Exactly one year ago Makeshift Society launched in San Francisco. It was an experiment at the time, intended by Rena Tom to free herself and others from the overwhelming stillness of working from home, alone. I’m proud of what Rena, Victoria, Suzanne, and the team have accomplished in the intervening year, and happy to share that soon we will be opening a second location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yup: we. I’ve joined the business to help shape its future. If what you read below sounds worthy of your support, you can help too, by contributing to our Kickstarter.
On paper Makeshift Society seems quite distant from the work I’ve done over the past five years, most of which was helping the Finnish government learn how to utilize. Makeshift is a move from a national remit to a very focused one; it’s a shift from working within the public sector, to the private; Sitra has a billion dollars in the bank, Makeshift… doesn’t. Yet the reason I’m stepping up my involvement in this project is because I think we have the freedom to explore the most important design challenge of the 21st century: redesigning and reimagining the institutions of our everyday life.
Makeshift is a trojan horse, in that sense. It is a coworking space and a community, but it’s about providing people in the creative fields with new pathways to independence by giving them the resources, agency, and accountability they need to excel.
We want to be the best place for people to start and sustain a creative business. In the US “entrepreneurship” is so often treated as though it’s short for “high-growth technology entrepreneurship” that other pursuits get marginalized. As important as tech is, as much money as tech generates, a healthy society (and market, for that matter) is not predicated on one field. At Makeshift we are tackling the challenge of supporting low and medium growth businesses, including freelancers, because we believe in independence and insist that we can do better than a Task Rabbit economy.
Introducing Makeshift in this way reveals my own opinion that straight up coworking is actually pretty boring as a business; it’s tiny, desk-sized real estate. We’re not in it for the desks, per se, but it turns out that tables are a uniquely useful alibi for our larger goals.
When I moved from Helsinki to New York at the beginning of the year I left a small community of friends involved in just about every aspect of creative production (even tables). What I learned is that the luxury of Finland is not in consumption but in creation, in being surrounded by acts of design and manufacture such that many of the objects, environments, and pieces of media comprising my daily life were in some way touched by a friend’s effort. It was a bubble in the best sense.
As a newcomer to Finland, however, I was alone in a quiet place. After months searching for the cafe or corner joint where a density of my people could be found, I realized that Helsinki is not built on that logic. Districts are defined by character more than trade, and commercial real estate is parceled into tiny portions that atomizes the many thriving design studios all over the city. The raw spatial equality that this brings is eminently Finnish in its own way, but also means there’s no easy ‘in’ for newcomers like myself. So I seeded my own densely creative corner of the city once per month, around a shared table and heaping mounds of Szechwan peppers.
At those meals the table* did its thing. New links started forming as illustrators and baristas, architects and authors, chefs and strategists, photographers and furniture makers joined for a bite to eat. It was a casual ritual, but a meaningful one, and is now sustained by friends who’ve remained there in Helsinki, regularly sharing a meal with a rotating group of faces, familiar and fresh.
Landing in a city that is nearly twice as large as the entire country of Finland I was reminded of the specialization that rules here in the creative fields. In New York it’s not the individuals that feel distant from each other, but the disciplines. NYC has so many bubbles of activity all packed in among each other, and all rather insular. They’re alone together, and this seems like something that Makeshift could nudge in a different direction.
As we prepare to launch Makeshift in Brooklyn our primary focus is making a top notch place for creatives to work, learn, and hang out. There are many details that must be attended to that might seem unnecessary, but we are obsessing about all of them. We do this because deep collaboration begins with being in the same place at the same time, long enough time to get to know each other. Fostering a community of people who are stronger together than they are alone is a lofty goal, and it starts with a good table in a good room.
* Through empirical study conducted over the course of 13 months I’ve concluded that the perfect table for a social gathering of 8-16 people is 2 meters in diameter. At this size a group will be able to maintain a single conversation without any one individual being so distant from their complement on the opposite side that it is not possible for them to discuss. Likewise, the round shape allows all to share a single conversation if they choose, without preventing people from breaking into smaller subgroups. Also important: the broccoli is never further away than the arm-span of two people.