Featured Personality: Maya Bird-Murphy

Featured Personality: Maya Bird-Murphy

When Maya Bird-Murphy talks about Chicago Mobile Makers (CMM)↗, her passion is evident. Her eyes light up and her voice has a twinge of excitement as she shares her dreams about a movement that empowers children to build lifelong skills and exposes them to the traditionally lofty world of design. When speaking about my own experiences and struggles finding a career that marries my love of art with the business world, Maya emphatically stated that “sometimes you have to make it!” Like she did. Learn more about Maya and Chicago Mobile Makers in our interview below.

Abigail (Brennan): How did you discover your love for architecture and design?

Maya: I had a sort of unusual upbringing in Oak Park, Illinois that surrounded me with Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. They inspired me almost subconsciously and sparked my interest in design at an early age. Frank Lloyd Wright was the pride and joy of Oak Park: everyone was constantly talking about him and you’re constantly learning about architecture and hearing about his work. It wasn’t until I went to an architecture sleepaway camp in high school and was building models and realized that this does not feel like work, it feels like playing! That I realized I wanted it as a career. 


Abigail: How did Chicago Mobile Makers go from master’s thesis to reality?

Maya: Hard question! I definitely didn’t know that I was going to create a nonprofit or start a business. I kind of assumed that I was going to follow the traditional architecture path and work in a firm because I didn’t know working for myself was even an option. But then everything just fell together as I was working on getting my Masters, writing my thesis, and working full time in an Architecture firm. I kind of realized I didn’t want to work 40 hours a week for a firm for the rest of my life. The culmination of that and working on the year-long thesis allowed me to deep dive into what I saw a need for within the industry and how architecture/design contributes to inequality because of lack of representation in the field. I also had time to reflect on what I actually wanted to do because of the thesis. I feel really lucky that one of my professors pushed me to make CMM a reality. He was very business-minded and guided me throughout the whole process, showing me that it could be a real thing. So, I incorporated the company right before I graduated and started hosting workshops straight out of graduation. Everything just worked itself out!


Abigail: What was it like working in a firm vs. the work you do at Chicago Mobile Makers?

Maya: Totally different. CMM offers the flexibility I crave as a creative! Also throughout university and my masters programs I figured out that the late night is where I get the most work done on my projects. Chicago Mobile Makers allows me to work at my most productive hours as a night owl, and previously I was restricted to the normal 9-5. The best part is I create my own schedule now. At the firm, it was a lot more restrictive and there’s a lot of barriers creatively. You don’t really get to choose what project to work on, you’re assigned. I’m glad I found out early on in my career and was able to start my own initiative that impacts Chicago youth.


Abigail: What does Chicago Mobile Maker’s current curriculum look like?

Maya: So, we mainly go to schools and hold workshops with different workshops for each age group. One of our programs is called Citymakers, for the younger kids. Basically they get to replicate a famous building or landmark in Chicago over a couple of weeks and it’s really hands-on and interactive. 

Middle schoolers and high schoolers are really much more aware of their surroundings than what they get credit for. With them we talk about the community they’re a part of and ask them what they observe and what they would like to change. We’ll take a walk with them to a nearby location that they’re familiar with and interact with often. For example, an empty lot a couple blocks away and ask them to ideate and plan a structure, park, or building for that location. That’s a workshop that happens over the span of 6 months where we visit every other week.


Abigail: Are there any projects the kids are working on that you’re especially excited about?

Maya: Yeah! With the older kids, we’re designing huge 3d letters for a lot that's being transformed into a roller rink. It’s a really cool opportunity since they’ll actually get to see their designs realized in front of them.


Abigail: What about the Mobile Makerspace? 

Maya: The Mobile Makerspace is mainly for popups; it’s normally a one day type thing engaging passersby, or at a community event with other vendors. We’ll put out a fun activity that engages kids for a couple of minutes. The main goal and purpose for these is just to encourage play, get involved with the community, spark interest, and gain exposure for CMM! 


Abigail: I heard Chicago Mobile Makers is starting up a physical location! That must be so exciting. What plans do you have for the new space?

Maya: It’s a little bit nerve wracking/overwhelming to be honest but, at the same time, so exciting. The new space makes it feel much more official now. It started out and until very recently has been just me, but now I have 3 employees and am looking to hire more once the new space is open! I think the new space will allow us to impact in a different way. My hope is to create a community that allows kids to come try new things and play with cool tools. Cultivating a community of like minded young people who are going to learn real world skills like problem solving or even discover that they want to pursue a career in trades when they're older is a dream that feels like it’s coming to reality. Hopefully they grow alongside us and we impact them in a way that supports their learning and where they go in the future.

Abigail: Wow, that location really is the next step for you guys, that’s huge. I envision children looking forward to the days their school hosts workshops and CMM makerspace being a safe place for kids to be themselves and just hang out. I can see them growing up in the program and guiding and mentoring their peers in whatever creative endeavors they pursue. I’m sure they will cultivate lifelong connections and memories that show them there is a place for them within design. You guys are really showing them that they have the power to impact their communities and the spaces around them.


Abigail: Did COVID-19 derail any of Chicago Mobile Maker’s plans? How did you adapt?

Maya: It felt devastating at first because we couldn’t go to schools and actually see kids but it actually all worked out because the Mobile Makerspace was already under construction. Were able to complete that during COVID and do some popups. Then a dry spell hit during the winter because Chicago winters are inhospitable and we really couldn’t be outdoors. We picked up different types of work with community engagements, designed outdoor seating for a downtown museum, and actually received the most donations ever during that time. And now we’re about to have our best year ever! Everything was just slowed down but it allowed me to take a step back and revive from a burnout so it really all worked out in the end.


Abigail: What is the most difficult part of work at Chicago Mobile Makers?

Maya: Doing it myself for sure. But now, thankfully, a little bit of the weight is off of me. That was by far the hardest thing. COVID taught me that overwork is not healthy and it's important to prioritize myself and rest as well, so I’m making a habit of reminding myself it’s ok to take a break.


Abigail: What is the most satisfying part of work at Chicago Mobile Makers?

Maya: That it doesn’t feel like work. I’m having so much fun and I feel so lucky to do this everyday. I haven’t regretted it once despite the difficulties and the unknown. The pros are WAY bigger than the cons.


Abigail: Do you have any advice to young POC looking to break into design having gone through it yourself?

Maya: It’s complicated because in a way I’m leaving the field by not pursuing it in a traditional way. But I would just be straight up and tell them it's going to be a hard road. It’s not easy to be the only POC in your class, office, or meeting, but be prepared, that's going to happen a lot. I don’t think that I was really prepared for that challenge. But on the flip end, use your unique perspective to your advantage. Think about what you can do with design that's not necessarily traditional and constantly ask yourself what you actually want to do with it. Don’t necessarily follow what school tells you is the right path.


Abigail: How does Chicago Mobile Makers pick their communities of outreach?

Maya: We try to target the south and west sides of Chicago, which are the most disinvested areas. 


Abigail: If there was one thing you want children to take away from the workshops, what would it be? 

Maya: Problem solving skills because they apply regardless of whether or not they pursue design. It's all about life skills and helping them get through life more easily by equipping them with tools they normally wouldn’t have access to. CMM is about more than just design, youth can come here as a safe haven to learn skills and gather tools to explore.


Abigail: OK, these next questions are just for fun! What is your personal design style? Do you have a dream home? 

Maya: Me and my partner would definitely look for an old house instead of building a new one. I kind of have a philosophy of reusing and refurbishing things so that’s what I want to continue, even in a dream home. I’m currently living in an old craftsman home back in Oak Park; it’s really well designed and formatted so I love the layout, and I’m a huge fan of combining traditional and modern elements in our home. We recently added a screened porch and I’m loving the indoor outdoor living space. One of the most important things for me when looking for a home is a big backyard for my two pups! My ideal design style is hyper modern that’s also cozy and liveable.


Abigail: What music do you enjoy? 

Maya: My favorite genre of music is actually classical music. I used to play piano and cello, and as I’ve gotten older it's definitely become a source of peace. I love listening to it because it’s stress relieving and sort of healing. 


Abigail: Who inspires you?

Maya: Emily Peloton, Amanda Williams, and Antoinette Carrol


Now a Yes or Mess speed round! Here are Maya’s takes on a couple of design trends.

Distressed walls: Mess

Mixing Textures: Yes

Colored Kitchen Cabinets: Yes, but it only works sometimes

Wallpaper: Yes


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