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Benchspace: A Made in Cork Revolution
One of Ireland's most ambitious makerspaces hopes to spearhead a crafter's revolution in the second city.
In a small white-walled space not much bigger than a utility room, on the site of the old Ford car factory in Cork’s Marina Commercial Park, two crafters sit opposite each other, shoulders hunched and heads bowed as they studiously go about hammering, forming and shaping their creations.
Just beyond the jewellers, in a much bigger space that once housed the industrial operation that turned out Ford tractors, Escorts and Cortinas before the American auto giant pulled out of Cork in the mid ‘80s, instrument-maker Brian Leech and furniture-maker Cian O'Driscoll, work at separate ends of two wooden parklets made from Siberian Larch. Once ready, the benches will be shipped out to a street in the city, making it more comfortable, liveable and communal.
The parklets could well be what Benchspace is best known for in the public eye. Designed by Siobhan Keogh, the first one - the People’s Parklet - was built by a team led by Rory Drinan, a furniture designer, and installed on Douglas Street in the summer of 2019.
However, it was more of a happy coincidence that as Benchspace was finding its feet a few forward-looking organisations including Douglas Street Business Association, Cork Flower Studios and local public bodies were working together to bring back at least some public seating, which like many other basic public utilities has suffered though years of underfunding and neglect.
And while projects such as the parklets, or the bright yellow hearts that enlivened Red Abbey Square as part of A City + A Garden for Cork’s recent Midsummer festival, help make Benchspace more visible in Cork, it’s the exceedingly simple idea that providing a space for creators that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and that comes with equipment, is the one which is making Benchspace arguably one of the most revolutionary workplaces in the city.
Fixing a flaw
Makerspaces are a key part of the creative and cultural makeup of cities from Eindhoven to Portland, and while makers in Ireland have often banded together to form informal guilds like Cork Craft and Design, Benchspace is more expansive. It’s also currently the only such makerspace in Ireland.
Its existence aims to fill some vital gaps as Fergus Somers, a former computer programmer turned furniture maker and teacher at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, and one of the founders of Benchspace, tells me over the phone.
For a long time, Fergus and his colleagues could see a major flaw in the process whereby crafters learned a trade at a third level college and came out the other end with skills, but all too often their ambition and talent was stifled by the lack of working space. In college, students had access to mentors and equipment, but as soon as they graduated, that environment was gone, Fergus explains.
Alongside Fergus, Seán Breen, a former colleague now teaching at Letterfrack, was instrumental in setting up Benchspace. Before moving to Cork, Seán had lived in Australia where he had the use of a cabinet-maker’s workshop. In the evenings the owner allowed crafters to come in and run classes.
“At the same time, I had been toying with the idea of maker space. We had tried a few different ideas to support people coming out of our courses. What we’d seen a lot is talented people come through our course but they could never make a go of it because as soon as they walked out the door, everything, all the equipment and advice and support and having friends around them to talk things though, all that was gone, and inevitably they ended up going back to where they were,” Fergus says.
As Fergus recounts, quite a few makers return to college in their twenties and thirties; they’ve been working or been to college and figured out what they want to do, and backtracked to start a different career, one they’ve put a lot of time, thought and money into.
“They really were serious about trying to make a living from a passion, so it was really heart wrenching to watch them not make a go of it,” Fergus says.
Seán started the ball rolling when he talked Fergus into renting a small space down in the Marina Commercial Park and thus an idea became a reality.
In marketing speak, Benchspace had an organic beginning: Seán and Fergus agreed “to give it a go” they put a call out for volunteers to come help clean out the space and paint it, and they did some frundraising over the summer of 2017.
Quite quickly it “hit a nerve,” Fergus says.
“This idea, that let’s co-operatively set up a workshop that lots of people can use and learn in.”
To help support the start-up costs, and especially to get funding to buy equipment, Seán started giving night courses. Within a year they were doing four night courses. Those courses, as well as being a source of funding, helped build a community and showcase Benchspace.
The range of machinery Benchspace offers includes planers, band and panel saws, drills, sanders but also high spec machines such as laser cutters and panel saws that cost thousands of euros and require space. And some.
While Benchspace is new to Cork, the idea of makerspaces isn’t. As Fergus says, they were aware of similar organisations in other cities and they talked with organisers from other makerspaces, such as Building BloQs in London, while setting up.
One of the big inspirations for Fergus was the city of Eindhoven in The Netherlands, a city with a similar industrial past to Cork’s.
The story of Eindhoven is connected to Philips, Fergus says. The city’s development and growth was inextricably tied to the electronics powerhouse, which had its headquarters for many years in the Dutch city.
Philips employed nearly 100,000 workers, with a huge proportion of them working in Eindhoven, but when the company hit the wall in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it shed thousands of jobs. While nowhere near as big, having Ford manufacture in Cork was a huge source of pride as well as being an important source of employment: in its heyday Ford employed around 7,000 workers in its Marina plants.
“They left all this empty manufacturing space,” Fergus says of Philips when they retreated, not unlike what played out in the Marina when Ford pulled the plug on its Cork base.
In Eindhoven, “they put their heads together and came up with the idea to push their design education, and when design graduates were coming out of their courses they made that space and very cheaply and easily available,” he says.
Eindhoven is now host to Dutch Design Week (DDW), which started in 1998. It pulls in over 300,000 visitors and 12,000 exhibitors annually.
Fergus has been several times to DDW and explains how the Dutch have recycled spaces to boost both the economy and the prospects of its citizens.
“You can walk into a building that was a cinema and it’s split into six or seven different studios, or you can walk into what was a manufacturing plant, they’ve just opened up the thing and given people a space on the ground.”
A Happy Space
Currently Benchspace is split between two spaces, their smaller, original workshop, where they hold night-classes and workshops, and a bigger space nearby in the commercial park.
As operations manager Maeve Murphy tells me, ideally they’d like to combine the two into one big space. The National Sculpture Factory on Albert Road comes to mind.
When jeweller Alex Thiel-Dudu started at Benchspace in the summer of 2020, she worked out of a space in the original workshop, but moved across to the larger workshop where she works directly across from Annemaire Rheinhold.
Being away from the noise of the machines and wood dust is better, Alex says.
For crafters such as Alex and Annemarie the benefits of Benchspace are obvious: they have independence, but they also have a community of likeminded creators, and they have access to equipment.
Annemarie is currently working on a commission for the National Museum of Ireland at Collin’s Barracks in Dublin from her space in Benchspace.
The idea centres on a garden, and fuses wood and silver: beautiful spoons shaped like sprouts formed from metal, which will be placed into little wooden holders made of walnut. It’s part of the Museum’s collection to commemorate the tragedy wrought from Covid-19, but also to celebrate how humanity is slowly coming out the other side of the pandemic.
For the wooden displays Annemarie had done some drawings, but not being a woodworker, she had questions. One of the defining aspects of makerspaces is the community of creators gathered under one roof; it’s a shared space where there is a vast amount of knowledge, experience and ideas.
So Annemarie picked up her drawings and brought them to one of the woodworkers to ask if he could help.
“Even if I have questions or I want to make something you can just go next door to James McDonald (a furniture maker) or see what they are thinking or if they have any advice,” Annemarie says. “It’s a friendly space.”
Annemarie was the first jeweller to move into Benchspace prior to the pandemic; she was followed by Alex, who first moved to Cork back in 2008.
As well as creating their own work, disseminating their skills and knowledge is central to the philosophy behind makerspaces. Essentially it’s the idea that creators work both in their own studio spaces and also within an extended community.
Through nightclasses and weekend courses, skills are passed along. Alex says down the line she might run a class teaching crafters to make their own wedding ring.
“It’s definitely work for patient people,” Alex says, laughing. “Sometimes I laugh that I have more patience for metal than for people.”
To get anywhere close to the wedding rings Alex makes, I think I’d need to sign on for a lifelong course.
While the plight of renters and potential homeowners is rarely out of the spotlight in Ireland, as successive governments repeatedly fail to provide affordable accommodation, self-employed crafters such as Annemarie, Alex and their colleagues at Benchspace are often overlooked.
The pandemic has revealed that a lot of workers can work from home, and that many want to continue on this way, but unless you have space and equipment, a furniture-maker simply can not. They are relying on the private market to find space.
It’s this combination of high rents and high start-up costs which drive crafters away even before they’ve had the chance to see where the chips might fall.
“The rents, even the commercial rents in Cork city are just…” Alex says, making a gesture to the ceiling. As she explains, she is essentially a one woman business “so you have to deal with everything, and you have this gigantic rent.”
“It means you just can’t make ends meet, pretty much. So Benchspace really gave me a huge opportunity to dive into self-employment full-time: to do my work and spread my wings.”
At Benchspace the rents for full-time makers such as Alex and Annemarie range from €250-€350 which gives them access seven days a week, as well as use of the full range of equipment.
For Kevin Harrington, a harp-maker from Bishopstown who is moving his young family and business back to Cork this summer from Roundwood in Co. Wicklow, the search for a studio in the city proved frustrating and ultimately impossible.
“What maddens me is wandering around town looking at the vast amount of potential workshop space in the city centre and knowing that it would never be used for that. I'm talking about those derelict buildings,” Kevin says.
“Chances are they're owned by a developer that is just sitting on them waiting for for right time to knock it and build an office block or luxury apartments. All of which drives up the stock in the area and drives out young craftspeople and artists.”
Kevin’s solution is to set up a studio in his garden, but, as he says, “not everyone is in a position to do this. Especially if you're renting, which most young people trying to get established would likely be.”
One of the substantial tasks facing Benchspace is ironically enough finding more space. Simply put, Benchspace needs more space in order to build on its ambitions to give more space to makers and fulfill its goal of making it open to the community, operations manager Maeve Murphy says.
As Fergus Somers says, it’s not an ideal time to be looking for accommodation, and not every space would suit Benchspace’s requirements. They also want to stay in the city and close to the colleges where graduates are learning their trade.
It’s trying to find the balance and the space to fit all this under one roof which is proving tricky and it’s not for the want of scouring the city. The board at Benchspace has been in talks with property owners, but they’re very much still in the hunt.
“I actually did a mind map on my wall last night and everything really pivots on it,” Maeve says, referring to the hunt for a new location.
Earlier this year an anonymous donor put up €200,000 of their own money to support community art projects in Cork. One of the recipients was Benchspace.
With that funding, Benchspace is going to start the “Rising Sparks Programme” a three-year programme aimed giving 200 participants from disadvantaged communities a chance to learn about craft making, but also the structure and mentoring to help those who want to “move into long term artistic and creative livelihoods.”
This is all happening alongside Benchspace’s core goal of setting up more space for jewellers, furniture makers, textile artists so they too can make a livelihood in Cork.
A 2010 report for The Craft Council of Ireland estimated that there were less than 6,000 people working in the craft sector across Ireland. This includes pottery, glass, jewellery, textiles and furniture and altogether they contributed €500 million to the Irish economy.
The same report identified potential for growth, but one of its key findings is one that teachers such as Fergus Sommers and Seán Breen and any student who has been through the third level system will surely identify with:
The number of students graduating from Post Leaving Certificate, Institute of Technology or other third level colleges in craft-related subjects represents an important resource for the sector. Unless opportunities are created for some of these students it would represent a potential waste of the investment in these skills.
Key to unlocking Cork’s potential is making a space for artists and crafters. To a large extent cities across Ireland, at least on Main Street, are being homogenised. Art and culture is a means to disrupt that banality and to draw people in.
The city parklets, more of which are in the pipeline, are a starting point, even if their future depends on the explicit agreement that they will be maintained by private businesses. The parklets are also representative of what can be made in Cork, if the conditions are right.
Most of all though, Benchspace offers a space for crafters with talent and skills to make a living, people such as Rory Drinan, a furniture maker who joined Benchspace after graduating college and Sara Leslie, a multidisciplinary artist from Bantry and Yokohama who has a year-long residency at Benchspace, giving her the time, space and freedom to explore her ideas and talent.
“I hope Benchspace is the first of many,” says Sara. “I’m delighted to have gotten the opportunity to become part of it, to meet the other makers and to be able to get up in the morning and work with my hands.”
Despite Cork’s illustrious history in crafts as diverse as silversmithing, lacemaking and stonecarving, the city’s name is not synonymous with design or craft-making to the same extent that other European cities like Kilkenny or Eindhoven clearly are. That’s not to deflect from the talented crafters who are succeeding, often in spite of the hurdles they face: the talent is here in Cork, but it’s giving it the space to shine which is the important next step.
Alex Thiel-Didu and Annemarie Rheinhold are proof that if you make space, crafters will come to Cork and they will create art and a livelihood. This is how cities stand out, not through slogans or reinventing the wheel, but by providing spaces for art and play and work.
“That idea where creative graduates could see a future for themselves or a path for themselves in Cork, that’s what Benchspace is about,” Fergus says.
Edit: Subhead changed at 10:16 p.m. on July 1 to reflect that Benchspace was not the first makerspace in Ireland.
Benchspace runs a series of classes and workshops throughout the year which are open to the public. They’re also on the hunt for a new city-based location and can be contacted via their website.