The Philadelphia Design Center opens in West Philadelphia

Affordable working space for theater professionals

Shows and events don’t just happen by themselves. Behind the familiar actors, writers, and directors are all those people whose names you don’t know. They create the actual physical event, and they need a place to work. The Philadelphia Design Center, a collaboration between Making Homes for the Arts in Sacred Places (AiSP) and Vectorworks, Inc., a Maryland-based software company, along with funding from the Knight Foundation, provides such a place.

High-end computers are linked to a plotter. (Both photos courtesy of Vectorworks, Inc.)

For AiSP director Karen DiLossi, who has been instrumental in forging other collaborations between arts organizations and under-utilized houses of worship in Philadelphia, this is a labor of love. A theater artist herself, she knows how hard it can be to find affordable spaces to work. Partnering with Vectorworks, Inc., a developer of cross-platform CAD and BIM software for the architecture, landscape, and entertainment industries, she has created a place where designers can work and collaborate with access to technology and resources.

Frank Brault, Philly-born industry product specialist for Vectorworks, has his own reasons for supporting the project. He has a degree in scene design and stage lighting, so he too understands the need for spaces where designers can work and share ideas. “Vectorworks has a commitment to giving back to the arts community,” he adds.

A former fellowship hall

The Design Center is housed on the ground floor of the James W. Queen Memorial Building, which had once served as a fellowship hall for the Hope Presbyterian Church next door. Built in 1895, the building has since been used as a day care center, a library, a gym, and a Head Start Center. Now it is home to a new group of creative artists.

It’s an enticing place to work. Light streams into the multipurpose space through tall windows. Developer Cormac McAleer, who owns the building, upgraded the space with HVAC and Wi-Fi. Ten computer workstations, equipped with high-end software and linked to a plotter, are located along one wall; tables and a small dressing room are available for costume designers and other fiber artists on the other side of the room. At one end is a comfortable seating area, at the other a neon green restroom and a washer and dryer. 

Other spaces in the building are already in use. Artist studios are tucked away in the basement and a large sculpture studio and a gym and basketball court are upstairs. A potential theater space is in development.

Raw space

Right now the Design Center is raw space for a creative artist. “I want the designers to tell me what we need,” says DiLossi. For example, she’s been told that costume designers prefer to work on their own sewing machines, so rather than invest in equipment that might not be used, she is waiting to let the members decide what’s needed. Then she will try to find a way to get it for them.

In addition to work space, theater designers need to document their work so it can be reproduced or at least recorded. Vectorworks software has been created with them in mind. DeLossi’s husband, lighting designer Joshua Schulman  —  part of the team that designed the time travel installation in the lobby of the Kimmel Center during the 2013 PIFA — used Vectorworks Spotlight to refine his design.

The Design Center is located in an area in development as well. The University of Pennsylvania’s Pennovation Center is being built just a few blocks away. The center’s staff expect that will bring people and better transportation to the area, making it even more accessible.

With an understanding of the transitory nature of work in the entertainment industry, memberships are available on a monthly basis. Costs vary depending on anticipated usage.

AiSP is a part of Partners for Sacred Places, an organization that attempts to turn under-utilized sacred places into assets that benefit shrinking congregations as well as community organizations. While not every partnership has flourished, DiLossi hopes that this Design Center project will be as successful as some others, like the housing of Brian Sanders’s Junk in Shiloh Baptist Church.

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