Interview with Emily Pilloton
Emily Pilloton is the Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit Girls Garage. A designer, builder, educator, and author, she has taught thousands of young girls how to use power tools, weld, and build projects for their communities.
Emily Pilloton knows the power of power tools. As a designer, builder, educator, and founder of the nonprofits Project H Design and Girls Garage, she uses architecture and design to transform communities and conventional classroom education. Her work has been featured in national media outlets, The TED Stage and the filmIf You Build It.
Along with her nonprofit work, she is a Lecturer at the University of California Berkeley and writer. Her new book, Girls Garage, was released earlier this month. The FS spoke to Emily about how design and building inspire.
You have an educational background in architecture/design and worked as a designer; how did you get interested in the field?
As a kid, I used to love taking things apart, drawing floor plans of my room, building treehouses, and getting dirty in the woods near my house. I’ve always been drawn to the visceral experience of working with my hands and the certainty of whether things “work” or “don’t work.” I remember taking apart my grandmother’s rotary phone to figure out how it rang, and playing with this German construction set, tubes and elbow joints, called Quadro. Then when I was in high school, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Belize with teenagers from around the country, and learn how to build.
Alongside community members and teenagers, I learned how to mix concrete, level a field with a machete, frame a roof, and we built a huge gazebo and park filled with public furniture. I think I was 16 years old. It was this experience that cemented (pun intended) for me my love of architecture, because it made me realize what I was capable of. This experience of creating space with my own two hands for a greater purpose told me that I could have an impact in the world and that the world itself could always be made better.
You worked as a designer in a traditional day-job and then quit to start your own furniture company. What led you to that, and can you talk about the experience?
After graduate school at the School of the Art Institute, where I learned how to weld and hone my building craft in multiple media, I actually only took a traditional day job so that I could pay my bills and be a “real adult,” but continued to make custom furniture in my attic in the evenings. It was a real hustle, working 9 – 5 in a job I didn’t love at a furniture company or design firm, but then coming home to work a second shift to make work that I did love. It was all worth it and those first “traditional” jobs taught me a lot about what motivates people, what I’m good at (problem-solving, spatial reasoning, etc), and also what I’m very bad at (working in a cubicle, compromise, etc).
The last “traditional job” I had was at a retail company for which I was a store architect. I made it three weeks before I quit. There was a “lightbulb moment” when I just looked up during this 2‑hour meeting and realized, “Wow, this cannot be how I am spending my time. This cannot be what architecture has become for me.” I remembered that feeling on the jobsite in Belize where I was covered in dirt and felt the connection between my own labor and real impact, and decided that I needed to reclaim that feeling. So I quit and never looked back. That was in 2007, and I’ve been committed to doing the kind of design/build work that I first discovered as a teenager ever since.
What then led you to start a non-profit related to designing, improving communities?
Shortly after leaving my last “traditional job,” I founded Project H Design. I was living with my parents and had $1000 in my bank account. I was 26 years old. I founded the organization as a nonprofit because I knew it would hold me accountable to always working towards impact, rather than profit or some externally defined metric of success. I called it Project H Design because on a napkin I scribbled some brainstormed words that represented the soul of this nascent idea: “heart,” “humanity,” “health,” “happiness,” “hammer.” They all started with an H, and I figured I could always change the name later (which 11 years later, I finally have).
Your non-profit now is Girls Garage. Why was it important to you to focus your design and building program towards girls?
The more I was teaching and leading co-ed groups of teenagers, who were incredible and talented and deeply underestimated, the more I couldn’t escape the very female experience of being on a construction site, both for myself and my female students. At least 15% of our energy as girls and women, on a construction site, or in predominantly male spaces, feels like it must be put towards proving we belong, that we’re qualified enough, or that we know how to do whatever is necessary. It’s exhausting. I had female students who were beyond creatively brilliant, who I observed, when I asked someone to go cut pieces on the chop saw, doing the mental calculus, weighing their confidence in their own skills with the inevitable negotiation of judgment or disbelief if they volunteered. Often in the 5 seconds to do this calculus, a male student would already have picked up the wood and walked over to the saw.
I ended up pulling groups of female students aside, working just us as girls and women, and the feeling was game changing. There was no self-censoring or doubt, only the work in front of us that we all knew we knew how to do. Girls Garage grew not out of the frustration of co-ed spaces but out of the magic that comes from being amongst sisters who believe in you. That catalyst is hard to describe, and for young women, it’s an invitation to be their fullest selves, to never question whether they belong. In many ways the power tools become metaphoric for our power as women, and we work hard to cultivate both the technical skills AND the life skills that will serve girls well.
People will ask me, “well what about boys garage?” And I tell them that “Boys garage is every garage in America.” Girls Garage is not about man-hating or self-pity or even an overt “girls rule” narrative. To carve out physical space for girls and women and to say, “This belongs to us,” is inherently political and inherently powerful. It is unapologetic. And the fact that we’re using power tools in that space is the real power, because it says to girls, not only is this place for you, it’s a place you can do all the things people have told you you can’t or shouldn’t.
For students, do you see design as a way to reach into multiple disciplines — math, science, even English etc.?
I think design and building (and especially design and building within a community) is at the center of a huge Venn diagram, where math, art, social science, and many other subjects intersect. For a lot of young women who participate in Girls Garage projects, it’s through this work that abstract concepts become real, and therefore stick. The way we teach geometry, for example, is through equations and worksheets. But in building, you actually have to know how to calculate an angle or an area, because you need that information to cut pieces, join them, or keep things from falling down. It’s a bit like being told the definition of the word “happiness,” versus feeling happiness for yourself. To build something using geometry is “feeling” it, remembering it, and understanding it in terms of your own work and creation.
Have you seen it improve student learning and if so, can you give an example? Last summer, our Advanced Design/Build cohort of high school girls, many of whom have been with Girls Garage since they were 9 or 10 years old, built a 21-foot-long public parklet bench. The bench itself is made up of close to 500 lengths of 2x4, each cut a specific miter angle to create the overall appearance of an undulating landscape. The geometry is complex, as the dimensions change along 3 different axes over 21 feet. One day we were trying to resolve one of the angles and I asked a team of 3 girls to go work it out on the whiteboard. A few minutes later, I came over to check on them and they were running inverse tangent calculations for each of the miter angles. I watched in awe as they arrived at 21.5 degrees, with a 2‑degree shift for each bench “rib.” So this is how learning can look and feel, where you don’t even really recognize that you’re learning geometry because it’s just part of a necessary process of problem-solving. There’s no worksheet, but there is definitely now a gorgeous bench built by 14 high school girls.
You talk about ‘Design with — not for,’ which is far more challenging with a community that a single client. What are some of the most important ways you have found to make sure the students/designers and community members are involved and the design meeting the needs?
The projects our teen girls build at Girls Garage are always outward-facing. Every project has a community client and a real set of constraints and needs. This approach is partly about being of service, and putting skills to work on tangible challenges in our community, but it also just results in better projects. When there are constraints of time, money, many cooks in the kitchen, and a community of diverse voices, it requires you to listen, to respond, to ask questions, and to find a solution that genuinely works for everyone (aka the best solution).
Our girls are currently building a huge chicken coop structure for an urban farm, and instead of us blindly designing and building a structure without context or consequence, we have listened to the organization’s needs, looked at the context of the other structures, asked how employees and farm volunteers will use and maintain the coop, and even what the chickens might want. All of these questions help us make design decisions based on a set of criteria and values, which actually makes the end result better, more long-lasting, more beloved. In a more philosophical sense, our entire built environment will always be better off if there is a diverse group of people at the table designing, shaping, and building it. We all deserve to play a role in the authorship of our own world.
Do you still build furniture?
I pour all my creative “builder” energy into the projects I build with Girls. I find so much more gratification now from helping bring their ideas into the world than my own. I spend a ton of time repairing and maintain the tools at Girls Garage, which is one of my favorite tasks because it takes me back to the 7‑year-old girl taking apart my grandmother’s telephone and figuring out how the world works.
Have a creative hobby aside from the creative work you do?
I’m always into some random activity that often takes over my house or garage. There’s almost always some pile of stuff that represents my latest hobby, from electrical work to tree identification, kombucha-making, or watercolor. I am physically incapable of not being active and making things, so it matters less what it is, and more that my builder-muscles are always in use.
Right now your Girls Garage programs are only in the Berkeley area — is that why you wrote the book Girls Garage? Who did you write it for?
I wrote the Girls Garage book because I wanted to invite girls everywhere to join a movement of fearless builder girls and women. The girls who attend our in-person programming at the Girls Garage workshop in Berkeley are trail blazers and leaders and will no doubt go on to do incredible things. I feel privileged to have witnessed their work firsthand and helped them practice and hone their skills in an intimate setting. But I also recognize that there are girls around the country and world who may not have access to similar programming. Even though we don’t have plans to “franchise” because of our commitment to the “placeness” of our current community, I think the Girls Garage book is a great place to start, with no barrier of entry. The book is essentially 7 years of Girls Garage knowledge, projects, and love poured into 320 pages. I wrote the book in the same way I talk to girls who attend classes, with unconditional support, accessible language, and also a respect for their innate intelligence and creativity. So I hope it’s an invitation to begin, to use new tools, to build something and say “I built that.”
It’s hard to get around what’s happening now. How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day activities?
This is a challenging moment for everyone, in so many ways. As an organization, and a nonprofit that relies on a physical space, it’s been very hard for us to not be able to run in-person classes. The face-to-face time we spend with girls is our greatest investment and currency, and so many of the intangibles get lost when we aren’t able to gather as cohorts of girls and women. That said, when shelter-in-place went into effect, we immediately said, “Well okay, let’s do this.” We didn’t miss a beat. Almost overnight, we transitioned all of our in-person after-school classes to virtual classes, sent enrolled students bank boxes full of materials and tools for class projects, and continued to meet weekly via Zoom. We also created video and virtual content accessible to all families everywhere, from a series called Tool School to individual design challenge videos on Instagram.
We compiled and distributed over 200 “take-home builder kits” and starter tool sets to local girls families, which included all of the materials, tools, and instructions to build a toolbox or a birdhouse. Our teen girls also teamed up with a local coalition called People’s Protective Equipment, and at Girls Garage we assembled over 1500 face shields that were distributed at no cost to health care workers around the country.
So, even though our work looks very different, it has still been constant and committed. In this moment, we know that our girls, in their own homes, need to feel supported and connected and inspired to keep going, and in that way Girls Garage is even more important. Many of the soft skills we don’t overtly advertise, and the deep conversations we hold with girls around identity, doubts, confidence, and agency, are both paying off and becoming even more urgent. We feel grateful to be trusted and looked to by girls for the sense of unconditional support, beyond just power tools, that we all need right now.
Girls Garage: How To Use Any Tool, Tackle Any Project, and Build The World You Want To See, Emily Pilloton (author), Kate Bingaman-Burt (artist) www.girlsgarage.org/book