Brooklyn’s A/D/O Co-Working Space Is Building a Utopia for Creatives of All Kinds

  • Photo by Gary He, courtesy of A/D/O.

“One man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia,” said British design critic Alice Rawsthorn two weekends ago at an opening festival for A/D/O, the latest creative co-working space to launch in New York City. What unites the widely varying examples of utopian visions throughout history, said Rawsthorn, is a simple and empowering definition for design: “Design is an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening and turn it to our advantage.”

That baseline certainly seems to be the driving force at A/D/O, a multifaceted space whose ambitious setup is best characterized, much like its moniker, with the help of a few backslashes. Backed by the automotive company MINI, the design workspace/accelerator/lecture hall/gallery/restaurant houses many resources in a 23,000-square-foot former warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Industrial Business Zone—and promises to do things differently.

A/D/O itself offers its own microcosmic and utopian proposal for creatives. An installation of a modular, reconfigurable furniture system by MOS Architects, made from shiny, perforated sheets of aluminum, provides communal seating for the open-plan interiors. Industrial beams are left exposed, in a nod to the original warehouse from which it was transformed by nARCHITECTS. A kaleidoscopic, mirrored skylight called The Periscope refracts a collage of reflections from the street, the rooftop, and the Manhattan skyline in the near distance. The nondescript exterior, made from repurposed brick, features a patchwork mosaic of reshuffled graffiti murals. All told, A/D/O is as much a literal convergence of varying views as it is a metaphoric one.

In addition to shared studio space and a fabrication lab for its members, A/D/O also hosts Urban-X, an in-house startup accelerator co-sponsored by the HAX accelerator based in Shenzhen, China. Norman, an eatery by Scandinavian chefs Frederik Berselius and Klaus Mayer, serves up local seasonal fare. The restaurant, along with the gallery spaces and lecture hall, where A/D/O’s Design Academy hosts a recurring series of talks, is open to the public. “We are convinced that meaningful design cannot happen in isolation,” said Esther Bahne, head of brand strategy and business innovation at MINI.

  • Photo by Gary He, courtesy of A/D/O.

  • Photo by Gary He, courtesy of A/D/O.

A/D/O is not the first type of creative co-working space oriented toward designer and maker types in New York. Similar ventures opened within the past four years include NEW INC, the New Museum’s not-for-profit art and technology incubator on the Bowery, and New Lab, the tech hardware-focused collaborative space in the historic manufacturing hub in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

A/D/O is also not the first creative hub to be funded by an automotive company, in a telling brand exercise for an industry that is rapidly reinventing itself with renewable energy and self-driving cars. Recall the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a 2011 initiative by MINI’s parent company, or Columbia GSAPP’s “Experiments in Motion” research initiative in 2012, for which it partnered with Audi. A/D/O, short for Amalgamated Drawing Office, the top-secret team that developed MINI’s first vehicle, is, however, a more subtle initiative, and may find itself more closely aligned with the design community as a result.

Energized, public-facing engagement sits at the core of A/D/O’s mission—and makes it a different and welcome addition to New York City’s creative landscape. A/D/O’s launch also signals a democratized reinvigoration of a certain hard-to-pin-down breed of “design thinking.” The buzzy methodology was coined by design consultancy IDEO in early aughts and rode that company’s wave to popularity. Nonetheless, the implementation of ideas sometimes fell short of the creative, multidisciplinary processes out of which they were born.

“I think we’ve all been to many conferences, festivals, and symposia where you get energized and super excited, and make a list of things to change about your life and career—but then it kind of fizzles out,” said Nathan Pinsley, managing director of A/D/O. “That’s what’s different about this place we’re launching: It’s a long-term, year-round forum for investigating the big questions that we face as a society, and the role that design plays in answering those questions.”

  • Photo by Gary He, courtesy of A/D/O.

Judging by A/D/O’s opening programming, they’ve set the right course. The space’s inaugural season of talks, “Utopia vs. Dystopia,” continuing on through April, look at design’s crucial role in shaping technology and the future—a theme that felt eerily prescient during the space’s opening weekend. In a moment that has seen the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, growing income inequality, unprecedented climate change, and an increasingly fragile media landscape encroached upon by algorithms and “fake news,” the signs of a dystopian future have never felt so near. The current political climate notwithstanding, the need for continued investment in social change pervaded with urgency throughout the weekend’s spirited discussions.

Between sessions, attendees could catch a glimpse of members’ workspaces. Among these, designers of the Turner Prize–winning architecture collective Assemble Studio could be seen mid-performance, extruding clay tiles that looked like ribbons of toothpaste from a machine. They meticulously amassed these tiles in order to build a shelter around the machine that spit them out: a sort of part-analog, self-generating factory.

The performance piece, titled A Factory As It Might Be, is a fitting analogy for the agile mode of thinking encouraged by A/D/O—to revise questions as you write the response, to build the tools as you’re building the product. As with this live experiment, and the many other 4-D mediums it now serves as a laboratory for, the question of whether A/D/O will be able to tip the scales toward the utopian ideals it has set forth will come to be seen across time and space.

—Aileen Kwun

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