Smile Politely

The view from CoLab

A couple months ago, I stopped by [co][lab]’s first open house and got a taste of what Urbana’s new creative co-working space has to offer. This Friday, [co][lab] will host its ribbon-cutting ceremony and another open house that will showcase the space and the people who work there. I sat down with some of the creative types that make their work in [co][lab] and chatted with them about what [co][lab]—and Urbana—means to them.

The space looks different, busier, and more vibrant than it did a couple months ago. Anna Gutsch and Johann Rischau, owners from Norden, a German design studio, are now doing their work in an enclosed wooden structure that takes up most of [co][lab]’s front room.

Their workspace is warmly lit and filled with a large pine table. Rosie, the designers’ dog, bustled around [co][lab] as I spoke with them.

Anna told me that for the upcoming open house, she and Johann will be making their place in [co][lab] an inviting exhibition space that will guide community members through the whole building. They will also bring some design products that visitors will have the chance to view and purchase.

U of I’s industrial design program brought Anna and Johann to Urbana from northern Germany, and they said that when they graduated, they wanted to give something back to the place that became their home while they were in school. “The water isn’t the same as it was yesterday,” Anna commented, “so when we graduated, we decided to stay in this community rather than move back to Germany.”

Carl Catedral, a social media and branding consultant who rents a desk in [co][lab]’s back room, has a similar Urbana origin story.

He moved to Urbana because his wife goes to school at the university, but now that he’s here, he says he “wants to get plugged into the community.” And he thinks that living in a small community in the Midwest is ideal for starting a creative business.

“What’s happening now in the Midwest is sort of undercover,” he said, “but at some point, it’s going to pop. And because we’re in a city like Urbana, we get to influence when that happens.”

Anna and Johann had similar comments about Urbana being the perfect place to open their design company. They said that the personal and unpretentious culture they’ve found in the Midwest meshes with Norden’s simple and refined design concepts. “People see this place as having a good system of values,” Johann pointed out, “so people trust things coming out of the Midwest.”

Everyone I spoke with agreed that Urbana is an easy and exciting place to live. “In Chicago, we would be one amongst many,” Anna commented. “But here, we can change things and see those changes right away. We can watch the community grow because of our influence.”

Kate Fritz, owner of Lady Kate Productions, echoed the others’ excitement about the Midwest and Urbana in particular. “It’s really alive here,” she said. After living in San Francisco and New York, she said she has come to love Urbana and is thrilled that this community “is able to support a relatively urban co-working infrastructure” in [co][lab].

“People are personal and generous here,” she said. “I think that’s because they can see the impact that places like this have on their community.”

The vibe from [co][lab] was sincere, welcoming, and effusively Midwest-positive.

I was struck by how all the business owners I spoke with talked about Urbana as bursting with creative energy. For them, Urbana is the kind of place that’s not only about to become the next big thing, but that already is the next big thing. As a staunch Midwesterner, I’m used to responding to skeptics by defending the subtle joys of living in the heartlands. But rather than being on the defensive, the [co][lab] members I spoke with were singing the praises of being here, now. Talking with them made me feel that we don’t have to keep up with the Joneses: being from C-U is something worth being proud of in its own right.


[co][lab]’s ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house is this Friday, Oct. 11, starting at 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public. The event will also highlight the opening of Pizza M and Flying Machine Café next door at Cafeteria & Co.

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