John Bielenberg and his work with PieLab aren’t new to Alabama Chanin, or our blog. We were curious what John has been up to, so we caught up with him between his travels to learn more about Project M, PieLab, and recent goings on in Greensboro, Alabama.

We also got our hands on a delicious recipe from the pop-up café, PieLab, for our Wednesday Recipes.

Their Tart Apple Pie with White Cheddar Crust has a beautiful lattice top that looks like the pies I ate growing up. Combining the tartness of the apples with the savory of the white cheddar makes for a fabulous slice of pie. If only it weren’t a three hour drive down to Greensboro to get a slice. Recipe then Q&A with John to follow:

AC: Hi John. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about the positive social change that is taking place here in our home state. For starters, can you tell us more about Project M?

JB: In 2000, I heard Samuel Mockbee speak in San Francisco about Rural Studio. I didn’t know much about him or the studio, but I thought his presentation and persona were so fantastic. I loved the idea that in relatively a short period of time, he really changed the way his students thought about architecture.

Rural Studio provided an intensive, immersive experience and gave them the opportunity to drive positive change about the things they care about. I thought to myself, “Why doesn’t this exist for graphic design?”

AC: Did you go to school to learn graphic design?

JB: I had formal schooling in graphic design. I taught at California College of the Arts (CCA) then moved to Maine to have a different quality of life. Being there gave me more time and energy.

AC: Sounds like a nice change of pace. So is that where Project M began?

JB: Project M (M stands for Mockbee) was established in 2003 after I moved to Maine. We started out with month long social design projects where we would travel to different locations. On our way back from a trip to New Orleans, we stopped in Hale County, Alabama. Pam Dorr, director of Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO), invited me to bring Project M to Greensboro, Alabama.

PieLab started in Maine as a place where community could gather and have conversation over pie and coffee. In May 2009, five designers went to Alabama and opened the pop-up PieLab and design studio.

AC: I love the idea behind a pop-up. Temporary, transient, experimental. I also think that speaks a lot to sustainability, and of course the community.

JB: These pop-up models are little bets. You try and see if it works, then you build on that experience. It allows you to be free and experiment. It turned out to be very successful in Greensboro.

HERO is what really helped PieLab take off. PieLab was so successful because of Pam and her connection to the community. As Executive Director of HERO, Pam was there on the ground doing things, which really allowed Pam and HERO to create change in the community. After the success, PieLab made the commitment to be in Alabama full-time.

AC: HERO is such a fitting acronym for a non-profit organization that works on community development to end rural poverty! We are so proud to have such a driving force of the “design for good” movement in Alabama. We love the mission statement for PieLab:

PieLab = a neutral place + a slice of pie.
A neutral place + a slice of pie = conversation.
Conversation = ideas + design.
Ideas + design = positive change.

JB: This neutral place was possible because it was created by outsiders. There wasn’t a preexisting code when it was established. Part of the designers who came from Maine to create it have moved on, and the community has taken it over. PieLab is owned by the community.

HERO owns and runs the building. But it is seen as a neutral space, and is part of the community. They also have open mic nights, ballroom dancing, and art shows in the space.

AC: How does Project M approach a social project?

JB: At Project M, we focus on projects as ongoing sustainable enterprises. If you can create something that keeps going, drives positive change, and creates job opportunities- then you’ve really scored. One of our latest projects, HeroBike, is just that, a social enterprise.

In Hale County, Alabama, the economy is much about poverty and welfare. Like much of rural America, this place was agriculture-based, and now there are no jobs.

AC: These conditions have made Greensboro a hotspot for designers who work with the community and have a social agenda. How many projects has Project M started there?

JB: Right now there are six different projects running. The latest project that Project M is working on in Alabama is building bikes out of Alabama grown bamboo that is branded Alabamboo. The bigger idea is to get bamboo grown as an agricultural product in rural Alabama. We want to associate bamboo with Alabama, like peaches are to Georgia, or lobster is to Maine.

AC: Using creative energy to revitalize the community and economy and help the environment- it’s wonderful.

Thank you, John, for taking the time to speak with us, and thank you for all of your good work- in Alabama and globally.We look forward to hearing more from you in the future!

P.S. Read about more community-based graphic design, including another project – Pecans!- from the designers at PieLab, in Andrew Shea’s Designing for Social Change.


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  1. jonn

    “In Hale County, Alabama, the economy is much about poverty and welfare. Like much of rural America, this place was agriculture-based, and now there are no jobs.”

    Though I am not familiar with all of rural America, I have seen what John Bielenberg is describing in many states and agree with the above statement.

    There is an open community mindset in Hale County that is not the case in all rural agriculture based communities.

    Thank you for the interview and exposure to knowledge. Food for thought.