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Philly Works Reveals City's Hidden Underbelly of Makers

Quality: you know it when you see it.

Turns out Philadelphia has an active community of makers. Not just artists, but artisans. It is the goal of Philly Works to reveal our largely hidden society of craftspeople, which includes shoemakers, bookbinders, metal and glass workers and furniture fabricators, to name just a few. 

Back in the day, Philadelphia was known as The Workshop of the World, points out Will McHale, one third of the Philly Works partnership, which also includes Alexandra Schmidt-Ullrich and Katie Winkler. Following a late-century lull in local production, there's a millennial resurgence of Philadelphians dedicated to creating objects from scratch.

"It's easy to get insecure or anxious living in a world with so many affordances, choices and communications," says McHale. "The simple act of making or fixing something seems to be a salve for this. There is something wonderful about the simple heuristic act of making."

Peg and Awl, for example, is a top seller of hand hewn home furnishings on Etsy, selling wooden objects to a national client base, and a company Schmidt-Ullrich describes as a "microeconomy," with husband, wife and toddler living and working in Fishtown. 

Lila Stuempfig makes shoes. Not just any shoes, but lovingly crafted objects of art to adorn one's feet.

A.L. Geiser and Son are bookbinders based in Port Richmond, in a workshop filled with beautiful old hand tools. The company binds dissertations, restores bibles, and embosses leather book covers.

Philly Works is getting ready to host its third annual show this fall to highlight the work of local designers like Peg and Awl and Steumpfig. In a departure from previous years, Qualities of Life in Philadelphia will run for three months at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, from September to December. The call for submissions is in progress, with a deadline of July 1.

"We want people to create new work," says McHale.

In the past, shows have featured objects that were already produced, but this time, Philly Works seeks to document and reveal the process behind each work.

"After 3 years, we didn't want to show the same old stuff," adds Schmidt-Ullrich. "We want to harness ideas, not just products."

One of the requirements for inclusion is that the proposed work is collaborative in nature, taking advantage of more than one skill set. Work can be in any medium, in exhibition format.

Philly Works originally grew out of Design Philadelphia back in 2009. The first two shows were only seven to 10 days long.

"It became really apparent," says Winkler of past shows, "that people were having wonderful conversations about the work, and then the show would come down, everyone would go home, and wait for next year's Design Philadelphia."

"It's not about the stuff as much as how people make it," adds McHale, who, along with Schmidt-Ullrich, teaches Industrial Design at The University of the Arts. Winkler is a freelance designer, and one of the organizers behind Better Blocks Philly, which took place last fall in South Philadelphia.

Winkler, along with Philly Works, took design ideas to the streets of South Philly, making temporary changes to a square city block between 16th, 17th, Webster and Christian Streets, and setting up a temporary installation in a soon to be demolished building. It was an immersive experience, complete with lectures, classes and gallery shows, that also inspired the larger effort of this year's show at the Art Alliance. A book based on the Better Blocks project is forthcoming. 
Like Better Blocks, the upcoming Philly Works exhibit is largely an experiment, says McHale.

"It's not a normal show," she says. "We are really pushing it to be collaborative, and pushing people to work outside of their skill sets."
Over the course of weeks and months meeting the city's craftspeople, Schmidt-Ullrich realized that everyone was making their own niche item, without necessarily knowing about or communicating with other makers. "We were the ones who saw the bigger picture," she says. Philly Works is designed for the crosspollination of ideas, and Schmidy-Ullrich dreams that some of the larger problems of the city might be solved when creative people work together.

SUE SPOLAN is Innovation and Jobs News Editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.


Alexandra Schmidt-Ullrich, Will McHale, and Katie Winkler.

Philly work space at 1801 Christian St.

Phillyworks Workshop in Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Photographs of Alexandra Schmidt-Ullrich, Will McHale, and Katie Winkler by MICHAEL PERSICO; all others courtesy of PhillyWorks

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