The Alpha Dog
Kenneth Wampler's Alpha Workshops reinvents lives through the decorative arts
-- Interior Design, 3/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
On a typical day at the Alpha Workshops in New York, artisans with furrowed brows stamp wallpaper, students perfect their oil-gilding technique, and a team brainstorms about carving a panel. There's a palpable sense of pride about the place. Over the past 13 years, Alpha has provided decorative-arts training to more than 200 people living with HIV. While helping the chronically ill reinvent their lives, the nonprofit has also developed an atelier that competes at the highest end of the market. These twin feats are all the more extraordinary considering that, before walking through Alpha's doors, few trainees had even held a paintbrush.
Overseeing this hive of activity is founding director Kenneth Wampler, an angular figure with a boyish haircut and a wry grin. Since 1995, he's seen Alpha grow into a $2 million nonprofit that ably unites the social-services sector and the design industry. He's often asked about starting up franchises around the U.S., and he has toyed with the idea of a satellite in upstate New York. For now, however, he is focused on more immediate issues: an outplacement program for graduates, increased marketing and distribution of product lines, and strategic planning.
The latter concerns the delicate and inevitable question of succession. Wampler, with his vision and passion, is inextricably identified with Alpha. Yet he and his board, chaired by Interior DesignHall of Fame member Jamie Drake, know that the true mark of success will be the organization's survival beyond Wampler's tenure.
Wampler came to New York in 1976 to act—a career that “lasted about four minutes,” he says. “Then HIV happened. It was so scary. People were being thrown out of apartments. The police would get called. Ambulances would refuse to take these incredibly sick and frightened people.” In 1985, the self-described “politically angry optimist” began volunteering for a small group trying to find housing and services for homeless people with HIV.
By the early '90's, he realized that an increasing number of the HIV-positive were living longer, and they needed more than a roof over their head. They needed jobs. Although too sick or stigmatized to return to a former career, most of them weren't interested in sitting around, waiting to die. Their “new understanding of mortality,” he recalls, was prompting them to reorder priorities and make affirmative decisions. “They needed to replace the identity of 'sick person' with 'a new me.'”
His religious upbringing had imbued him with a “do unto others” ethic. Harnessing that to his admiration for the arts and crafts movement and the shortlived Bloomsbury design enterprise, Omega Workshops, he founded Alpha, he explains, to support society's castoffs by drawing on the “powerful healing potential of useful work and creative self-expression.”
Participants spend 10 weeks learning basic decorative techniques. About half go on to a 26-week advanced course, and the organization employs many graduates in its design studio, which generates 50 percent of the operating budget. Besides selling wallpaper, lighting, and furniture, Alpha offers site-specific installations and large-scale painting treatments to such corporate clients as the Walt Disney Company, eBay, Anne Klein, Lifetime Entertainment Services, Benjamin Moore & Co., and Takashimaya.
A new client, Celerie Kemble of Kemble Interiors, has commissioned faux-tortoise crown molding and custom frescoes for houses in New York and Southampton. She says that, while Alpha's backstory is inspiring, “It's the quality of the work that matters. They're not only good at what they do but also so excited about pushing the limits.”
Accommodating a chronically ill staff is a creative exercise in itself. In order to provide a flexible and compassionate workplace, artisans must learn every single aspect of production in case they need to cover for a coworker who's suddenly absent. “Life-on-the-edge,” Wampler says, “is in our DNA.”