Community of Makers: a Q&A with Idea Fab Labs Co-founder Jordan Layman


A “member-driven creation zone,” Idea Fab Labs is a community and makerspace in the Wrigley Building. With locations in Santa Cruz and Chico, the company, led by co-founders Jordan Layman and Erin Banwell, offers access to high tech tools, design software, classes and workshops, a resident artist program and more.

I spoke with Layman about the inspiration for Idea Fab Labs, what large-scale art actually is, their growing community of makers, and the company’s plans for the future.

Cat Johnson: Hi Jordan. What was the inspiration for Idea Fab Labs

Jordan Layman: My business partner, Eric Banwell, and I are really interested in getting people together. A slightly ulterior motive was to attract people so we could build crews for doing large scale art installations.

He had a laser cutter and I had a 3D printer so we got together and rented a super cheap space up in Chico. We discovered the whole makerspace and hackerspace thing and decided it was what we wanted to do. We thought could be the place where people come to work. Then, when we want to do big projects, we’ll have teams centered around large-scale art fabrication and engineering.

Will you give me an example of what you mean by large-scale art? I’m picturing Burning Man. Is that right?

That’s about right. Burning Man sculptures, but also sculptures for music festivals. Erin is an artist and he got me into it too. We were very centered on creating art, and now it’s sort of changed our whole lives.

Erin is an art coach and we both run tech art incubator and residency programs out of the shop, so we do lots of that. We do everything from membership access to fabrication tools, to educational classes and workshops, to fabrication contracts.

We do everything from custom furniture and stuff for science projects, all the way up to large art sculptures, contract sculptures and stage design. We also do field trips and group tours. The list just keeps going on and on.

You have a lot of tools and offerings at Idea Fab Labs. Which ones are the most popular?

We do have several things, but the main tools that are used regularly by people are our laser cutters. We have two large, powerful laser cutters. They’re really easy to use and they’re kind of like magic, so people really get going on them quickly. You can do so many different things with them. That’s our most used tool that really drives everything around here.

Who are the Idea Fab Labs members? Are they artists, machinists, curious people?

We have all different kinds of people. There are two distinct groups: people who know what they want to do, and people who don’t know what they want to do.

Of the people who know what they want to do, there are definitely artists and craftspeople making jewelry and small products. One guy comes in and makes cardboard laptop cases, which is super interesting and niche. Some people come in and make signs, for everything from a yard sale to all the signs for a restaurant.

Then there are the people who don’t know what they want to do. They’re fun because if you actually come in here, and spend time here, you’ll get inspired very quickly. People see other people do something, get ideas, and realize they can do something in a similar way.

A lot of people come in because they think it’s cool. Then they come hang out and get inspired, and they start doing art or manufacturing, or something else. It’s interesting, there’s definitely a broad array of different kinds of intentions, and outcomes of those intentions. I’m basically an artist because of this place. I wasn’t an artist before.

Tell me about the community aspect of the Labs. How much emphasis do you put on community in the space?

A lot. It’s pretty much the real, actual, special thing. You could come in here and use a tool and leave, and some people do that. Some people are just not as gregarious. They know what they want to do, they come in and do it, then they pack up and leave. Then there are a lot of people who are more casual, they come in and hang out, they show people things.

The secret sauce is the people who come in and contribute. One tangible, beneficial thing is the fact that you come in here, you’re trying to build this thing, and you don’t know everything you need to do it. But there are over 100 members who might have input on that. They might have something they know will solve your problem.

We try to foster the type of community where we try to help each other out. It’s part of the ethos we talk about during orientation. If you see someone who needs help, and you can help them, then help them out.

Now Idea Fab Labs is in Chico and Santa Cruz. Do you plan to grow to other locations?

It’s a lot of work running two spots. Someone actually asked us that question yesterday. I got a message from a city manager who thinks this would be perfect for their town. They have half a million dollars they want to put down for it, but it’s hard to get up and running without a lot of upfront capital.

In Chico, it wasn’t too hard because I have so much social capital. I could just invite people on social media to come down. It’s harder in Santa Cruz, and would be even more difficult in a new town where I literally don’t know a single person. You have to spend a lot of money just on marketing.

As far as expanding, I’m not going to say it’s off the table, but I’d like to be profitable before we do that.

What are your thoughts on the Santa Cruz tech scene?

There are a lot of different perspectives on how Santa Cruz should be. I personally don’t plan on living here long-term, I’d rather be traveling around doing large scale art installations all over the world.

I don’t have expectations when it comes to how Santa Cruz is, and Santa Cruz tech. I don’t even necessarily know if we fit directly into the tech industry—it’s yes and no. We write software, we make hardware, we build physical objects we program things, we use a woodshop, it’s so much more dynamic. I guess I just don’t necessarily feel qualified to speak about that as a Santa Cruz person.

But when it comes to what’s beneficial for us, retired tech people are some of our best customers. They have a lot of money and they have a lot of expertise, and they’re usually willing to teach. They pay full price, and they come and contribute to the community. That’s really helpful and wonderful for me.

Is there something you’d like to see in Santa Cruz when it comes to the Idea Fab Labs?

The best thing for us is just to have more people who participate in the community. That will allow us to survive and thrive. At this point, there’s a lot of really fun, cool stuff going on and people are really helpful.

I’d just like to see the community be sustained and grow, because it’s totally working. It’s changed my life, and I see it happen quite frequently to other people, where they have pretty significant, life-changing moments. The access to the tools and community changes the direction of their lives because they unlock new achievements and are able to do things now that they couldn’t before.

Idea Fab Labs hosts an open house for prospective members every Monday from 5-7 pm. They also celebrate First Fridays so community members can see the space and support local artists.

Cat Johnson is Santa Cruz-based a brand storyteller and content strategist focused on community, coworking and social impact.

Matthew Swinnerton