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Meet Matthew Runfola of Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center in Rogers Park

Today we’d like to introduce you to Matthew Runfola.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
Looking back, I have always been interested in design, materials, and how things are made. I have been very fortunate to have continued opportunities to learn and grow and many mentors willing to share their knowledge. It’s this continued growing and sharing that I really grabbed hold of.

My interest in mechanical design started as a kid growing up in rural Western New York. I would disassemble anything I could (and many things I shouldn’t have), trying to understand how it worked and why it was designed the way it was. This affinity led me to earn a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Rochester Institute of Technology. My engineering days gave me great experience with the technical aspects of design and manufacturing processes. However, what I was lacking was creativity and ownership. In 2001, after having switched gears to product design and marketing in the sporting goods industry, I decided to leave the corporate world and venture full-time into creating custom metal furniture and sculpture, and Runfola Studios was born. It was at this time that I also began to formally teach creative metalworking.

Runfola Studios was a one-man show for the most part. I was the designer, the fabricator, the sales team and the marketing group. To say, I had a crash course in the business of art was an understatement. At its height, I had a line of furniture placed in over a dozen showrooms across the country. My thumbprint became unique metal finishes, patinas. In fact, I authored a book on the subject (Patina: 300+ Coloration Effects for Jewelers and Metalsmiths, Interweave, 2014). I also headed the Metal Sculpture program at the Evanston Art Center (Evanston, IL) for nearly 13 years.

Circumstances led that shop to close, which in 2014 opened the door for me to found the Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center, a 3D object maker’s learning and resource center in Rogers Park. In a sense, CIADC is my dream shop, expanding from just metal to also include wood, castable materials and technology. I have put 100% of my energies into making CIADC the best it can be ever since.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Early on, my struggles were more from feeling I was straddling two very different worlds – the technical and the creative, the engineering and the art. I ultimately accepted that design of object was the common thread connecting these and I immediately knew I belonged in both worlds. Now with education, I go to great lengths to ensure people of all backgrounds feel that belonging. Otherwise, both the technical and creative worlds can be intimidating.

Of course, operating small businesses (for-profit Runfola Studios, and not-for-profit Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center) has its own set of challenges, but I see those as learning opportunities!

Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
I am the Founder and President of the Chicago Industrial Arts & Design Center (CIADC). CIADC is a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization with a mission to provide education, working access and community for 3D object makers working in permanent materials, using industrial processes, and shop equipment. We offer programming for teens and adults, of every skill-level and interest, in Casting & Molding, Metalworking & Forging, Technology & Design and Woodworking. CIADC is like shop class for creatives, and is my chance to give back to the community. We breaking down barriers to make it easier for people to creatively work with their hands.

CIADC is located in a 10,500-square foot industrial facility in Rogers Park, a creatively-rich, yet under-served, far-north neighborhood of Chicago. We give people the skill, the confidence, and the resources to make furniture, sculpture, decorative, and product-oriented objects. We offer classes and studio access shop time to the general public throughout the week. Our teaching philosophy is fundamental in its approach. We believe that if you have a sound understanding of safety, material properties, proper tool use and techniques, you will be more effective at creating anything.

At only 3 years-old, we already have a healthy community. In 2017, CIADC averaged over 100 users per 10-week term, drawing people from 90 unique zip codes to our programming. We are unique in our departmental offerings, but also unique in our balance of education and shop access. CIADC operates year-round.

What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
I would rather answer with most “rewarding” moments.

Every time I place myself outside of my comfort zone and grow from those experiences, I am rewarded. Me opening up to being creative and technical is a great example.

Every time I rally a group of people to do the seemingly impossible, I am rewarded. The start of CIADC as an organization is a great example.

Every time I positively affect a teen student, I am rewarded. Giving everyone, but especially teens, the opportunity to create, to gain confidence and responsibility, to problem solve, and to become empowered – all through making objects in an industrial shop environment – is a great example.

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