future home of the Chicago Industrial Arts and Design Center. (DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard)

The 44-year-old Rogers Park resident has run the Evanston Arts Center's metalworking program for the last 13 years. But the suburban organization plans to move to a new building this year and doesn't have room for the 50-60 metalworking students it attracts each term.

So Runfola said he decided to go out — and bigger — on his own.

In September, he found the building on Ravenswood, built like a bunker out of masonry and poured concrete. It was perfect for the "dirty industrial work" that'll take place at the center, he said.

"This type of building is not found on the North Side of Chicago," said the former mechanical engineer. "This is really a gem."

The woodless construction also helped persuade the city to sign off on plans to bring in foundry equipment to pour molten metal on the third floor. The center also would include casting equipment for glass and softer materials, like resins and foams.

The second floor will house the wood shop, stocked with lathes, table saws, drills, sanders and other tools, Runfola said.

The building's first floor will hold the center's reception area and technology department, featuring 3-D printers, computers and a small machine shop.

The bottom floor, located in a connected, adjacent building will house the metalworking department.

Having all the equipment under one roof allows makers to build entire projects in one area. For example, a furniture-maker could mill a maple tabletop on the second floor, then weld a metal frame for it on the bottom floor.

A jeweler could print out a mold for bronze earrings on the first floor's 3-D printer, then take it up to the top floor to cast it.

Runfola said not only did the building fit his mission, but also the philosophy of the building's owner, Chuck Erickson.

Erickson, 70, said he bought the building 37 years ago. He later learned it had a long history of hosting tinkerers.

It had been the original headquarters of Chicago Radio Laboratory, a company founded in 1918 that later changed its name to Zenith Radio Company after it moved out and became the electronics giant it is today.

For the last four decades, a machine shop occupied the building before moving out last spring and "left a mess," Erickson said.

"It was like walking into a nightmare," he added. But now, after months of work, the building is free of clutter and grime, ready for its new life.

Erickson also owns the single-story buildings to the south; he envisions the commercial corridor developing into an artists' community, with the arts and design center as its anchor.

"We have the same vision," Erickson, also a tinkerer who specializes in "steampunk" 3-D art, said of Runfola. "We share each other's vision. We both want to create a community."

In many ways, the center will be a "beefed-up version of what we got going on at Edgewater Workbench," said Ally Brisbin, who founded her makerspace with Stuart Marsh, who's being tapped to manage the Runfola's tech department.

Brisbin, 29, said she and Marsh had a dream of opening an expansive center similar to what Runfola's envisions.

"Nothing like it exists yet," she said. "Having access to industrial equipment is a very unique element" as well as "having education in the same place."

Runfola said the center would offer memberships, similar to a gym membership, for $160 a year. Then, each member would pay $10-11 an hour to use equipment they're certified for, he said. Tuition for classes would also be collected.

The nonprofit center also would rely on donations and sponsorships from tool manufacturers, he said. The center also launched an online fundraiser to help buy more gear.

"Once this is all in place, it just further emphasizes this community," he said. "You get the people that are really serious in the same physical workspace as the people who are just new to making objects — and you have this learning from both ends.

"We still have a lot to do, but we'll get there."

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