In April 2020, A/D/O—the design incubator-meets-community center-meets-café-meets-design shop—announced its impending closure ostensibly due to the pandemic. Since opening in 2017, the space, an initiative of BMW Mini, had become a community hub in North Brooklyn where you could find local moms having breakfast with their toddlers, writers using the open lobby as an informal coworking area, designers sitting at their permanent desk in A/D/O’s dedicated lab and maker space, and passersby taking photos in front of the building’s latest design installation.
Around the same time, on the other side of the country, Los Angeles’ A + D museum—the city’s only center dedicated to the full spectrum of design disciplines—announced that it, too, would be closing its doors and would instead host online exhibitions. This was followed in August of last year by the Feminist Center for Creative Work (FCCW), a workspace, printing press, and community center, announcing it would be moving to a digital-first platform. And more recently, The Design Office, a Providence, R.I., design-focused coworking space, sent an email saying that after 13 years it was shuttering.
Running a community-oriented space has never been easy, but the pandemic made it nearly impossible to fund and maintain this model, which has provided a physical gathering place for creatives to meet, collaborate, find work, and spend time. Over the past year-and-a-half, many beloved design community spaces were forced to make the abrupt and painful decision to close their physical locations and either pivot their activities to online or cease them altogether, leaving a void in the creative infrastructure for many neighborhoods and cities.
Coworking and community spaces often operate on short runways (BMW Mini funding notwithstanding), but in the year leading up to the pandemic, some of these organizations were seemingly thriving. Two weeks before the start of lockdown in March 2020, FCCW had planned to take on a lease for a larger warehouse space within LA’s Frogtown neighborhood so it could expand their programming and membership offering. But, as co-founder and executive director, Sarah Williams, describes it, once lockdown started, ‘’We couldn’t do it—everything was too uncertain, and then it became clear there was the possibility we could be looking at a multi-year recovery before anyone would want to be inside. So instead of expanding, we ended up downsizing. We had to prioritize the health and comfort of our staff.”
The start of the pandemic in the U.S. had an immediate and blunt impact on the financial pipelines that many of these organizations and spaces relied upon. For organizations like FCCW, A/D/O and the A + D Museum, their physical space was a defining characteristic of their identity and offerings. When the pandemic hit, membership dues and coworking fees dried up, sponsorship opportunities for exhibitions disappeared, and annual fundraisers were cancelled. On top of that, many of these spaces were ineligible for PPP loans since their main financial commitments were overhead, not payroll. All of this while unforgiving landlords were still expecting full rent to be paid (the organizations we spoke with paid monthly rents ranging from $3,000 to $12,000).
“Instead of expanding, we ended up downsizing. We had to prioritize the health and comfort of our staff.”
After nearly a year of trying to make it work during the pandemic, John Caserta, a Rhode Island School of Design professor and founder of Providence’s The Design Office, decided in February to close the space’s doors after realizing that things weren’t going to get back to “normal” anytime soon. “By last summer I had realized I was still on the hook for the remaining 12 months of my lease without any kind of rent relief,” he says. “No one was working from the space anymore, so it was just me by myself watering the plants and freaking out. It was a lot of cognitive load to carry.”
The shutterings mark an end of an era where spaces like The Design Office had become local hubs and anchors for their neighborhood’s creative community. While operating, these centers commissioned research, provided coworking space, hosted artists and designers-in-residence, held exhibitions and curated public programs, hosted meetups and ongoing events, and did community outreach and public education. By deliberately making themselves more open and accessible to the public, these spaces provided an alternative to their cities’ more formal museums and design institutions. As Anne Laure Pingreoun, founder of Alter Projects and A/D/O’s former chief design curator, explains, her goal was to help “create a new kind of design institution”—one that would be more community-driven. “People find institutions intimidating to go to and work from, but A/D/O had that open door where you could always find something to do. None of it was a ‘it’s not for you’ kind of space.”
These physical spaces created a forum for designers to meet and talk about issues affecting their work and industry. And they served as an entry point for transplants and people who were trying to embed themselves in a city’s creative community and meet likeminded peers and friends. “LA has a lot of transplants who want to meet new people and collaborators, and it lessens some of the nepotism that exists to that kind of access,” says FCCW’s Williams. Caserta adds that finding community was a primary driver for creating The Design Office when he was new to Providence. “I was hungering for where I could go and meet people, and then I realized maybe I could attract or create an ecosystem around an arts-oriented design perspective,” he says. “I miss meeting people who are just moving to town and finding out what’s going on and who’s doing what—and having design be the content that allows folks to connect. Because it didn’t really exist in Providence at the moment I arrived. It was really valuable when we had it, and I’m already missing it.”
While some organizations closed their doors altogether, the transition from in-person gatherings to digital programming provided others with new opportunities. Both FCCW and the Boston-based Design Museum Everywhere have been able to shift from a primarily local audience to a more global membership base through offering online lectures, events, and workshops and creating new podcasts and publications. For many organizations and their audiences, though, Zoom burnout has taken a toll on their communities which were built on in-person collaboration and networking.
“I miss meeting people who are just moving to town and finding out what’s going on and who’s doing what—and having design be the content that allows folks to connect.”
“There’s no circumstance in online networking, and every career is built on networking,” says Jason Schupbach, Dean of Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. “These physical spaces provide multiple assets: the space itself that can host all kinds of things for all kinds of people, there’s an education mission, and then there’s the community mission.”
The community mission of these spaces has become even more important in the aftermath of 2020, as the design industry grapples with an overdue reckoning of its role and complicity around issues of racial, social, gender, and disability inequality and exclusion. The desire for providing safe in-person spaces for these ongoing conversations to happen and to give greater voice to Black and Brown designers across the profession has spurred a new generation of spaces that center marginalized communities.
Caserta is heartened by the shift he’s seeing away from more generalized spaces that “had the best of intentions but may have unintentionally limited access to certain people” to a new crop of neighborhood and mission-oriented spaces that are emerging. He cites Providence’s Queer Archive, Binch Press and Counterform, who will soon open a BIPOC and Latino-led community design and print studio founded by Jose Menendez, Tatiana Gomez Gaggero and masterprinter Jacques Bidon. Other spaces, like the recently opened Ecoshed in Jackson, Miss., are looking to support the city’s small but growing creative community by providing infrastructure for local designers and entrepreneurs.
As plans for opening new community spaces emerge, the design hubs that have managed to survive the pandemic—whether in a digital-only format or with a smaller physical footprint and with reduced hours and capacity—are still recovering from both a year of losses and an abrupt expectation of reopening. Only without the capital and personnel to resume their normal slate of talks, exhibitions, and programming. “We haven’t had funds to reopen. Everyone feels a little caught off guard,” says Williams. “Not everyone is ready to reopen, and we feel like we’re playing catch up. Programming people are still being a little cautious about everything.”
As for what’s next: while the short term will continue to be confusing and a bit chaotic, in the medium and longer-term Schupbach is optimistic about what an influx of funding and capital on the horizon could mean for design and creative spaces. Schupbach says SBA loans, Save Our Stages funding that will be open to museums and arts nonprofits, new major grant opportunities through the National Endowment for the Arts, the industry impact of Mackenzie Scott’s broad and unrestricted approach to philanthropy, and a crop of new funding, programs, and initiatives centering BIPOC creatives are all resources that designers and organizations can look to. “There’s more money than there’s ever been, and it will be down to how people go about accessing it.”