The techie ‘makerspace’ NextFab turns artists into entrepreneurs

Hannah Becker was a gemstone dealer who wanted to make her own jewelry. Melanie Hasan found coloring textiles with natural dyes soothing as she moved through postpartum depression and wondered: Could she make these clothes for a living?

They have each turned their “side hustle,” as Becker called hers, into their main occupation, with guidance from an innovative program at NextFab. The Philadelphia-based “makerspace” operator is known for selling its members access to high-tech hardware — digitally controlled 3-D printers, laser cutters, and other cool tools, from locations in North and South Philadelphia and Wilmington.

But two years ago, the company began offering a twice-yearly Artisan Accelerator Program and inviting hand-crafters such as Becker and Hasan to apply. The program has attracted as many as 90 applicants for six to eight slots in each of the two-month classes. NextFab, started in 2009 by Evan Malone, is currently enrolling its fifth class of Artisan Accelerator wanna-bees. The deadline for applications is Feb. 23.

» READ MORE: NextFab’s Artisan Accelerator program is here

In all, about a third of NextFab’s 800 members “are in business for themselves,” said Ben Fries, “community manager” for the company’s newest site, 1800 N. American St., a former industrial neighborhood now crowded by new apartments.

Others are grad students, serious hobbyists, moonlighting machinists, and software pros hoping to realize their own designs in three dimensions, as well as craftspeople in training. Many are focused on building prototypes of new machines — cell-growing boxes, for example — or marketing neon signs and other architectural elements salvaged from or inspired by the ruins of old Philadelphia.

For artisan members at the American Street location, NextFab has added new equipment and scavenged machines from the remnants of Philadelphia’s once-robust industrial textile industry. The group has also attracted specialists in leather, wood, jewelry, and other fields and sought guidance from scholars at Thomas Jefferson University’s textile program (the former Philadelphia College of Textiles) in East Falls.

“These people have skills in furniture, garments, upholstery, jewelry. They don’t have business degrees. Maybe they went to art school,” Fries said. Cost accounting, business planning and other skills help, but in particular, “they need business counseling, to talk to people with a business background.”

NextFab’s program includes meetings with accountants, social-media marketing experts, and business-development groups.

But participants such as Hasan and Becker say being around artists who have made it as businesspeople provides the strongest inspiration. Fries said the classes are small, so “everyone gets their voice heard. They may learn more from each other than from the instructors. That’s the strength of this program.”

Becker, who majored in history at Bard College in New York before studying at the Gemological Institute of America, says she knew from an early age that she didn’t want to work in an office like many of her relatives. With experience in computer-aided design (CAD), she found work managing jewelry projects, but wanted to create and sell her own work. At the Wayne Art Center in Radnor Township, she learned to cast wax models. At a Philadelphia metal foundry, she learned to cast in bronze. But she needed to polish her business skills.

She first encountered NextFab at a brass-stamping promotional booth that the company set up on the Ben Franklin Parkway in a summer pop-up beer garden before the pandemic.

Last summer, she saw an ad for the Artisan Accelerator program. “They gave us access for the studio, and put us in a cohort with other creative people. It seemed perfect.” In the program she met more people who had “turned their art into a business.” She calls her own work Diamondoodles. Many have a soft-pretzel motif.

“I’m excited to be able to take these ideas and turn them into wearable pieces,” after years of sourcing gemstones for other designers, Becker said. “They gave me words for questions I didn’t know how to ask: how to look at the big picture of the expenses you take in all year, and where the cash flow comes from. You learn to better understand the cost of your product and put yourself in a position for the business to grow.”

Melanie Hasan turned to dying cloth, using “things you grow in your garden” — sumac berries and black walnut, yellow coreopsis flowers, and bright hibiscus — or more distantly sourced materials such as pomegranate and indigo, camomile, and eucalyptus. The aim was to help herself through postpartum depression.

Steeping cloth in bath-temperature water and absorbing the aroma felt good. As did using found materials, fixing them to a cloth with lemon juice, baking soda, and other common materials. Hasan also liked printing designs and creating “wearable art in beautiful ranges of color” while creating “zero waste. So many natural materials are really gorgeous.” By 2019 she was selling garments at city boutiques.

Beautiful natural dyes were all around us, she learned. And neighbors who wanted the products that used those colors wanted to know the stories behind their careful assembly. But how, she asked, could she make enough clothing, consistently, to draw customers who “valued the mission I would like to bring to the community,” and support her family?

“I wasn’t quite there yet.”

She applied to the NextFab program and was thrilled to find a community of artists who “value your time and your art form and why you are in business.” Even with pandemic restrictions that made many of last year’s classes computer-based and remote, Hasan found support and inspiration enough to prepare to open a physical shop, Modest Traditions, at 312 E. Girard Ave. in Fishtown. Opening day is set for Feb. 26.

She’s hoping to develop a seed library for gardeners interested in natural colors — “sharing culture and stories so neighbors can start their own natural dye gardens.” It’s a family business in the best way, she said. “I don’t have to worry about my kids eating the paint!”

The artisans’ program has brought more women and members of minority groups into NextFab — though that’s not its specific intent, noted Anna Solomon, sales manager for the North American Street site.

Full membership at NextFab costs $219, or $319 including technical and education classes. Those chosen for the Artisan Accelerator program, after their classes, get four months free. It’s an artful opportunity.

https://www.inquirer.com/business/retail/nextfab-artists-philadelphia-business-entrepreneur-20220217.html

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