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Hands-on coworking space promotes artistic collaboration

Near 24th and Harney streets in downtown Omaha is a workshop that brings artists together.

It’s a place where professionals and hobbyists can be found working with miter saws and table saws, an industrial sewing machine and a welding torch, along with a slew of other tools.

This is Bench.

It’s a coworking space established by Ben Petersen, a professional furniture maker who founded his own shop – PhilipDesignLab – in 2009.

At the time, Petersen was building furniture in his garage with limited tools, a common problem among furniture makers.

“A lot of people had a need for better tools, better equipment and better space but couldn’t buy it on their own,” said Petersen, who started building furniture as an 8-year-old.

So, Petersen decided to open a space for professionals to work in, complete with tools and the expertise of other craftsmen — but his idea quickly evolved.

“As we did research and talked with people about the idea, we realized that a lot of non-professionals and hobbyists were also interested in using the space as well, but not in the same way,” he said.

So after tweaking his concept, Bench opened in September 2012. The space is directed at two types of clients: professionals and hobbyists, or as Petersen calls them, “benchmates” and “weekend warriors.”

Benchmates pay a monthly, individual membership fee of $150, which includes access to Bench tools and equipment, shared workspace, a discount on supplies and free coffee. Weekend warrior day passes are for those who come in to Bench every so often. They pay a $25-per-day fee and enjoy the same perks as benchmates.

More expensive business memberships are also available for those who want 24-hour access to Bench and a few other perks.

A distinguishing element is that there’s nothing like Bench in Omaha, although Petersen said he’s seen similar spaces in other cities.

“That’s the reason we started it,” he said. “If somebody else would have started it we would have just joined.”

Jeremy Estill joined Bench in June 2013.

He’s an artist who worked as an artisan baker, dabbled in drawing and has an extensive theatrical background. Now, he sees furniture-making as the culmination of his artistic talents.

“I think the tying factor between the theater and between baking is that it’s very hands-on and very craft-oriented,” said Estill, who runs Roost.artisanhome and works part-time at Pitch Pizzeria. “(It) came full circle with the furniture, it was something I could do on my own and take the best of all of those things and put it into a one outlet.”

Estill spends as much time as possible at Bench building his self-described “modern, nostalgic” furniture. It’s a style inspired by his grandparents who grew up in the Midwest during the Depression, he said.

But working at Bench is about more than just focusing on one’s own projects.

“We’re always bouncing ideas off of one another; it’s good to talk about the process as much as anything,” Estill said.

Jeff Shannon echoed Estill’s sentiments, adding that the unique group of people promotes a collaborative working atmosphere.

“I’m new at this,” said Shannon, who works full-time as a brand director for ConAgra. “But people are pretty generous with their time to help you work on stuff.”

When Shannon started coming to Bench a year and a half year ago, he was impressed with how Petersen helped the new members overcome their intimidation of the tools in the workshop.

Before artists can begin working at Bench, they take a course about the specific workshop they’ll be using so they understand the tools and safety precautions involved. After that, they have free reign of the equipment.

When it comes to Excel spreadsheets, emails and PowerPoint presentations, Shannon said he’s a pro, but joining Bench was a way to step away from the digital world. Plus, he was hoping to acquire a few more “man skills.”

“You learn something new about yourself as you begin to build,” Estill said. “It’s just a really non-judgemental atmosphere and we’re there to help and facilitate one another.”

But Bench isn’t just for woodworking. Over the last year Petersen expanded the workshop to include metalworking and a print shop.

“I really dig it because it’s called Bench but I think it’s evolved more into DIY,” Shannon said. “There’s just so many different things that people can do and it’s really about that personal creativity.”

In June, Bench will expand its offerings by moving to a larger location just north of downtown.

The move is exciting, marking a new chapter for Bench, but Petersen said it’s taken a lot of personal work to get to this point.

“I wanted to be able to bootstrap the whole thing and not get into debt and run it all myself so that’s been a little complex,” Petersen said. “That meant starting in a relatively small space and then seeing growth very quickly and the growth for expansion and better offerings.”

An added challenge has been maintaining his own work as a furniture maker while running Bench. After all, Petersen said, he’s a woodworker, not a businessman. While he’s still working on balancing his businesses, Petersen said the added work is well-worth the outcome.

“(We are) really new and hitting our stride, figuring out what Bench is and what we want it to be,” Petersen said. “We always said we wanted to be a workshop for anyone who wanted to make anything.”