Informal education

Four unconventional hubs are putting the fun into learning.

  • Photograph: David Rosenzweig

    3rd Ward

  • 3rd Ward

  • Brooklyn Kitchen Labs

  • Brooklyn Kitchen Labs

Photograph: David Rosenzweig

3rd Ward

Intellectual pursuits are hot. Whether it's a backlash to millions of mindless Twitter updates or laid-off workers looking to broaden their horizons in their free time, New Yorkers have become a curious bunch. As such, several offbeat organizations have cropped up in Brooklyn that blur the boundaries between entertainment and education. These non-institutions are all about encouraging experimentation, eschewing formality and making themselves as accessible as possible. Welcome to the new age of enlightenment.

Brooklyn Brainery
After graduating from college four years ago, Jennifer Messier moved to Manhattan and was hell-bent on continuing her education in the most engaging ways possible, from surfing in the Rockaways to learning how to weld. After a while, though, she and frequent collaborator Jonathan Soma realized their pursuits were too expensive and time-consuming. The catalyst came when Soma was denied entry to a perfume-making class at FIT (cost: $1,500) because he wasn't a grad student. It wasn't long before the two were plotting ways to teach themselves about things that interested them—despite having no previous knowledge or experience—and enlisting others to share in the process. The result was Brooklyn Brainery, launched last January, which Messier describes as "a book club on steroids." Since then, the offerings have been wildly diverse, from classes in whittling and baking the perfect piecrust to telescope making, American Sign Language...and one called "Scents and Sensibility," a hands-on perfume workshop. "The classes [at Brooklyn Brainery] are collaborative—they don't require an expert teacher, and it's easier to motivate yourself when the class actually needs you," says Messier. So far courses cost just $25 apiece, and after experimenting with various course lengths, the two have found one-offs to be the most satisfying. "We're serial dabblers, so this is a perfect solution for us," she says. Apparently it's the perfect formula for its growing followers, too: The grassroots academy has raised $9,630 already toward a new, permanent home in the 'hood. Gowanus Studio Space, 166 7th St between Second and Third Aves, Gowanus, Brooklyn (

3rd Ward
While design collective may conjure images of high-end decor and well-heeled architects, it's still the most apt moniker for 3rd Ward, housed in two warehouse spaces in Brooklyn: the original in Bushwick and a second, just-opened space in Williamsburg. It was founded by Jason Goodman and Jeremy Lovitt, who wanted to re-create the highly creative, supportive community they had found at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The duo signed a lease on the first cavernous space in 2006, and it quickly became known as a primo party venue. After a year, though, the founders got to work setting up shop—literally. The 30,000-square-foot facility now houses woodworking and welding shops, photography studios, a media lab and office space. It's all at the disposal of members (four membership tiers cost between $49 and $499 per month) and nonmembers alike. The same goes for 3rd Ward classes, which explore diverse terrain ranging from glassblowing and silversmithing to Photoshop, papermaking and embroidery: They're free to the two highest membership levels, and discounted for the others. The collective has by no means shed its party-animal side, however, as events, gallery openings and soirees continue to punctuate the calendar. A case in point is the ongoing Wednesday night hit Drink 'n Draw event (8--10:30pm). For $15 you get the opportunity to draw a live model and swig free beer (you bring the pen and paper). It's one place in the city for which the recession has been a boon, giving newly unemployed professionals a space to work, and those wanting to redirect their careers a place to dive into the arts. 159 Morgan Ave between Meadow and Stagg Sts, Bushwick, Brooklyn (718-715-4961) * 573 Metropolitan Ave between Lorimer St and Union Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (718-715-4961) *

Brooklyn Kitchen Labs
In the summer of 2005, Harry Rosenblum and his wife, Taylor Erkkinen, found themselves with 35 pounds of grapes, which they'd picked from vines growing in back of their new place in Greenpoint. Figuring they'd make some jam, they headed off to pick up canning goods, but came home empty-handed: No shop around had even a jar to sell them. And so an idea was born. Five years later, the couple own a thriving kitchen-supply store, Brooklyn Kitchen, and a butcher shop called the Meat Hook, where they offer a burgeoning roster of cooking classes. "This is a cooking school for home cooks," says Rosenblum. "We offer no degrees and no certificates; that model just isn't sustainable for recreational classes." Instead, the school specializes in one-time workshops, and most cost far less (on average $40 to $75) than their counterparts at places like the Institute of Culinary Education, "because we don't pay Manhattan rents." Its core classes are knife skills, canning and pickling, but over time the lineup has grown eclectic, with classes on how to create such delectables as ceviche and kimchi. BKL has also enlisted a number of local legends as instructors, such as pizza chefs from locavore clubhouse Roberta's, lobster-roll guru Ben Sargent (the Lobster Pusher Man) and barbecue maestro Robby Richter from Fatty 'Cue. The school's most popular offerings? A pig-butchering demo, held in the cooler months, and home beer brewing, offered every two weeks year-round. "People have gotten very interested in making something from scratch, and not because it's cheaper. They want to know everything that goes into it, and to have something special they made themselves," Rosenblum adds. 100 Frost St at Meeker St, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (718-389-2982,

The Observatory
Run by a loose cooperative of artists and curators, the Observatory is a kind of think tank for the intellectually—and morbidly—curious. "We love art and hate the art world," says founder Joanna Eberstein, also a photographer and blogger (Morbid Anatomy) and the creator of the Morbid Anatomy Library, an actual antechamber cum cabinet of curiosities off the main Observatory space. "What we want to do is break down the distinctions of art and science, science and the humanities, to see things in multiples rather than perfect singulars," she says. The project came into being when a "rigorous, intense" talk she hosted several years ago on the Mtter Museum, a medical museum in Philadelphia, held its audience spellbound—exactly what she thought it wouldn't do. Launched last March, the Observatory mostly holds lectures and shows that explore, according to Eberstein, "art and medicine, medical museums, education and spectacle, cabinets of curiosity, overlooked collections, dioramas, arcane media, taxidermy, and much more." Several classes have surfaced as well—among them plant pressing and bookmaking—and Eberstein hopes to expand the repertoire with taxidermy and arcane practices like carbon dusting, a medical illustration technique in use till the 1950s that involves applying graphite with a brush. "I'm excited about being involved with something positive—a community that's like-minded, but not sceney," she says. "It has a great sense of possibility." 543 Union St at Nevins St, Gowanus, Brooklyn (