DESIGNERSIts name means "beginning" in Greek, and that's exactly what The Alpha Workshops is: a place for people with HIV to start over. Founded in 1995 by Kenneth Wampler, the non-profit design studio in New York City trains people with HIV in the decorative arts. Employing almost 30 people, the studio specializes in everything from Venetian plaster, stained glass, gilding, wall glazing and casting to designing its own high-end lines of lamps and hand-painted wallpapers. In addition, it offers three 10-week training courses per year, a sort of Decorative Arts 101, to people ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s; half of the students graduate into an advanced, 26-week apprenticeship, working alongside the studio’s designers. "We teach them tools to start a new life," says Wampler. Most of the apprentices are then hired as paid employees of The Alpha Workshops.
Wampler's inspiration for the studio grew out of his need for a creative outlet combined with his growing concern for people living with HIV. "I had a hard time reconciling painting cushions while people were dying from the AIDS epidemic," says the 52-year old decorative painter, who returned to school in 1991 to earn a Master’s degree in social work and spent nine years developing housing for people with HIV through the AIDS Resource Center before forming The Alpha Workshops.
"The idea for the studio reconciled my two interests. While working in housing, I met hundreds of people who were living with the disease," he adds, "and could see how AIDS had stolen their identities. I wanted to create a place for people to come and reclaim their creative identities."
The studio attracts people from all walks of life and molds them into decorative artists; their only common denominator is their HIV positive status. But it provides them with more than just a job and an income; it also gives them respectability, stability and pride in their work and themselves.
In the studio's 10-year history, big-name projects have included designing a faux marble floor for the restoration of the New York mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, in 2002, and the ornamental reconstruction and decorative painting for a 4,800 square foot ballroom at The Prince George Hotel in New York’s Flatiron District, as well as painting the backdrops for fashion house Chaiken’s Fall 2005 runway show at Bryant Park.
"We want people to retain our services and buy our products not because we have HIV, but because they like and respect our work," says Wampler. His goal over the next decade? For Alpha Workshops to thrive as a decorative arts studio and employ more people. "Working with your hands is tremendously energizing and healing," he says. "I want to give that gift to as many people as possible."
When Koroseal Wallcoverings contacted The Alpha Workshops to design a collection of vinyl wallcoverings for their Artist Series line, they each recognized how rewarding the collaboration could be.
Although Koroseal has partnered with individual artists and designers as part of its Studios Collection line, this is its first collaboration with a workshop. "Koroseal was drawn to the artists' creativity and beautiful designs," according to Sally Curtis, Product Marketing Manager for Koroseal. "The Alpha Workshops develops its talent very differently, and you don’t see that everyday. It's not just a charitable organization; the staff at Alpha Workshops is retraining people how to live with HIV/AIDS," Curtis said.
Three of The Alpha Workshops' designs are now available to the trade through Koroseal: Titan©, geometric shapes etched into silver paper; Bronzino©, a Batik pattern; and Brushed Metal©, aluminum columns in spiral shapes. This is the studio's first commercial collaboration, and a portion of the proceeds will go to The Alpha Workshops. Additional wallcoverings designed by the studio are already being developed. "The Alpha Workshops artwork is truly unique," says Curtis. "This collaboration is bringing these very talented artists' work to a whole new market."