The words “Chicago Radio Laboratory Est. 1921” are inscribed in black and gold letters on a glass window above the red entryway door. Inside there is an exhibit area with metal sculptures on display. In the next room loud shrieks of fabricated metal, hums of machinery and sparks of a soldering torch can be observed in the metal workshop.
Tucked away away on a quiet street in
Rogers Park lies a 10,500 square foot industrial space facility.
Tucked away away on a quiet street in
It’s a fascinating space with work tables, industrial machines, pegboard tool wall, scrap metal, a silver humpback whale sculpture resting on a shelf and lingering metal sculptures throughout. It’s a metalworker’s paradise! Next to the workshop is a tiny room connected at the back that is simply known as the “Grinding Room.” We see a contemporary metal table being worked on by a member right before our eyes.
What was once the space of the Chicago Radio Laboratory has since seen a modern transformation. It has been repurposed, but the mentality is still the same. All of its original masonry construction is intact and bears the passage of time, but now it is a new destination for creatives looking to learn metalwork, woodwork, casting and technology.
CUSP Magazine sat down with founder and president of the Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center Matthew Runfola to discuss startup life, 3-D modeling and upcoming projects.
Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Matthew Runfola
CUSP Magazine: In what ways does residing in Rogers Park bring out the creative nature of what CIADC stands for?
Matthew Runfola: There are a lot of creatives in Rogers Park. I have to believe this because of the lake and the ability to live in close proximity to it. The problem that Rogers Park always has is a lot of people work here, but not everyone has the ability to actually show or do their art practice here. So even though Rogers Park houses a lot of artists, it’s not necessarily the strongest art-making neighborhood. Being a resident here since 2001 and being a creative, it was really exciting for me to be able to bring my personal work to the community. I felt more ingrained into the community, and I was able to open up the ability for creatives to do more of their art practice within this community.
CM: You have an engineering background, you’re a metal sculptor and studio owner, and you’ve authored a book. How did you come up with the concept for CIADC, and what makes it unique?
MR: I feel like everything I do is just an evolution of things that I have done. It all fits together. The short history is that I ran a metal sculpture department for 14 years at Evanston Art Center. When they purchased a new building to operate out of in Evanston, the building was a commercial property, not an industrial property. It wasn’t feasible to keep doing the metal and sculpture program anymore. So at that point, I started looking around for the Evanston Art Center. I was looking for an auxiliary facility to be able to continue running that program, but at the same time I thought it would be great to expand on the material and offerings, to expand into woodwork, casting and a technology program. … Being someone with their own creative practice that works primarily in metal, it was very difficult for me to find an industrial space that could accommodate that art practice. I often times operate under the assumption that if there’s something I would like better for myself, then it is probably true for other people as well. … I know that there isn’t great resource facilities for people throughout the Chicagoland area to work with these materials. So to have the facility that offers multiple materials for people to work in, I think it’s more real-world making.
CM: What types of classes or services do you offer?
MR: We house four departments: fabricated metalworking, woodworking, casting and technology. Within each of those departments, the general public is able to enroll in five or 10 week classes or one day workshops, whatever fits their interest and their skill level. You can learn new skill sets and techniques to be able to work with these materials and processes. Each department allows people who are already familiar and comfortable with their materials to be able to pay to use our facility, industrial space or use our shop tools. In the metal working shop, it’s all about cutting metal apart, bending, shaping and manipulating it, and then joining metal back together to assemble and create the object. In the woodworking department, it’s cutting wood, shaping, joining and finishing wood as well. For the casting department, we are all about creating a mold of an object and pouring a different material into that mold to replicate that object. We are able to cast items in resin, foam and concrete, which are all cold cast processes. The big allure of our department is also metal casting. We are able to cast objects in aluminum as well as bronze with different mold making types, sand casting molds and lost-wax casting. Our technology department … is about learning and utilizing 3-D computer modeling. We teach classes with powerful software that enables people to model an object on the computer. It’s about … being able to output that object to a computer numeric control (CNC) machine. CNC machines are output devices that read a computer file and really help you manufacture that object in an automated way. A 3-D printer is an example of a CNC machine. … In our case, it prints out in a plastic material. That same 3-D model can be outputted to computer numeric mills or routers, not just for mass production, but even for creative types.
CM: What kinds of projects and tools can we expect to see in a typical class?
MR: We would walk them through a couple assigned projects to give them an overview. First would be a geometric object, which is an exercise in measuring and marking. … You would construct an object that we call a cube or hollow construction. … In the metalworking shop, you would learn welding, how to shear metal into pieces and how to set metal up prior to welding. … We are not certifying people for the Alaskan Pipeline of welding, but for creative welding. You would understand what is the appropriate way to weld your metal. … The next project would be learning how to manipulate lengths of metal. We are doing more of an organic project that simulates a vine or a tree branch. … They’ll be able to create curves that represent a flowing visual, emotion, feeling or even growth within nature. It takes metal out of context in that way, two very different projects to expose people to but common ways to work the material. As a creative organization, we start teaching people to look at their work critically for function and aesthetic and decide if something trumps the other. … A weld functionally holds metal together, but visually can add attractive qualities to your object or not. … Once they get a sense of what they can do with metal, we go to individual and independent projects from there.
Matthew – “I would say if you even have an inkling or interest and don’t know what the process entails, act on it. Our job with CIADC is to break down all of the barriers, to make it easy and safe for you to learn. Our job is to make you feel empowered by working a certain material and realizing you can make cool objects with that material.”
CM: Do you see a wide range of people getting involved and taking classes?
MR: We try to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, and that’s exactly what we are getting in here. Right now our programming is for people age 16 and older. We have everyone from 16-year-olds and up into their 80s. In age standpoint, we are all over the place. From a skills standpoint, we have people that are walking in with a faint interest but have no idea what they are getting themselves into, and then there are people who are returning students. We also have people that are professional artists and craftspeople that see us as valuable resource with access to all the space and tools. Everyone enjoys the community atmosphere. … Gender is 50/50. Working with these materials, for sure the industry is male dominated, but we feel like the environment is gender neutral. Again, we want to break down the barriers in our facility.
CM: Where do you get your materials and tools from?
MR: We are a non-profit. We get materials and tools donated to us. The important thing is when it comes to donated tools, we accept them if we feel they are appropriate for our facility and safe. … With the startup, we went out to local and regional suppliers, vendors and manufacturers. We approached them as a non-profit who had an idea of filling a need in the Chicagoland area. Our mission is to provide education, community and access to 3-D object makers. We said, “Do you see value in having your brand of equipment in our facility with the uniqueness of what we are doing?” We were able to get great donations and industry support on the front end with equipment and supplies in all of our departments, primarily Baileigh Industrial based out of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. They are a provider of both metalwork and woodworking equipment. Welding Industrial Supply Company (WISCO) and Miller Electric from Appleton, Wisconsin teamed up to donate equipment and supplies. … We’ve also had tremendous financial support from the community and alderman. … All of the aldermen from each of our neighboring wards have been extremely supportive of what we are doing, because they see it as something that can only benefit the local community. It’s a creative resource for the people in Rogers Park, which is typically an underserved neighborhood from a creative standpoint.
CM: What’s the largest or strangest experiment you have seen occur at the facility?
MR:I would say that one of our members and longtime supporters, Janet Austin, a professional sculptor. She built a twelve foot tall outdoor sculpture, which she was commissioned for by the Evanston Ecology Center. … That’s the largest object so far that people have made. I think being able to create something on a larger scale is a nice symbol of the expansion that we have grown into here. It was a big process, but the construction, engineering and design evolved within our space and walls was exciting not only for me, but for everyone in all of the other departments as well. It really was symbolic for the organization as a whole.
CM: What do you feel makes Chicago an ideal place to learn and build your craft for metalwork, woodwork, casting and tech?
MR: Chicago was a manufacturing hub. I think the parallels for us were getting people involved with industrial processes of making objects, and it fits right in line with who Chicago is as a manufacturing powerhouse. Some of that has diminished over the years, but I think what Chicago has lost is the larger companies, and what is coming in behind them are the smaller startups. These smaller companies still see Chicago as a central place to get things created. We have the infrastructure, both transportation-wise and facility-wise, to still be able to manufacture. I feel like it’s extremely easy for people to make things in Chicago with industrial materials. It fits into the very fiber of what this city is.
CM: What is your philosophy for CIADC, and what is the heart of what you are trying to accomplish?
MR: We want CIADC to be a resource facility for people that make objects in these industrial materials. We want people to learn to work with their hands and all the benefits that come with that. I personally believe this, because it has happened to me as an individual. Working your hands, creating objects using materials and working with power tools is important. It isn’t just learning a vocational skill. It’s also learning problem solving skills, critical thinking, creativity and design, things that are transferable into many aspects of someone’s life. That has been true with me and my career path throughout the years. I’ve been able to take what I have learned in a shop setting and apply it to anything. I feel like that’s an important thing, enough to get people to learn and want to join. We are an organization that houses a lot of people that know how to make things, but I also want us to become a known group of people that can help others make things. I see us as an organization that teaches people but also an organization that people can tap into.
CM: What would you say to people that are on the fence of taking a class in any of these mediums?
MR: I would say if you even have an inkling or interest and don’t know what the process entails, act on it. Our job with CIADC is to break down all of the barriers, to make it easy and safe for you to learn. Our job is to make you feel empowered by working a certain material and realizing you can make cool objects with that material. We make it easy and not intimidating for you to delve into this process. We teach you fundamental building blocks of skills, tool use and approaches so that you can gain confidence in by being able to realize the object that you have interest in.
CM: Are there certain things you’d like to see grow within the company?
MR: We’re less than a year old. We feel like we have a great foundation for our organization, but we are not resting on our laurels. One of the goals of our organization for 2016 is to develop a youth program. As much as I feel it’s important for adults to work with their hands and get all of these transferrable skill sets, what also matters is the youth. We’ve already established some initial communication with CPS high schools Senn and Sullivan in the neighborhood. Our other goals are to expand the technology department and include larger CNC machines, that’s where the connection between technology and the actual object making happens. Another thing we’ve talked about is workforce development groups, the organizations who help with retraining of employees. In this day and age, an employee has to be valuable in more than just one very specific thing, so workforce development groups are starting to look at makerspaces as an opportunity to get people into an environment that is learning vocational skills, teaching them to critically think and apply skill sets into a broad context rather than just a narrow window. It would be wonderful to work together with some workforce development groups.
CM: Do you have any events coming up?
MR: On March 16, we are hosting a meeting by the Association for Computational Mathematics. They are a group of computer engineers that are really interested in our technology department and how we are creating technology into real world objects. They are tickled pink to see a facility where people are using their hands to make things. This meeting is open to the public.
CM: Do you know another creative company or have any friends that we should get in touch with? Do you have anything you want to add?
MR: Janet Austin is a great example. She’s someone who has been able to take her ideas, have access to the space and use this in a grand way. She’s gotten commissions in public places, which is a prestigious thing to do. … For me, it really is the community of people that we have that makes our organization exciting. We’ve made things accessible, but it’s the people in here doing a diverse range of work. Seeing them get excited and empowered while making incredible cool objects makes this place exciting.
There is a strong sense of pride, energy and community building that is evoked from meeting with Runfola. As a whole, CIADC offers a well-rounded and creative resource for artistic expression, educational advancement and community bonding that is unique all on its own. Knowledgeable craftspeople and innovative minds combine for an enriching environment.
To learn more information about the Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center or to schedule classes, check out their website. Help support CIADC by making a donation today. Stay connected by liking them on Facebook and following them on Twitter or Instagram. To connect with Janet Austin and see her other work, visit her personal website.