District of Design: Where to Find Tech Art in Washington D.C.

How creatives in the capital put tech to art and invention

Gareth Branwyn, D.C.'s established link to Maker Media, traces “maker” culture to a seismic event at the turn of this century—when the Silicon Valley tech boom went bust. With widespread job loss, all those brainy workers focused skills and curiosity on making-do with electronics they already owned. Repairing and sharing ultimately spun off fruitful tinkering and collaboration via the democratic Internet. Branwyn recalls that, in early days, he and colleagues saw the “maker” community as “tech’s answer to slow food.”

Today’s “maker movement” supports that ethos of personal control as it continues the romance of craft-meets-engineering. So where does this DIY and DIWO (Do It With Others) spirit surface here? High-visibility showcases prove rare indeed. Locals connect via “meetups” posted on the web calendars of groups like HacDC, Women Who Code, Mobile DC and Design Thinking DC. The Labs at DC Public Library sponsor drop-in workshops from digitizing film and video to fabric mending. Most fulltime and budding artisans still work alone in studios, yet a growing number belong to centers equipped with 3-D printers, scanners, laser cutters and welding stations.

Technology, once costly and corporate, has become affordable and accessible. One such space, TechShop, opened three years ago beside Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City Shops mall, and now 800 members utilize its staff expertise and $1 million-plus worth of equipment and software. Think “workout gym” for artists, teachers, inventors and entrepreneurs. Visitors watch the fabrication projects through glass windows or pay $50 for a day’s access to computers, tech advice and drafting tables.

Chris Savage of True Honey Teas

An on-site retail store offers objects made here—laser-cut puzzles by Stas Casa, “architectural” jewelry of engraved metal by Alissa Werres, even oboe reeds crafted by Ginju Carlson on a self-designed machine. Successes originating at TechShop include the True Honey Teas pods created by Chris Savage for Keurig-compatibility, the Orcavue video filming rig for Matrix-like effects and the R&D prototype of a docking station for drones.

The new Shop Made in DC represents the softer side of maker goods. South of Dupont Circle at 1333 19th Street NW, congenial souls here serve local-brand foods, curated beverages and artisan wares. Thirty or so vendors test potential markets with their jewelry, pottery, sculpture, leisure wear, candles, baby and kid clothing (D.C. flag tees), bags, beauty supplies, greeting cards (“You’re my spirit animal”) and screen prints of D.C. locales.

The cafe features breakfast sandwiches from Bullfrog Bagels, tacos by chef Ed McIntosh of Tortilla Dora, espresso and cold brews from Small Planes Coffee and Asian fare by chef (once Buddhist monk) Dorjee Tsering, his fiery red coconut beef curry inspired by Tibetan nomad ancestors. Beverage guru Greg Engert of Neighborhood Restaurant Group has selected ANXO Cider (from D.C.-foraged Goldrush apples) and beers from native breweries like the D.C. Brau Pilsner, Atlas pale ale, Bluejacket IPA and 3 Stars Southern Belle Imperial Brown Ale “toasted” with pecans.

Surely the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery is the nation’s fine art “maker” showcase. This museum of sophisticated craft holds objects produced by hand and works made possible by evolving technology. The permanent collection includes “Reclining Dress Impression with Drapery” (2009), a cast glass sculpture by Karen LaMonte; “Curtains and Balcony Bracelet” (2008), a 3-D printed adornment of glass bead-filled polyamide by Joshua DeMonte; and “Drift” (2011), a white oak and bamboo seating element designed by Matthias Pliessnig with Rhinoceros 3-D software.

No surprise, the Renwick museum store displays jewelry of laser-cut leather or extruded nylon fiber alongside wares of traditional materials. And an entry point stunner: Leo Villareal’s “Volume (Renwick)” of infinitely varied LED sequences above the central staircase pulses to an algorithm written by the artist himself.

"Curtains and Balcony Bracelet" by Joshua DeMonte