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PieLab in Rural Alabama Serves Up Community, Understanding, and, Yes, Pie

A space created by designers gives local residents common ground and a mean slice of Key Lime pie.


PieLab, the newest eatery to open in Greensboro, Alabama, would be a familiar space to creatives who frequent their local cafes. It’s a place you can order a slice of Chocolate Bourbon Pecan pie, maybe some lemonade or coffee, read a book, sketch a picture, review the day’s headlines with your neighbors. Except PieLab is not really a cafe, it’s a space created by fourteen designers as part of the design-for-good movement Project M, hoping to draw the community in to a neutral space for conversation and connections. And of course, because of one very obvious reason: Who doesn’t like pie?

For the past six years, Project M (not to be confused with Pop!Tech’s Project Masiluleke) has gained momentum as an intensive program for young designers who want to do good. A small group of creatives are selected every year by founder and graphic designer John Bielenberg to travel to locations ranging from Maine to Baltimore to Costa Rica, identify a problem, and solve it, sometimes in a matter of days. Solutions have ranged from designing a waterproof book to raise awareness of rainforest depletion to driving an ambulance-full of design supplies to New Orleans for creatives displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Weekend-long lightning-round M Blitzes have taken place in Iceland, Maine and Alabama. And a collaboration with the design blog Design Observer in August will bring Project M back north to solve problems for rural Connecticut.

Bielenberg was inspired in part by architect Samuel Mockbee’s Rural Studio, a program where architecture students built homes and public buildings for impoverished residents in rural Alabama. Bielenberg’s connection to the cause was so strong that after visiting Mockbee’s home base in Hale County, he decided to locate Project M there on a more permanent basis as M Lab, building upon its gravitational pull that attracts designers and architects who want to do good. They came in droves, and now designers, schools, and other groups visit for short amounts of time. I visited, too, back in 2007, when I wrote an article for GOOD Magazine about that summer’s Project M project: a campaign called Buy a Meter, which featured a newsprint piece that they hoped would raise enough money to connect the one-quarter of Hale County’s population that did not have access to the municipal water supply. Two years later, they’ve raised more then $40,000, won practically every design award in existence, and connected dozens of residents to clean, safe water.

On May 1 of this year, Brian Jones was among the group of five designers who arrived in Alabama after attending an M Blitz in Maine during the month of March that launched a movement called Free Pie. “Free Pie was designed to gather people together with pie in an effort to promote conversations with neighbors and strangers, and to bring humanity back into downtown areas,” he says. “We used real plates and utensils from a thrift store to reduce waste and to encourage everyone to hang around and talk.” It created such a successful, instant community for the small town, they decided to continue the experiment in Alabama, where a new group of designers would be arriving in June for a month-long session.

Outfitted from reclaimed building materials and thrift store finds, PieLab cost almost nothing to produce, yet already has a devoted following, seeing five to 25 or more customers a day. “We already have some regulars,” says Jones. “People will stay for hours to sit and talk with us, giving Project M invaluable insight into the community’s needs, personalities and politics.” One of those people is Scott Hamilton, a local resident who comes in almost every day to draw. “We photographed his work and built a Web site to help him apply for scholarships and college,” says Jones. “He has never taken an art class, but has an incredible talent for drawing. He told us that he dreams of going to art school and one day making movies.”


In a town where Sundays are sacred, not only because of church, but because of the massive family dinners that follow them, Jones thinks they hit upon a very important unifier by choosing to focus on food. “Pie is something that everyone enjoys, so we’ve used that knowledge to create a place that everyone wants to visit,” he says. “PieLab provides a neutral environment in a traditionally segregated town where people from every race and class are welcome to sit together and talk candidly about whatever is on their mind.” In addition to the pies, which are baked daily by a team of M participants and friends of M, the designers sell t-shirts, aprons, and buttons to raise money for PieLab community initiatives. But they’ve just claimed an even bigger piece of the pie, as it were: PieLab was recently awarded a $40,000 grant and is the lucky new recipient of a shipping container that they’ll use to expand the space.

Until then, they’ll remain in the original PieLab, captured in these beautiful photos of the space, including this one that features a quote from David Mamet: “We must have pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” Truer words were apparently never spoken.

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About the author

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles. She likes to walk, ride the bus, and eat gelato.