Dedicated to creating beauty and changing lives, the Alpha Workshops, founded in 1995, is the nation’s only non-profit organization providing creative HIV-positive individuals with industry-specific training and employment in the decorative arts. The organization has grown tremendously in nearly two decades and has recently settled in to a newly expanded headquarters in Chelsea designed (pro bono) by Coffinier Ku and overseen by contractor Stephen Fanuka.
Alpha Workshops founder Kenneth Wampler took the Editor at Large team on a tour of the new space, which features a design shop as well as various workrooms and classrooms consolidated onto one floor.
While touring the space, this reporter chatted with Wampler, who expounded on the organization's growth and where it’s headed in the future.
How has the organization changed since you first began?
It has grown gradually, building its capabilities over time to include decorative wall finishes such as Venetian plaster and glazing, custom furniture with fine decorative finishes, and superbly beautiful hand-painted wallpapers. Our school, The Alpha Workshops Studio School, has also been licensed by the New York State Department of Education.
Why the need for the new space?
We were not looking to move. However, the new space came about because the landlord had a full floor available and made us a good offer. Previously, our classrooms and studios were spread over three partial floors and now they are all on the same floor. This allows us the opportunity to have our school and studios co-located—and therefore, students can easily walk through the studios seeing the work taking place. This allows them to see what it actually looks like to be a decorative artist.
What has the new space allowed you to do?
The new space allows us to increase enrollment in the school. It also doubles our capacity to produce wallpapers. It allows us to showcase our finishes and papers on the walls and ceilings and it allows us to host large and small gatherings to acquaint new designers and funders with our mission and services.
How has the company grown in the last few years?
We grew quite steadily from our inception in 1995 until the recession hit. Then we had to tighten our belt like everyone else. We have been back on a growth track for the past several years though, and fingers crossed, that will continue.
How many students come through the school each year? Of those, how many become Alpha Workshops staff members?
Our goal is to have at least 40 students begin the 10 week introductory course each year with half of them going on to the 26 week advanced course. We hire our graduates based on the growth of sales and have been able to add several artisan staff members each year. In addition we work with our graduates to help find them work outside of the Alpha Workshops. Currently, we have a staff of 16 artisans.
What are the licensing deals you currently have?
Any interesting designer partnerships or new projects you are working on?
Each time we begin to work with a new designer we are learning a language that is new to us. What makes life interesting as an artisan is helping a designer realize what they imagine, as they imagine it. We have become known for our Negoro Nuri finish. It is a 17th century Japanese finish that we do in the traditional style as well as our own interpretations of it.
We recently completed a site specific piece of lighting for the Fortuny showroom in the D&D Building. It is made of grapewood, a gnarly and fascinating material, which suspends three gorgeous Fortuny lanterns from the ceiling. We are also seeing an uptick in verre eglomise, and renewed interest in floorcloths.