pioneer works

space type: nonprofit, skillshare, gallery | neighborhood: red hook | active since: 2012 | links: website, facebook, twitter, wikipedia

Pioneer Works is huge. It’s around 27,000 square feet with 40-foot ceilings, which is just truly, absolutely enormous. The building dates back all the way to 1866, and for more than a century was home to Pioneer Iron Works, one of the largest machine manufacturers in the country.

Prominent Brooklyn artist Dustin Yellin bough the building in 2010. As he told the New York Times, “My crazy dream is to create a kind of utopian art center.” And Pioneer Works is something pretty close to that dream. The nonprofit has several elements, including a massive exhibition gallery and event space (one of the biggest in the city), classes and workshops, a science lab with a powerful photographic microscope, artist residencies, institutional residencies (currently the Clocktower Gallery), a radio show, and a modern art periodical called Intercourse Magazine.

all photos by Maximus Comissar

The events range from open studios to lectures (“How to Fake Your Own Death” is popular and recurring), from Hackathons to concerts, with musical acts like Spiritualized, Ariel Pink, and Omar Souleyman. And the classes are equally varied—some recent examples include “Physical Storytelling,” “The Alchemy of Light,” “From Tesla to the Transistor,” “Homebrew Kimchi,” “NY Theremin Society Workshop,” and “Lock-Picking and Open-Source Security.”

So get out to Red Hook and learn something! But first read the Q&A with David, Pioneer Works’ Director of Education.

brooklyn spaces: Tell me a bit about the history of this building.
David: Okay! I know this because we had a Red Hook history class here recently. It was built in 1866, then in 1871 it burned down, and it was rebuilt in 1872. It was originally Pioneer Iron Works, one of the biggest iron works in the country. After that it was a tobacco-drying warehouse. Then they were doing something manufacturing until the 1950s; whatever they were making was super heavy, so they had this system to move it all around in here, and rollers set into the floor to roll it out the door. And then since the 1960s it was used to store financial records. When Dustin bought it, there was no heat, no running water, minimal electricity. The windows were all bricked up, the floors were wrecked, the staircases were terrifying. It took about a year of heavy work to get it into shape.

brooklyn spaces: I love that uniquely artist vision of walking into a completely decrepit space and saying, “I can see what this is going to be.” It’s like that quote about sculptors, how they look for the piece within the marble and then let it out.
David: Exactly. Dustin was like, “All right, this building is my next piece of art.”

Dustin Yellin sculpture

brooklyn space: How did you become involved?
David: I was teaching high school and really wanted to quit, so when Dustin presented me the opportunity to start a teaching program here, I thought I’d give it a shot. So we started, and it went really well in the summer, and then it went really well in the fall, and then Hurricane Sandy happened, and it just totally knocked us out. This whole building was like shoulder-deep in water. We tried to keep doing classes even though we had very little power and no heat—I bubbled in the classroom, like in ET, just encased it in plastic curtains, and we put in as many heaters as we could without blowing the circuits, but it was still so, so cold. We didn’t get heat until March, so that’s when we finally started doing classes again. Since then, we’ve just been growing and growing and growing.

brooklyn spaces: How would you classify the different kinds of classes offered here?
David: They’re pretty different, but it’s basically stuff that’s either really new or really old. We do cutting-edge stuff like microcontrollers and 3D printing and upgrading the firmware in your camera; those are for artists, designers, software developers, to demystify the process of new technologies that everyone wants to know how to use. And then we do old stuff, like paper marbling, or wet-plate or tintype photography, which is Civil War era. It’s to a similar aim as the newer stuff: giving artists a new vocabulary and a specialized practice.

brooklyn spaces: Do you come up with an idea for a class and then go out and find a teacher? Or do people bring you ideas?
David: Both. The lock-picking class, which is super popular, came about because I saw a lock-picking tent at Maker Faire—although tracking down someone who picks locks for a living was really hard. Then on the other hand, a woman came by the other day who wants to do a bread-baking class. We were like, “But we have no ovens, we have no flat surfaces, we don’t have anything.” And she was like, “It’s okay, we can make it work. How about we cook the bread on sticks over a fire?” We’ll try basically anything if it seems cool and the teacher seems competent.

brooklyn spaces: There seems to be a strong movement in Brooklyn for these kinds of classes and skillshares, as evidenced by the extreme popularity of places like 3rd Ward and Brooklyn Brainery. Why do you think that is? Do people just want to have more hobbies?
David: I think it’s deeper than that. Demystifying processes is so enabling. There’s a huge movement of open-source hardware and software in the tech world, and I think part of that is because we’re so controlled by the companies that make the technology we use. The fact that you can’t just open an iPhone and replace the battery is a conscious choice on their part. It’s not because oh you might do it wrong; it’s to keep you under their control. The open-source movement puts the power back in the hands of the individuals, and I think people are used to that idea now, so by applying that model to education, we’re unlocking it a bit. And I think it’s going to continue to grow.

brooklyn spaces: With so many choices, do you think they’re beginning to overlap? What makes Pioneer Works’ offerings unique?
David: I mean, maybe there’s some overlap with what 3rd Ward was doing, but we have something that they didn’t have.
brooklyn spaces: Integrity?
David: Oh yeah, well there’s that. But also we’re a nonprofit and they were a for-profit, which makes a huge difference. We’re an arts institution; it’s just a very different kind of space. Plus we have the nicest building. Once people come here once, it’s not hard to get them to come back.

brooklyn spaces: Do you think being in Red Hook has had an influence on how the space has developed?
David: Sure. There’s such a strong community here, and a real neighborhood feel, like I’ve never experienced anywhere else in New York. We’re trying to find ways to use this space as more of a community center. At the end of April we did a twenty-four-hour hackathon that was Red Hook themed. Business owners from the neighborhood gave us challenges, and all the tech people competed to make apps to address those issues. Pizza Moto catered the event. I love those guys—after the flood they came down to Van Brunt Street when nobody had any power and just started cooking pizzas for free, out on the street under the police lights.

brooklyn spaces: What are some of your future goals for the space?
David: We’re building a lot of relationships with terrific groups like Invisible Dog and Generally Assembly and Fractured Atlas. We don’t know what we’re going to do with them yet, but we’re kicking around ideas. We’re also starting to collaborate in a bunch of ways with Brooklyn Museum, which is perfect because they want to be linked to a gallery and we want to be linked to an institution. Obviously we don’t want to be a museum, but the way they’re organized and the integrity they have, I think it’s a really great model for us.


Like this? Read about more skillshares: Brooklyn Brainery, Exapno, Time’s Up, Ger-Nis Culinary Center, Lifelabs, UrbanGlass, 3rd Ward

pickett furniture (pier 41 workshop)

space type: coworking maker space | neighborhood: red hook | active since: 2010 | links: website, facebook, twitter, tumblr

Pickett Furniture is huge. The massive coworking space—in an old import / export warehouse right on the water—is home to a dozen woodworking companies, a couple of industrial designers and prototypers, and the screenprinting company Lunacy Design. In addition to “machine alley,” the vast corridor filled with all manner of industrial saws and giant sanders and other baffling tools, there are individual “bays” for each company, finishing rooms, a full photo studio, and offices. It’s an incredible space.

The whole thing is presided over by Jeremy, owner of Pickett and landlord to all the other small companies. He told us to arrive in the early evening so we could catch the sunset over the water from his window, which was excellent advice. In fact, I kept getting distracted during the interview by all the ships floating in and out of view, as well as the great weird music Jeremy played for me (an eighties record called “Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat“) on the incredible stereo console he built himself.

brooklyn spaces: What’s the craziest thing you’ve built lately?
Jeremy: Probably this stereo console. There’s a company in Chicago called ECP Audio, they build high-end equipment for the audiophile community out of tubes, and I’ve been doing their casework for the last few years. Last summer we started talking about doing one of those old fifties-style retro stereo consoles but with audiophile equipment. We created the tube amp together, the tube phono stage, the speakers, and the digital stage, so you can stream your iTunes from anywhere in the room. I also worked with Planet 10 Hi-Fi on the speaker design. The really great thing about the console is it’s only got a five-watt amp. Modern stereos, they all have are like 5,000 watts of power. The really muddy way to create sound is to give it a lot of power but not pay attention to the circuitry or any of the parts and components, which are usually all solid-state. So we took the Pickett Furniture philosophy of really simple furniture and applied it to the electronics, and we were able to create something that outperforms just about any modern stereo.

brooklyn spaces: What are some other crazy things you’ve built?
Jeremy: There are a lot of things that were hard but don’t look it, like the chair you’re sitting on. It looks like an art project, but it’s incredibly comfortable, which took a lot of trial and error. These stools weren’t hard to build, but the wood is from the Staten Island Underground Railroad, so that’s pretty crazy.
brooklyn spaces: Whoa.
Jeremy: Yeah, a friend of mine has a carriage house in Staten Island, which was a safe house in the Underground Railroad, and these black locust trees in her backyard were part of it too. They had little markings in the bark that indicated “danger,” “safe house,” whatever. The trees fell down in a big storm a few years ago, so I went out there and brought back as much as I could.

brooklyn spaces: Does that kind of thing happen a lot?
Jeremy: We do try to be very conscious of the materials and processes we use, and we like to be able to tell the story of our wood, from where it grew up to where it was harvested and reused. The oak for the coffee table we’re building right now came down from the John Jay Homestead property up in Westchester, and it’s the same story: these 230-year-old trees fell down in a storm. I used to be in the music business, and I toured Japan quite a bit, so getting exposed to shintoism and the Japanese way of life has really shaped my business. We try not to waste. A lot of our furniture is made out of solid, local woods, and everything’s hand-cut and assembled here. There’s a book called The Art of Japanese Joinery that’s like our bible.
brooklyn spaces: Is it okay to share the name of the book? I don’t want to give away your secrets.
Jeremy: Oh, it’s fine, it’s totally unprofitable to do it this way. But we want to make products that will have a really long lifespan, heirloom pieces that will be auctioned at Christie’s or bequeathed in people’s wills. We think that’s one of the best ways to be green, to create products that won’t wind up in a landfill. People in mixed-use neighborhoods usually don’t like manufacturers, they feel like it decreases property values, pollutes the water, the land and air. But I want to be able to make and manufacture our products here, in the neighborhood where I live, and the only way to do that is to be a good steward of the neighborhood. We donate our sawdust to community gardens for mulching, we sponsor a night at Red Hook Flicks film series, we really try to let people know that we value the neighborhood and aren’t a threat. There are a lot of areas, like Gowanus and Greenpoint, that were plagued by industries that didn’t care what they did to the neighborhood. The factories were owned by people who lived somewhere else, and they trashed the neighborhood and then left.

brooklyn spaces: And we’re still cleaning up their messes.
Jeremy: Right. We try to do things carefully, and hopefully that comes through in the furniture, hopefully people who seek out our pieces would rather have a something built by a local craftsman than something made by Ikea robots in a far-off factoryland. My family ancestry is a long line of craftsman, weavers and woodworkers. So there’s a lineage I want to honor.

brooklyn spaces: What are your goals for the future of the space?
Jeremy: I just want this to be a place where small companies can continue to work and manufacture. This is such an expensive city, but by all of us pulling together, we can afford to do it. And it’s really nice having other people in the shop and seeing other projects. It adds a real energy and perpetual motion.

brooklyn spaces: Does being in Red Hook impact your business?
Jeremy: Oh, I love it here. We share this building with Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, which is amazing because the smell always comes in. There’s other great businesses in the neighborhood, like Stumptown Coffee, Baked, Red Hook Lobster Pound. The Dustin Yellin galleries just opened up in an old record storage warehouse. The Red Hook Crit is out here. Often small tours come through; yesterday like fifty people came by with Open House New York, and once in a while Made in Brooklyn brings groups in. There’s very little housing in Red Hook, so you get to know lots of people in the neighborhood. It really feels like a village, and everybody partakes in activities as a village. It’s a fantastic community. Once you find this place, you never want to leave it.

sunset off the pier


Like this? Read about more makers: Twig Terrariums, Ugly Duckling Presse, Metropolis Soap, Gowanus Print Lab, A Wrecked Tangle Press, Breuckelen Distilling, Arch P&D, Bushwick Print Lab