Maker Movement Makes Its Mark In St. Louis

By Tim Bryant
St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Jobs as hair salon manager, magician’s assistant and even animator for a Comedy Central program failed to satisfy artist Kristen Kempton’s urge to create.

When she began designing and making women’s clothing, one silk-screened tunic and dress at a time, she found the artistic release she craved. Kempton launched her one-woman company, named it Fink (as in “Fashion + Ink”), and began selling her garments, mostly on the Etsy online marketplace.

Without consciously putting a label on her new career, Kempton became part of the Maker Movement when she founded Fink in 2007.

Maker is a broad term for inventors, tinkerers and do-it-yourselfers who continue the American tradition of going it alone while often embracing the latest in open-source software.

For many consumers, having a Maker-made item satisfies the desire for a custom creation produced by hand in an American workshop instead of a mass-produced item rolled out of an Asian megafactory.

Technology writer Dale Dougherty, who started Make: magazine in 2005, began using the term “Maker Movement” to describe microscale producers of commercial and personal goods. The movement is sometimes called the third industrial revolution, following mechanization of the British textile industry in the 18th century and mass production in the early 20th century. (For that one, think of Henry Ford’s assembly lines.)

Makers represent a return to small-batch production, often customized for individual buyers of furniture, clothing and other products. Characterizing the movement is wide use of laser cutters, 3D printers, online crowdfunding and Makers are not hobbyists who turn out trinkets to sell at craft fairs; most are full-time businesspeople, even if they work at home.

Quantifying the movement is difficult.

Attendance at Maker Faires — annual gatherings of tech enthusiasts, DIYers, engineers and commercial exhibitors in the Bay Area and New York — grew by 62 percent from 2009 to 2013, according to The Grommet, a Maker Movement blog.

In addition to the St. Louis area’s approximately 8,000 traditional manufacturers, at least 3,000 more producers can be considered Makers working solo or with a few employees, said Jason Hall, vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation for the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

The “800-pound gorilla” through which hobbyists might become Makers is Etsy, said Hall, adding he is a customer of the site.
Because the definition of Maker “is very much in flux,” the region’s number of self-employed manufacturers might be much higher than 3,000, he said.

“My guess is that number is significantly undercounting the true size of the Maker market in the St. Louis region,” Hall said.
St. Louis is Maker-friendly because of its long history as a factory town and, in recent years, its growth as a tech hub, he said. Makers make St. Louis “a more interesting community,” he added.

TechShop’s arrival in St. Louis next year will be a mile marker for Makers, Hall said. TechShop–a sort of DIY workplace for inventors — will occupy part of a building project underway at the Cortex innovation district in the Central West End.

The Cortex outpost will be the company’s eighth since opening its first workshop in Menlo Park, Calif., in 2006. TechShop sells memberships that allow holders to use the workshop’s industrial tools and software.

Hall said TechShop “is a big validator” of the region’s entrepreneurship, adding that the company “won’t accidentally put up a piece of real estate in a market” short on people eager to turn their ideas into businesses.

He praised the nonprofit group St. Louis Makes and its founder, Marc Bowers, for helping inventors and tinkerers commercialize their ideas.

Bowers was among about two dozen people who gathered recently for a factory tour at Goebel & Co., a furniture company with Maker roots.

Martin Goebel, who founded the company in 2011, more than tripled his shop’s size in 2013 when he moved to a 6,500-square-foot building at 2936 Locust Street. Less than two years later, he’s on the lookout for as much as 30,000 square feet of factory space and planning a separate retail outlet as part of a 10-year growth plan.

As a maturing company with about a dozen employees at peak production times, Goebel is automating some production of its commercial and high-end residential furniture. Although he is a skilled woodworker, the company’s founder has stepped away from the factory floor to focus on design, product development, trade shows and clients.

While production of, say, bar stools can be automated, much of the company’s work still involves craftsmen building furniture for individual customers, Goebel said.

“Our roots in handicraft drive a lot of the philosophy of our company,” he said.

A small-is-better outlook works for another St. Louis woodworker, Jermain Todd. Mostly, he works alone and displays his handicraft roots with “Maker” tattooed on his right forearm.

“I just sort of followed my heart with it, to tell you the truth,” he said.

Todd runs his company, Mwanzi, in a warehouse at the old Lemp Brewery complex. He began a decade ago as a bamboo flooring distributor. (Mwanzi is Swahili for bamboo.)

Unlike some Makers whose custom products fetch high prices, Todd promotes the affordability of his eco-conscious cabinetry and other furnishings. He uses locally harvested, rapidly renewable and repurposed wood, plus recycled steel to make tables and other items for homes and restaurants.

Todd, a self-taught woodworker, uses his marketing degree from Lindenwood University to guide Mwanzi’s progress. He relies on word of mouth to generate business and meets often with customers. “I look at all of it as one,” he said. “The whole process — I love all of it.”

Kempton said she is glad Makers are getting more noticed. She said that, as an artist, she prefers making art to selling it.
“But the recent public interest in handmade goods has made it a lot easier to run a small business and run it your own unique way,” she said.

Kempton runs Fink from her second-floor apartment in the Central West End. She began the business while managing a hair salon in Santa Fe, N.M. Before that, had a job as a magician’s assistant in San Francisco. She also helped animate 25 episodes of the “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” cartoon show that ran for six seasons on Comedy Central.

But first and always, Kempton sees herself as an artist, whether or not she uses the Maker label.

“I am what I am — an artist,” she said. “That will not change, with or without a movement. I never saw myself as a fashion designer. I saw myself as an artist who made clothes.”

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