It’s 4 am, and I’m covertly seated on a cold, marble floor. Fueled by an unhealthy mix of stress and adrenaline, I use what little energy I have to sand my furniture project long after the wood shop has closed. With one dip of the power sander, I nick my knee — nothing ghastly, but it’s enough to leave a scar — and as I sit there stunned, all I can do is laugh (probably the sleep deprivation kicking in). Is this my life?
At the time, it
was my life. The project was truly the bane of my college architecture program. It was meant to be a [cruel] lesson in the realities of design: just because you can draw something, doesn’t mean it’s buildable (or that you should expect someone else to build it). When it came to drawing, or computer modeling, I could understand the “throw them into the deep end” approach, but when it came to power tools with the potential to seriously maim, I would have hoped for a gentler approach. That experience turned me off the trade of woodworking, made me feel inferior and unwelcome, and it did little to instill longterm skills.
Consequently, when I hear about workshop programs that embrace and nurture insecurities and work to fight gender stereotypes, I am all high fives and fist bumps. So I’m raising my rally cry for
Sarah Marriage and WOO, A Workshop of Our Own. Unlike me, Sarah’s architecture school experience inspired her interest in designing and building, which led to woodworking school, which led to the woodworking marketplace. It was in this professional space where Sarah felt a sharp decline in females and, consequently, an intense focus on her gender when discussing her work. These experiences laid the groundwork for WOO.
A Workshop of Our Own (WOO, for short), based in Baltimore, MD is a supportive wood shop and educational space run by and for women and non-binary craftspeople. “I spend a lot of my time these days talking to people about ‘Why WOO?,’ Sarah says. “There is a portion of the population, of all genders, that think a separate space is a step backward, but I try to explain that the project isn’t about the
absence of men; it’s about the presence of women and gender non-conforming people. And the powerful ripple effect that can have in our larger community.”
Sarah is running
a fundraiser to buy the building that houses her workshop, so you can help WOO secure this space, and maybe prevent others from power-sanding their knees in the wee hours of the morning. Learn more about Sarah and WOO’s mission below. — Quelcy
Photography by Sarah Marriage, Toby Marriage, Jess Schreibstein and Allison Crowley.
Image Above: Sarah Marriage (center), the founder of WOO, and a group of volunteers.
Design*Sponge: How did you get your start in woodworking?
Sarah Marriage, Founder of WOO: “I came to woodworking through architecture. I was an undergraduate studying architecture at Princeton, and I was concerned about all of the distance between the designer and the designed. I was always very concerned about how to make sure that fair and honest treatment was afforded to everyone involved in the process of making a thing. And architecture seemed so big with so many people involved. Then I read the essay ‘Architectural Projection,’ by Robin Evans, in which he writes something like ‘Architects don’t make buildings; they make drawings of buildings.’ That’s an idea that stuck in my brain and led to a number of outcomes, 1) when I did work as a drafter in my twenties, I had great respect for the art form of architectural drawing, and 2) it made me realize that I wanted to work in a way that allowed me to both conceive the design and execute its manufacture. That led me to furniture. And furniture led me to woodworking. I became determined to go to a woodworking school that would provide a deep dive into that world. The College of the Redwoods (now The Krenov School) was that entry point for me.”
What inspired you to create WOO?
Sarah: “WOO was born out of the day-to-day feeling of not belonging. When I was in architecture school, we had a good mix [of males and females]. Even working in the male-dominated field of structural engineering, women made up the majority of the firm where I worked. In my first year of woodworking school, we had 23 students, only four of whom were not cisgender men. But in that context, because of the place, because the program is run by a badass woman, and because of the strength, even in small numbers, I didn’t feel a particular need for a place like WOO. But in the marketplace, in the professional world of furniture making and manufacturing, the presence of women sharply declines. I routinely found myself in situations where I was the only woman in the room.”
How did the idea for WOO begin to take shape?
Sarah: “I had women and nonbinary friends in the field, spread across the world, that I could talk to about the daily grind of not being expected to know the things you know, of being a woman woodworker as opposed to being a woodworker, full stop. Mostly, I remember saying that I wished the press about my work would stop focusing on my gender, and just focus on my work. (Ironically, I decided to just go ahead and push my entire career into talking about being a woman in my field.)
The first mention of an all-women shop came from my friend Jess Osserman’s partner, Christi Byrd. A wistful thought of, ‘you guys should just set up a powerful, all-women shop.’ And that idea stuck in my brain for a few years.”
Image above: The very first machine arrives at WOO.
Sarah: “WOO comes from A Workshop of Our Own, which is a direct homage to Virginia Woolf. We have a quote from her essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ on the back of our front door: ‘For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.’ We want to cultivate a space where new masterpieces can be made from a different experience of the mass behind the single voice.”
In 2015, Sarah earned the John D. Mineck Furniture Fellowship through the Society of Arts of Crafts, a $25,000 award, to launch a Workshop of Our Own. A year later, she secured the lease on the space you see here, and began to build the woodshop, but in 2017, the landlords decided to sell the building. Sarah approached the landlords about buying the building if they could give her time to
crowd fund, and miraculously, they agreed.
The East wall of WOO’s building features a mural by
NETHER called “Guardians of Baltimore.”
Sarah explains, “Owning our building would be a huge step toward ensuring a long future of providing a comfortable and empowering space for women and nonbinary woodworkers.”
WOO’s goal is to raise $100,000 for the purchase of the building. Anything above that dollar amount will be used to upgrade WOO’s dust-collection system and other machine needs. For $10, each donor’s name will be added to the WOO wall of support.
What are some of the challenges new and established furniture makers face in the industry?
Sarah: “One of the biggest challenges is educating the public about how things are made and trying to build an understanding of value. One of my favorite quotes from James Krenov, who sort of founded the school where I studied woodworking, is , ‘And this is why, when we see a fine piece of cabinet-making, we should look closely, and think about what it means, and remember that it is not just pieces of wood put neatly together, but a measurable part of an honest craftsman’s life.’ Though, maybe I would change that to ‘ craftsperson’s’.”
What is the story of WOO’s logo?
Sarah: “Our logo comes from a poster designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville in the early 1970s, for a conference on women in design at the Los Angeles-based Woman’s Building, which she co-founded with Judy Chicago and Arlene Raven. Sheila teaches in the graphic design school at Yale University, and I drove up to New Haven one day last year and asked her permission to use her concept, the eyebolt and nut as the woman symbol, in our logo.”
Why is it so important to create a separate space for women and nonbinary craftspeople?
Sarah: “Although from the outside it looks as though WOO is only about gender, inside the space, instead of always being reminded of gender and feeling classified as a ‘woman woodworker,’ you can just be a woodworker and get on with your work and collaborations. For new students in the field, you can build the skills, confidence, and support structures that will help you in the larger professional world.”
Supporters who donate $100 to WOO’s
Indiegogo campaign will receive this custom WOO cutting board as a thank you. Lemon blueberry scones not included.
Woodworkers at WOO made this table as a trade for
Mozell, the company that made the video for WOO’s Indiegogo campaign. Incentives for donating include class credits. The class structure at WOO is short workshops, and all the instructors are female or non-binary. Sarah explains, “ Our programming is focused on offering classes and events to introduce people to the space so that they can begin to see themselves here, using the space for their own projects.”
What advice do you have for readers who want to start a similar program in their cities?
Sarah: “Contact us! We are more than happy to share what we’ve learned and help other programs grow. And also, just go for it! Organize, ask for help, and create the space you want.”