Once a month, we invite local makers to chat about how they turned their creative practice into a business and to share current projects they are working on. We glaldy welcome guest participation with questions to the presenters, and after the talk the floor opens to any attendee to discuss their own works in progress.

Work In Progress is a collaboration between Fellow Magazine and the MCA Shop. Join us June 21st at 7:00 PM on the rooftop café at MCA Denver for our first gathering of the summer (sidenote: come early for happy hour and museum hangs at 5:00 PM)! 

This month's featured WIP presentation is with The Made Shop: a family owned design company located in Denver and Los Angeles that makes spaces, objects, films, and graphic designs of all kinds for all kinds of people. They have a special expertise in making things that they don’t know how to make (yet).

We spoke with Marke Johnson of The Made Shop to get know him and the company more ahead of next week's inaugural WIP event: 

Please describe your WIP - its origins, and what you most hope to accomplish with your completed work.

Our biggest and most exciting work-in-progress right now is designing and building a new studio and house for ourselves. We’re a family design studio, founded by me and my wife, Kimberly, about 10 years ago, and it’s always been a priority to have our home and work blended together 

So the main impetus for this new studio design/build project is that we have literally outgrown the small garage behind our family home that we’ve been working out of for the past five years. It’s a two-car garage, which more or less works out to a four-and-a-half-designers garage. Which is (unfortunately and also, fortunately) not really enough room for us anymore. Last year we happened across a great big mixed-use lot for sale in our neighborhood right on 32nd Avenue that we just couldn’t pass up, so we hatched a harebrained plan to buy it and have spent the past year or so designing a new house for our family and a new studio for The Made Shop.



What have you learned through your progress? And how has the original vision evolved?

Well, I was actually originally trained as an architect in both undergrad and grad school, but never actually got around to getting licensed or interning or any of that important stuff. I got sidetracked by a surprising love of graphic design which I discovered during grad school and that was the start of The Made Shop and the end of my architecture career. So needless to say this design/build project has been a huge learning process for me personally I’ve had to brush off all my old architecture thinking and design skills.

One big, if obvious, thing I learned was how theoretical my architectural education was, and how practical you need to get when the rubber meets the road (‘rubber’ being my beautiful vision, and ‘road’ being Colorado Building Code and City Reviewers). They’re apparently not that interested in my in-depth knowledge of obscure French Marxist theorists of post-modernity as it applies to the built environment during late-stage capitalism. They seem to care a lot more about where the rainwater is going to discharge in relation to the lot lines. Thankfully, Kim is more than capable of doing just about anything, and she’s shepherded and project managed the entire process with surprising grace and resourcefulness.

Sometimes the process is a struggle—what are those challenges for you? And what motivates you to work through them?

This process has been a struggle. Like, a really big struggle. The process is always a struggle, and I usually really respect how generative that sort of friction can be in the creative process. We’ve actually given various lectures and talks at Adobe Max and SXSW recently all about how wonderful the “creative friction” of struggle and constraints and the working-outside-your-comfort zone can be.

Well, I’ve gotta say we’re starting to rethink all those romantic ideas about the value of struggle these days… hah! I don’t think we really knew what struggle truly was until this project.

But actually, I’ve got to admit, we’re still believers in the value of constraints and frustration despite all that. Each time we’ve gotten some heartbreaking new hurdle thrown at us (e.g. major zoning changes from the City reviewers, new info from our structural engineer, discovering big mistakes in my layout, etc.) we’ve gone through a similar and now quite familiar pattern: 1) get really disappointed, 2) get really angry, 3) consider giving it all up, 4) resignedly accept the inevitable, 5) redesign, 6) realize, wow, the project got a lot better, 7) sheepishly consider writing thank-you notes to the Denver City Bureaucratic apparatus for their unwitting assistance.

Describe your work/life balance? What does it mean for your WIP and what works for you to accomplish it all? 

It’s actually normally quite healthy, I think. As I mentioned, we decided early on that a fundamental goal of our lives was to seamlessly blend our work and home lives, our work family and home family, and our physical workshop and house. The husband-and-wife designers Charles and Ray Eames have always been big inspirations in this area, and I think that decision has paid off in creating a pretty healthy balance (normally, anyway). We basically work 9-to-5 during the week and as a rule, don’t work weekends unless absolutely necessary. You have to breathe — you can’t continuously exhale if you never stop to inhale. I really believe good design ideas come from living a good life and cultivating interests, friendships, family, and everything else outside of work with the same amount of attention and priority we give to work.

And setting these fairly strict limits and expectations on work-time has forced our whole studio to buckle down and work smarter and more efficiently during the expected work time; we’ve tried to instill a culture where we don’t respect “heroics” — there’s no applause for staying late or working all weekend. We’re much more impressed with ourselves and our designers when we can create something brilliant and beautiful, present it to our clients, and then leave at 5:30.

All that said — this year has been a ridiculous anomaly on this front, and we’ve been burning the candles at both ends for awhile now. The Made Shop design work still happens during the week's workdays, but most evenings and weekends have been devoted to designing the new studio and house. It feels fine and healthy to do that for a specific season and reason, but I don’t understand how people work that way as an unsustainable habit. I couldn’t do it anyway.

Who or what has inspired you? And what can you share that might inspire and encourage someone else just beginning?

I mentioned Charles and Ray Eames above — they have always been inspirations for us, and not just for their work-life style. They just seemed to approach design as a big experiment without clear borders on their work or play. If they were interested in and curious about something, they just did it — whether it was graphic design, furniture design, experimental government-funded art films, architecture, wallpaper, whatever. Anything seemed possible there because they were so curious; and—more importantly—they were confident that that curiosity was valuable to other people.

The critic Richard Saul Wurman had this great description about how the Eames worked that continues to inspire us. He said:

“(If) you sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. [Eames] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject, and the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.”

I’ve always loved that thought because I think traditionally we’re taught the opposite: that before you are able to start your ‘valuable’ work, you have to become an expert. Like, of course, we all start as children and then students and we’re all in a place of ignorance. We believe that we then learn and learn and practice and learn, go to high school, go to college, intern, etc., and then eventually we’ve graduated from our state of ignorance and finally have become experts and that’s when our “work” finally starts.

Now obviously all that education and practice and expertise is extremely valuable. But I think we forget how valuable ignorance and curiosity is. If all we sell our clients is our “expertise”, then at some point aren’t we just selling them things we’ve done well before, just selling cliches and efficient solutions over and over? Which seems like a very “limited repertoire.” I think we owe our clients our ignorance and curiosity and exploration as much as our expertise. And that idea keeps inspiring us and keeps us (and our clients) continuously on our toes.

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