The Maker King

When you first meet him, Carl Bass comes off like any other weekend carpenter. Dressed in a worn T-shirt and jeans, he shakes hands with a wooden grip and has a big, brassy laugh. His workshop is a warren of lumber and hammers and idle projects. A half-built chair sits here. A sculpted Styrofoam head there.

But Carl Bass is no ordinary carpenter. He’s the CEO of Autodesk, a $10-billion company that makes AutoCAD, the standard software used by engineers to digitally design such products as cars, airplanes, and skyscrapers. And his maker space is no ordinary garage. First, it’s huge. His wood shop alone occupies 20,000 square feet—and he’s got a comparably sized metal shop down the street. Second, it’s sophisticated. 3-D printers sit among the band saws and planers. And then there’s his CNC router.

“This is my coolest thing,” Bass says, stepping to the monitor that controls it. He’s a big guy, tall and thick, but he looks small next to this machine. The Thermwood 90’s five-axis head can move anywhere within a 5’ x 10’ x 4’ space and can carve pretty much anything—a perfect orb, a model of the space shuttle or Michelangelo’s David—out of materials like plastic and plywood. The machine is incredibly complicated. It usually comes with its own instructor. “I don’t think anyone else has one for themselves,” Bass says.

Bass isn’t boasting. He has poured at least as much money into his workshop as other CEOs pour into vintage wine collections or boats, but his hobby isn’t about impressing anybody else. It’s just for him. He still spends every Saturday morning from 6 to 11 beavering away on various projects in pleasant isolation. And yet, his weekend work is having a profound effect on the maker movement.

A few years ago, Bass recognized that two powerful forces were poised to intersect: the rise of online sharing and the return to analog building in maker spaces. Up until that point, Autodesk stuck primarily to the virtual realm by developing increasingly refined CAD software. Bass saw that Autodesk could fill a crucial niche by helping everyday people bridge the gulf between digital design and physical manufacture.

The company’s first consumer product was an experiment. A team in Toronto developed a dramatically simplified modeling program, formatted it for use on mobile devices, and put it online as a free app, called Sketchbook. Within 50 days, Sketchbook had a million downloads. So the company created more products, and then a whole consumer group focused on design, personal manufacture, and home decoration. In three years, Autodesk had more than 100 million registered users across its various consumer products. Compare that with the company’s 12 million professional users, which it took more than three decades to accrue.

The range of applications people found for the new products was tremendous. Louise Leakey, the famed Kenyan paleontologist, recently used 123D Catch, a web-based app that stitches snapshots into a 3-D image, to model her skull collection so others could view it online. With 123D Make, a product that allows people to modify 3-D models, fans then carved the CAD skulls into pieces that could be printed and reassembled as a puzzle. In Florida, the owners of a female duckling named Buttercup used Autodesk software to get the animal back on its feet after an amputation to correct a birth defect. They made a model of Buttercup’s good foot and printed it. After the surgery, they attached the prosthetic, so she could waddle and paddle like any of her companions.

Autodesk’s new role as a company that enables makers suits Bass just fine. Before he started his own software firm, which was acquired by Autodesk in 1993, he put himself through college by working as a carpenter, building houses on a Sioux reservation and boats in Maine and Seattle. He’s found it easy to infuse Autodesk with that same hands-on enthusiasm. “The company is filled with engineers and people who like to make stuff, so it wasn’t like I was pushing a rock up a hill,” he says. Bass recently provided his employees with their own version of his personal workshops: a 27,000-square-foot maker space at the edge of Pier 9 in downtown San Francisco. The facility includes a wood shop, a metal shop, an electronics shop, a 3-D–printing lab, a tailor shop, replete with mannequins, and a test kitchen (on the premise that cooking is a gateway drug for makers). When the facility opened with a ribbon cutting last September, Bass, true to form, took a reciprocating saw to a steel bow instead of scissors. Shortly afterward, a group of Autodesk engineers designed, printed, and assembled a 13-foot-tall blinking Trojan horse that they pulled up to Market Street in San Francisco—just because they could.

Futurists have long predicted a day when people can manufacture most of what they need in the comfort of their own homes. It would be easy to see the Autodesk shop and Bass’s personal maker spaces as a step in that direction—larger and more expensive, but a step nonetheless. But Bass doesn’t give in to such optimism so easily. Because he’s going first into the age of personal manufacture, he is intimately acquainted with the barriers that stand in the way.

“We’re so close to real personal manufacturing, and yet we’re so far,” he says. It’s not as if something designed in Google Sketchup can just be handed to the router, he explains. “Right now, you have to convert all these file formats from one to the next, and you lose fidelity with every step. If I can’t do it with my resources, connections, and equipment, who can?”

The only solution, he says, is persistence and personal experience. “At Autodesk, anytime we find issues with a product we’re using, we go about problem solving, trying to make them better. In the end, we’re just making things easier for people, so more of them can access the maker movement.”

In that way, Bass’s workshop serves a dual purpose. It’s a sanctuary, sure, a place where he can build anything from swooping chairs that appear cut from a single piece of wood to intricate 3-D–printed mesh sculptures. But it’s also a test bed. And every one of his creations carries a backstory—a series of challenges and lessons that lead to a final success. “I might not be able to understand what an Autodesk customer is up against, but I sure can sympathize,” he says. Bass makes stuff because that’s what he loves, but in doing so, he’s also creating a better experience for his customers and, in a way, for everyone.

He shows me around a bit more. A row of bats he made with his kids, lathed perfectly and sanded to a high gloss, hangs from a rack on the wall. An antique sander sits nearby. Finally, he flicks off the lights, and darkness advances across the space the way it does in factories and airplane hangars. Then he turns to me.

“One thing I wish I had,” he says. “I wish I had more space.”

You can also read this story in the February 2014 issue of Popular Science, or at

How-Tos from Our Favorite Bands: People Under the Stairs

Double K and Thes One, of hip-hop group People Under the Stairs, are stuck in an earlier time. Not “stuck” in the sense that they can’t get with it. “Stuck” in the sense that they don’t care to. To hear Chris Portugal (a k a Thes One) tell it, the early ‘90s was the era of breaking, turntabling, and all-around b-boying that made rap inventive, rebellious, and fun, and damned if he and his partner are going to be pulled into the new era of commercial hip-hop without a fight. Their first record, The Next Step (Step One), was picked up by OM Records in 1998, and after two more albums over the next four years, Thes One decided to blow some of his hard-earned scratch on a little personal luxury. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s the coolest thing I can buy with my money now that I have a little disposable income?’” The son of two working parents, he’d spent his adolescent afternoons in Detroit arcades, so the choice seemed obvious: vintage videogames.

His first purchase was three cabinets—Indiana Jones, Popeye, and an original Japanese Frogger with wood paneling—that he and a friend bought for $100 on the street in front of a liquor store marked for demolition. After plugging them in at home, not only did the games work perfectly, the cash boxes also yielded over $190. “We split the money, paid for the U-Haul, and went out to dinner on quarters.”

But Thes One is no passive collector. Though he feared messing with the insides in the beginning, he’s now a skilled videogame mechanic. “All consoles after 1988 have interchangeable processors, so once you get a cabinet, you can swap out different games pretty easily,” he says. Now the proud owner of almost a dozen machines, Thes One still has one title on his wish list. Naturally, it dates back to rap’s heyday. “There’s an illegally made Beastie Boys game, from when License to Ill came out,” he says with a sigh. “That’s the rarest and coolest one I can think of.”


1. Comb your local resorts, like Lake Tahoe or the Catskills, where the staff constantly replaces older games with newer ones to entice the kids.

2. Ask to peek inside. Most systems consist of a central processor or PCB (the equivalent of today’s game discs), a control panel, a power source, and a monitor. Be wary of burn marks and rust, and plug the thing in. If the console is functional and its owner will part with it for less than $1,000, that’s a fair price. Less than $300? Sold.

3. Find an original operator’s manual online. (Check the newsgroups at Use it to make sure you have all the necessary capacitors, transistors, and so forth.

4. On the back of the PCB, a set of dip switches control the game’s functions, allowing you to adjust the difficulty settings, the points necessary to earn rewards, and the cost of the game. The operator’s manual will be your guide.

5. If the picture is out of whack, look for three screws behind the monitor; they usually control the RGB levels. SAFETY FIRST: The capacitors that power the monitor hold a lot of voltage, even when the machine is off. Disconnect the game’s power supply, and leave it that way for at least 24 hours before fooling around with anything connected to the monitor.

6. Geek tip: Look online for the processors to bootleg games that came out alongside arcade hits. For every Pac-Man cabinet sent to market, there was a Chinese knockoff in which a dog eats a trail of bones.

Olympiad At Your Pad

The ancient Olympics tested the skills of Hellenic athletes in straightforward competitions—no souvenirs, no commercials, no official rental cars of the US National Team. And although we plan to watch with the rest of the country as Marion Jones runs the 100 faster than any Greek ever did, at a certain point there’s only so much torch-bearing and flag-waving we can take. So when it all becomes too much, turn off the television, invite over a few friendly rivals, and take it to the backyard.


2 tubes fingerpaint
(one blue, one red)

The Greek pugilist Theagenes is credited with 2,102 knockouts, and back when debilitation, not points, determined the victor, the man killed 1,800 opponents. You get off easy. In this variation on the “sweet science” of boxing, two opponents cover their hands in fingerpaint. One opponent is blue, the other red. In a three-round match of one minute per round, the victor is the one who scores the greatest number of paint smears on the other. Refresh fingerpaint between rounds. An impartial observer (i.e. one who is dating neither combatant) counts the marks.

Mini-Javelin Toss

High school yearbook
Xerox machine
Darts and dartboard

The modern Olympics judge the javelin toss by distance. But the ancient Hellenics, who regularly tossed these head-high spears at the Byzantines, Spartans, and other neighbors, prized accuracy. And that’s how you’ll be evaluated in this event, as you take revenge on your ancient foes. Xerox the pages of your high school yearbook that contain your worst teenage enemies, and tape three of them to your dartboard. Using your highlighter, mark bullies with a 1, bad teachers with a 2, and that horrible Stephanie girl who called you “Ox” with a 3. Playing four turns to a round, the gold goes to the player with the most points at the end of three rounds.

Drunkard’s Hurdles

Plastic cups
12-pack of cheap beer
16 lawn chairs
8 50+” cardboard tubes, at least 3″ in diameter
X-Acto knife

The theory behind hurdling, according to the greats of the sport, is that one does not jump over the things, one runs through them. Now, that may be true for Jackie Joyner Kersee and the other legends, but in this case, “over” is the word. Cut two 2 1/2″ holes in each cardboard tube, roughly 5″ from the ends. Set up two parallel rows of four pairs of chairs. Span a cardboard tube across each pair, notching the ends to stay lodged on the chair with your X-acto knife. Each hurdle should be ten strides apart. Balance a cup of water upright in each of the holes in the tubes. The first to clear all four hurdles first wins. Both opponents replace spilled water with beer, and drink.

Escapes: Forestiere Underground Gardens

In 1905, Baldasare Forestiere, a Sicilian immigrant weary of digging subway tunnels in New York City, purchased a plot of farm land, sight unseen, in a magical-sounding place called Fresno. After handing his meager savings to a fellow Italian, he traveled across the country to faraway California, only to discover he’d been cheated. The 40 acres he’d purchased were hardpan rock, utterly unfarmable. And so, as the sun cooked his small house and desolate property, Forestiere took up his pickax and, for lack of other options, once again went underground.

The Sicilian turned out to have a gift for impromptu engineering. Working alone, he dug nearly 100 subterranean passageways, rooms, and alcoves by hand before he died in 1946. Today, the Forestiere Underground Gardens are a monument to creative madness, elbow grease, and religious faith. Fruit trees grow upward from their dark chambers to peek through holes at the surface. Narrow passageways, 22-feet deep, wind between the rooms, cooled by convection currents. As Forestiere grew older, he abandoned aboveground living entirely, and began to pierce the walls of his subterranean compound with spyholes; from his bed he could observe visitors descending the grand stairway entrance. The gardens include a formal ballroom, a chapel, and an aquarium (now empty). Forestiere’s niece Lorraine and great-nephew Andre maintain the grounds, and they don’t appreciate anyone poking fun at their eccentric forebear. Save it for the car


Forestiere Underground Gardens is at 5021 West Shaw Avenue in Fresno, California. During the summer, the garden offers tours Wednesday through Sunday, but call (559) 271-0734 first—the schedule changes constantly. Admission is $9 for adults and $7 for students.

From San Francisco, take Interstate 5 south to the 99, and get off at exit 140. From Los Angeles, take 5 north, then 99 through lovely Bakersfield, and get off at exit 140.

Unless you love flat, featureless shopping centers, for God’s sake don’t stay in Fresno. Instead, make the gardens part of a trip to Yosemite, a scant 65 miles away. The National Park Service’s Web site sucks; instead, use to search for available campsites. Or, if you’re not the outdoors type, stay at the Peregrine Inn, a sprawling bed-and-breakfast at the park’s edge. If you can’t pitch a tent like a hardy woodsman, at least eat like one: The inn’s breakfast lasagna will test your mettle. Call (209) 372-8517, or visit

Brother Hood

If you’re the kind of person who loves old cinemas, ballrooms, and sawdust-strewn saloons, visit Portland. Walking in any direction from the center of town, you’ll quickly notice that this is your sort of place. Movie theaters like the Bagdad and the Mission are so perfectly restored, you can almost see the spit-curled and fedora-clad patrons emerging from a showing of Citizen Kane. Yet inside, after paying an old-fashioned three dollars for a second-run film, stylish couples dine on gourmet pizza and drink microbrews, which are delivered to them halfway through the first reel. At a pub on Broadway, Blazers fans charge up the sweeping staircase to shoot pool beneath stained-glass windows after a home game. And at the White Eagle Saloon and Hotel, hipsters overcome by tequila at the antique oak back-bar can pass out in a comfortable room upstairs.

Portland’s hot spots are all chic in an unconventional, informal way, and highly profitable. And there’s another common thread: They’re all owned and operated by a single family—the McMenamins.

Although they’re at the helm of some of the most happening outfits in the city, Mike McMenamin and his brother Brian aren’t obvious patron saints of cool. Mike, 54, with a big gray beard, jeans, and sneakers, looks like a with-it dad, maybe. Brian, 48, with his mustache and beefy build, could be mistaken for a police detective. And yet anywhere you go in Portland, fun-seekers from every walk of the city’s life pay daily homage to their empire. Mike and Brian run their tastefully renovated properties with a combination of nostalgic tenderness, love for food, and relentless competence.

The empire started small. In 1973, Mike graduated from Oregon
State University, married his girlfriend Mary Alice, and began working at a sandwich shop. He decided that the satisfactions of having a good rapport with his coworkers and feeding customers well were all he needed for a happy life. After he and his wife toured Europe, where he noticed “pubs were places where families went, not just drinking men,” Mike borrowed money and floundered through three attempts at running restaurants in Portland. A loan and a wine-distribution business followed, and again he went broke. Then, in 1983, Mike and his brother Brian (who had struggled with running a pizza shop) asked their father to finance the Barley Mill, in southeast Portland. At last, through a winning combination of family friendliness and the right location, the business thrived.

More bars followed, and then, in 1985, the McMenamins joined a group of brewers lobbying the state legislature for the right to make and sell beer on the same premises. They won, and the brothers found themselves able to put their love of home-brewing to work.

If this were a business magazine, I’d highlight that part of the story, because home-brewing turns out to be a great move. Cutting out the expense of buying name-brand beer from distributors slashes the cost of doing business. With their profit margin wider than ever, the pair opened more alehouses. And if they’d stopped there, they could have enjoyed a good living at the helm of a half-dozen outfits without ever expanding.

But the McMenamins are a restless sort. They have no formal business training, yet their enthusiasm for sprucing up old buildings is endless, and they have no fear of failure. Seated in the old Mission theater, a longshoreman’s union hall turned Portland movie palace, Mike and Brian cheerfully shrug at the various business-oriented queries I toss their way. What are your growth projections? Shrug. How do you choose your locations? Shrug.

“We just go with our gut instinct,” Brian says.

“It’s about liking the look of a place,” Mike agrees. “And getting a feel for what people enjoy about being there.”

A truck driver passing through suggested that the brothers begin showing movies at their pubs, so they bought a screen, scrounged a projector, and soon patrons were cradling pints in front of the dim flicker of classic films. Inspired, the duo bought the Mission, on Glisan Street, and made it a cinema-and-draft house. (Patrons can now catch first-run films at the Mission on a Sunday and return the next evening for Monday Night Football.) Then, after touring an abandoned farm and home for the aged in nearby Troutdale, the McMenamins decided to gamble on opening a hotel: the Edgefield.

After that, it’s just too complicated to list the chronology of renovations and openings. The brothers now own 52 establishments in Oregon and Washington.

I once spent the night in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The city was at one time a railway hub, but trains no longer pass through, so the grand beaux-arts railway station, a protected landmark, became a Radisson hotel. The majesty of the place—marble pillars and floors, a four-story atrium—clashed tragically with the work of the corporate interior designer assigned to the job. Bland carpeting and plastic reception desks floated in the middle of the space as if at a yard sale.

As with Starbucks, McDonald’s, or any other national chain, the Radisson mandate is to make every outlet look the same, no matter where it is. By contrast, every McMenamins establishment looks like a neighborhood joint that’s been around for generations. The pubs are family-friendly (children are welcome at almost every location until 7 p.m., when adults arrive to tipple and it’s time for bed anyway). And each of the brothers’ five hotels feels like the one-of-a-kind work of some long-dead eccentric.

Despite the distinctive feel of each place, all exhibit a deep respect for the existing structures out of which they were carved.

The company literature proudly mentions the Shanghai tunnels and sprawling brothels that used to occupy their properties, and the McMenamins seek out salvaged architectural details to re-create the historic feel of the interiors when the buildings are too far gone to be restored.

At the same time, Mike and Brian aren’t afraid to make major changes. Their greatest successes have been in transforming one building type into another. At the Edgefield, the erstwhile old-age home and its acres of farmland now form a hotel, theater, pub, brewery, winery, golf course, and art gallery. And in the otherwise residential Northeast neighborhood, the Kennedy School, a former K-8, has been lovingly converted into a hotel, movie theater, and restaurant.

It takes a certain sense of humor to enjoy the Kennedy School. Even as a 30-year-old, I began to panic pulling up outside at midday. It felt like being caught off school grounds during class. It must be a common reaction, because the brothers have preserved — celebrated, even — every last scholastic detail. Guests sleep beneath chalkboards in converted classrooms, and they can choose to drink at either the Honors Bar or the Detention Bar. Enormous black-and-white portraits of former students cover the walls, along with murals depicting children and teachers. Overall, the effect is charming and slightly unsettling. It sticks with you.

Whenever a Portlander describes the Bagdad or the Kennedy School—or any of the McMenamins’ operations—to an out-of-towner, the response is usually something along the lines of “Pizza and beer at the movies? Why isn’t every place that way?” There are a few reasons. The first may have something to do with the eccentric character of the Pacific Northwest. In a land where liberal politics and a predilection for the offbeat are all points of pride (“Keep Portland Weird,” reads one bumper sticker), people readily embrace the McMenamins’ carnival aesthetic. Despite enormous, somewhat creepy murals of elderly men riding wheelchairs through the sky, shared dormitory-style bathrooms, and the vague asylum feel at the Edgefield, families overrun the place every weekend. (“I’m terribly sorry, sir,” the receptionist politely tells a caller as I wait to check in, “but all the haunted rooms are taken.”) Another reason is the cost of local real estate. Beautiful, empty buildings in Portland and the surrounding area go begging, and the brothers have developed an eye for a bargain. And as their enterprises grow larger, their patience grows with it: The Edgefield lost money steadily for 15 years and is just now beginning to show a profit. (The Kennedy School, weirder and more luxurious, was an immediate hit.)

The McMenamins were also lucky enough to be just ahead of a trend. “In the ’80s, it saved us money to go on midnight runs to abandoned homes and raid them for old fixtures and old wood,” Mike says. His brother adds, “Now that the antique look is all the rage, it costs a fortune.”

But in the end, what makes McMenamins, Inc., uniquely successful is the brothers’ ability to spot a winning property in a charming neighborhood in their part of the world, and to open the right business there. These guys love old buildings, but they’re not overly sentimental, and they’re not foolish. Although they claim ignorance of any formal real estate wisdom, the pair have a few rules they’ve learned to obey. “You can mix movies with bars, and bars with live music, but you can’t mix movies and live music,” Mike says. They receive several emails a day from admirers all over the country, suggesting classic, vacant buildings ready for the McMenamin touch. I point out hopefully that my hometown of San Francisco has plenty of gorgeous old movie theaters we’d all love to drink beer in, and Mike nods. “Sure, we looked at a lot of places down there,” he says. “But the parking’s a problem, and we just haven’t found the right combination of factors in one building.”

I get the sense that Mike is dancing around something difficult to articulate. Maybe in the same gut-driven way they make all their decisions, the brothers stood in the brisk sunlight of Northern California, sniffed the sea air, watched the BMWs roll by, and just decided it wasn’t their kind of place.

The company has no plans to open anything new for a few years, anyway. The brothers say it’s time to take care of their house for a bit, rather than build another addition. The Old St. Francis, their latest school-to-hotel conversion, opened last year, and they’re developing a line of baked goods and vinegar, which, like their beer, wine, and liquor, are sold only at their restaurants. It’s not that Mike and Brian are afraid of growing too big. They long ago got over any fear of becoming a chain. With 52 locations, let’s face it: They are a chain. But in this corner of the increasingly bland American landscape, the McMenamins are changing what that means.


Tableware for Two
Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey, Heath Ceramics

At first they tried to keep things separate. Cathy, 37, an industrial designer with her own firm and clients including Apple, Burton
Snowboard, and Nike, and Robin, 35, an engineer who had worked on everything from movie sets to cell phones, toiled back-to-back in an
office they shared in San Francisco. They were in tight quarters, but they kept one another at arm’s length.

One by one, though, the dividers fell away. They started dating (he tricked her into staying after-hours), shacked up (she took him in after his knee surgery), and eventually merged outfits (their double-threat consultancy made for better pitches).

Still, something was missing. After countless hours spent designing anonymous plastic widgets, Robin would ask Cathy, “What do you want to do with your life?” She’d sigh and answer, “Make clay pots.” Then, on a bike ride in nearby Sausalito, they happened upon Heath Ceramics. Told that the ailing tableware operation—founded by Bauhaus-inspired ceramicist Edith Heath, now 93, whose wares caught the attention of celebrity collectors Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford—would soon be on the auction block, the couple agreed to another joint-venture risk. They floated a loan, purchased the 25-person company, and made good on Cathy’s dream—helming a studio that produces enduring, tactile objects made from the earth itself.

“There’s a lot of confidence that comes from having worked together,” Cathy says. After writing a business plan, nailing down funding, and remodeling a company that embodies an American tradition, “you know how to work things out with each other.”

In the Bedroom
Linda Geiser and Max Geiser, Fold Bedding

Max and Linda Geiser’s professional life sounds like marriage advice: Make the bed together. The couple owns Fold Bedding, a linen company that makes spare, geometric spreads, throws, and pillows. First classmates and then roommates at San Francisco’s California College of Arts and Crafts, they tied the knot in 1999. Then, after searching in vain for bedding that didn’t make them cringe, Max, a furniture designer, and Linda, a textile designer, shelled out $300 for fabric and made a few pillows for a local store. All three sold on the first day, and Fold was born.

Max, 29, and Linda, 28, now sell a range of seasonal bedware—much of it detailed with visible stitching, a Fold trademark—through retailers in eight states. Their roles are pretty clearly defined: Max preps, Linda sews. Still, violating those boundaries is key. “Our designs are the result of hashing them out together,” Max says. “I need to bounce ideas off of Linda to be creative.” And since the arrival of Adam, their 2-year-old son, that hashing happens in some odd places—in line at the supermarket, tubside with the baby, on the road to Grandma’s.

The Geisers give the impression that if they weren’t swamped, they’d be bored. Even Adam occasionally toddles over to the printer and industriously distributes spec sheets as they scroll out of the machine. “We have very little private time,” says Linda, “but we like that.”

Soul Mates
Jason Hammer and Kori Gardner, Mates of State

It’s one thing to fall in love, get married, and still hold onto your youth. It’s quite another to fall in love, form a rock band, and tour the world together.

Kori Gardner, 29, and Jason Hammel, 27, did just that. They started dating as fellow guitarists at the University of Kansas in 1997, but both soon returned to their native instruments—keyboards for Kori, drums for Jason—to form Mates of State. Then, in 2001, two weeks before the wedding, they split from their day jobs to do a U.S. tour.

The Mates’ tight, swooping harmonies—part lullaby, part punk anthem—are all over Team Boo, their third CD, released last September on the Polyvinyl label. Not since Yo La Tengo’s Painful has an album better delivered the sound of two bandmates so totally crushed out on each other. So how do they keep the sparks flying onstage when touring means they’re crammed into a van together for weeks at a stretch? “We’ve learned how to drive for hours in silence,” Kori says.

Arrangements like that yield the Mates’ impervious solidarity, even in the face of challenges like love-struck fans. (“We’re over jealousy—that shit’s for weaklings,” Jason says.) And after seven years performing as a duo, they talk with more insight about musicianship than most couples do about matrimony. “We’re good at communicating with each other, and that’s so important for a band,” Kori says. To say nothing of a marriage.

The Expressionists
Chris Johansson and Jo Jackson, Visual Artists

Both Chris Johanson, 35, and Jo Jackson, 32, took their sweet time before breaking the artists-don’t-date rule. They met at a San Francisco bookstore, then spent six years alternately ignoring and fighting with one another, all the while nursing a secret crush.

Mutual artistic respect finally brought their feelings to the surface. The New York Times called Johanson’s sprawling sculptures and annotated paintings of crude figures “an engagement with New Age thinking—both spoofing it and embracing it.” Jo’s review would probably have read more like “cute and virile.” And her paintings—precise, flat silhouettes of birds, water, and other forms—“seemed really damaged, which attracted me,” Chris says. After collaborating for an art auction in Los Angeles, the pair’s stare-down finally turned to hookup. They married last year and bought a home in Portland, Oregon.

Chris’s work made the national stage in 2002 when it was selected by the Whitney Biennial. That might have pushed a lesser couple into rarefied, air-kissing ranks, but Johanson and Jackson’s work remains focused on the social themes the two have always pursued. Together with 30 other artists and writers, the couple recently produced illustrations for A Place Called the Universe, an alternative-education textbook for Portland grade-schoolers. Despite intersecting creative careers, the couple’s greatest disagreements these days are domestic. “Mostly when we fight,” Jo says, “it’s because Chris won’t let us get a tiny dog.”

Safe House

At a concert one chilly Saturday night in March, a crowd of people wait in the lobby to speak to the man in charge. An ambitious guitarist hoping to score a gig pushes to the front to pass along a demo tape. A photographer wants to inquire about exhibiting work. And at the head of the line, three girls demand the name of the sound engineer, on whom they’ve developed a collective crush. The man in charge adjusts his glasses and sighs. It’s the kind of clamor you’d expect at any New York or Los Angeles nightspot. But something separates this from club scenes elsewhere. The girls are no older than 15. The photographer is just shy of 17. And the guitarist can’t be more than 20. By comparison, the man in charge, Aaron Jamison, exudes a serene worldliness. But he’s only 23. And this isn’t New York or Los Angeles. It’s Anacortes, Washington, at the Department of Safety.

Follow Commercial Street through the heart of Anacortes, a small fishing village (population 10,000) northwest of Seattle, and you can’t miss it: a low, broad, gray building with DEPARTMENT OF SAFETY stenciled on its side in homemade orange supergraphics. Built in 1953 to house both the city’s police and fire departments, the 14,000-square-foot structure was abandoned in 1999 and lay deserted until Jamison and three fellow classmates at Trinity Western University, outside of Vancouver, stumbled onto it
a few months before graduation. Transfixed by the building’s rusted window frames and solid construction, they formed a pact to make the place an all-ages outpost. They vowed to sell any unnecessary possessions—cars, cameras, miscellaneous appliances—to fund a renovation. “We’re your average utopian romantics,” Jamison says. After agonizing over a name (they considered everything from Freedom Reigns Here to Sustainable Pretension before settling on the current title), the group arrived, tools at the ready, in June 2002.

It took five months to make the place livable, and, Jamison now admits, if they had known the extent of the work this would require, they probably would have reconsidered. Tasks like ripping out the first floor’s drop ceiling, erecting art-ready walls in the old downstairs office, filling the place with scavenged furniture, and rewiring the entire building were all-day, every day efforts. “I got used to 110-volt shocks,” Jamison says. “But I got a 220 once, and that’ll put you on your ass.”

In August 2002, the foursome opened the doors of the Department of Safety: a music venue, youth hostel, art gallery, and private residence. But the doors closed almost immediately, after a 23-band inaugural celebration, dubbed the Safety Summit, prompted the fire marshal to issue a cease and desist order and a $20,000 inventory of mandatory improvements—including replacement windows, lower gallery walls, fire doors, and exit signs—to bring the building up to code. “Liability,” Jamison says flatly,
“is a fucker.”

It was the concert space that saved them. Jeff Winston, the father of a DOS band member, stepped in to bankroll the necessities. Now, along with the velvet curtains and retro furniture, the new, inspector-approved venue sports gleaming exit signs and fire extinguishers. “Needless to say, Jeff gets into all our shows for free,” says DOS cofounder Alexander Mahan.

The building consists of an enormous double-height garage, a four-story tower originally used for drying fire hoses, and two floors of living quarters. It’s a sprawling cinder block structure built to suggest a civic institution. But on a weekend afternoon, with a band thrashing out power chords in the garage and a couple of guests nursing hangovers in the kitchen, the space has a playful,secret-society feel—a clubhouse dressed up in adult clothing.

Such precociousness is borne out by the three guest rooms—the Lacan, the Steve Horwood Memorial Room, and the Quonset—that make up the hostel. At $35 per night, the private Horwood room features a wall-mounted, motorized sculpture rigged with lights and a rusted fan. The Quonset room is a four-bunk, $17-per-person communal accommodation with lobster nets hanging from its walls. The stark, loftily named Lacan room (also private, and priced the same as the Horwood) feels like the raw-plywood equivalent of an Ian Schrager hotel. The room’s design reveals the building’s original rusted exterior window frames, now girded by a freshly painted white wall and backlit to dramatic effect. With lengthy quotations from culturalstudies mainstays like Karl Marx and Don Delillo, the DOS Web site ( has the postgraduate air of twentysomething idealists who find themselves at odds with mass culture. “A lot of our college friends went off to various cities to get the jobs they’d been trained for,” DOS cofounder Tammy Masalonis says. “They couldn’t get them, they settled for something less, and now they live isolated lives. We came here to do something different.”

It all sounds very blue sky, but with a multitiered business model, the Department of Safety is self-sustaining. The four partners, none older than 25, are shrewd operating officers. Money from the hostel and concert hall covers the $1,600 rent; everything above that is reinvested (the latest improvements: a washer and dryer). “We have our state 501(c)3 nonprofit status,” Jamison says. “But we want federal status, so we can give tax-valid receipts to our donors.” The guest rooms all have Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections, and DOS publicity materials show more personality and polish than those of most commercial hotels. The art gallery, booked through January 2004, has exhibited Pulitzer prize–winning photographers and received submissions from as far away as Finland.

Miraculously, Anacortes escapes 28 percent of the rain that pours relentlessly on the rest of Western Washington. Maybe it’s the kids who are charmed. Packed with squirrelly teenagers on this Saturday night, the place remains civilized—even peaceful. Throngs have gathered outside, flirting and smoking cigarettes while the band rattles the windows from within, and the sleek ticket booth, spotlit by track lighting, has done steady business all evening. Inside, Jamison points to a 14-yearold girl in the front row swaying to the music. “She’s a harpist,” he says. “Her mom drives her to every concert so she’ll learn about stage presence.”

It’s in this environment of upbeat, youthful creativity that the DOS thrives. During a year of back-to-back concerts, even though the building abuts the new fire department’s sleeping quarters, only one incident has blemished the venue’s record: an addled punk fan from out of town grabbed a fire extinguisher and discharged it onto a neighboring church. Within a half hour, a group of high-schoolers cleaned it up—without being asked. “The guy even left the fire extinguisher there,” Masalonis says. “That made it much easier to fill the thing up again.