Once the largest employer in the city of Somerville, the old Ames Safety Envelope Factory in Somerville is long shutdown, no longer churning out volumes of paper. But there’s still a fury of activity happening in the old warehouse on Tyler Street.
The space is home to Artisan’s Asylum, a coworking space churning out robots, sculptures and fire-breathers on the reg. Currently, the 31,000 square foot site boasts 150 active members, runs 23 classes and offers six different tool trainings this month alone, and it’s only been open since November. Badass, if you ask me.
We grabbed a few minutes with Gui Cavalcanti, the president and co-founder of Artisan’s Asylum, to chat about his ambitious adventures and the new coworking trend sweeping the east coast.
How did you come up with the idea for Artisan’s Asylum?
It was a selfish personal thing. My cofounder Jenn Martinez and I wanted a place to work on our own craft. I make robots and need heavy machines that you can’t really put in a house or a garage. From the get-go, I made it a manufacturing space for all my equipment. Plus, these tools are also expensive, so everyone needed to pitch in.
What was your next move?
In April or May when we were in a smaller space, a volunteer asked me, “What are you going to do with this?” The Asylum was all volunteer run at the time, and we didn’t have the money for a full time staff. It was very painful to keep it going.
We did the math on the business plan to figure out how to expand and pay salaries. We realized we needed a 25,000-30,000 square foot space to rent studios, so we decided to dedicate over half of a new space to studio rentals. We approached the city of Somerville to find new spot, and on November 1, we moved into the Ames complex.
What type of people work at the Artisan’s Asylum?
It’s a mix of people who rent their own small personal spaces, and the rest is shared areas – classrooms, social space, welding, woodworking and a bike shop, all with communal access.
Tell me more about these classes you offer.
We are offering 30 classes in January alone and only three or four of those haven’t sold out. Introduction to TIG welding is our most popular class – it’s routinely sold out every single time it’s offered.
We also have a foam fabrication class, which is essentially sculpting foam into large, organized shapes.
I teach an intro to robotics course. It’s a 20 person class. Basically, the students build robots.
Where do you find the teachers?
A lot of them came out of the woodwork, but I did put out a couple of calls for instructors. We actally pay instructors based on a percentage, so its in their best interest to promote their classes and sell them out.
Fire-Eating & Fleshing – what’s up with that? How’d you find those teachers?
They’re two fire-performers who do circus acts – swallowing fire and fleshing, which is putting fire on their skin.
So, besides the fire classes, what truly makes you different from other coworking spaces around town?
I liken it to working for Google without working for a giant corporation. People have to come down and see it to believe it. Everybody has their own thing going. One person filled their space with stuffed animals. There’s a beer-brewing assembly plant. One guy runs a high-end home furnishing operation. It’s this very organized, professional-looking space next to someone building robots on the fly. Everyone brings their own personality into the space and makes the studio into their own.
But we’re not an isolated case. This style of manufacturing and hacker spaces, they’re a bit of a revolution across the country. We advised Marty Walsh as he opened Headquarters Boston. Then there’s Fringe in Somerville and 3rd Ward in NYC. They all have some subset of space for studios and shared manufacturing equipment. There’s an apparent coworking theme in regards to actually making something and not just having a shared office space. It’s crazy how largely coordinated the movement is – we’re all looking at each other for models.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve with Artisan’s Asylum?
Right now I’m focused on solidifying membership and organizing the shop. I want to make sure that the infrastructure is fully in place. Once we’re solidly paying the bills and making money, I want to explore grants to the community like design and engineering programs.
I went to engineering school on a scholarship, but it would’ve cost me over $100,000 if I didn’t have that scholarship. I want to teach design engineering at one percent of the price for the community, and make it something that’s widespread and accessible, not just something that you have to go to school for.