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Part Disneyland, Part Burning Man: Maker Faire Turns 10 Years Old (Q&A)

From motorized cupcake cars to a fire-breathing stainless steel grasshopper, Maker Faire has it all.

Kurt Wagner / Re/code

Maker Faire is growing up fast.

The weekend-long festival dedicated to wacky inventors and the creations that come with them is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and the event has never been bigger.

In the past decade, Maker Faire — the brainchild of Maker Media — has grown its Bay Area event from just 22,000 people back in 2006 to more than 150,000 people expected to attend this weekend. That growth isn’t unique to California. The Maker Faire event in Rome reached more than 70,000 people this year in just its second year.

Maker Media sponsored more than 130 events all over the world in 2014, and CEO Gregg Brockway says he expects more than 200 events this year with the addition of Maker Faire’s school program, which means more events at high schools around the country.

You won’t find the flood of mobile apps or cloud computing technology common at most Silicon Valley conventions. In fact, I’d argue the less you know about technology the better. From motorized cupcake cars to a fire-breathing stainless steel grasshopper, Maker Faire brings together a bizarre collection of creators and visitors — nothing’s off the table.

Re/code caught up with Dale Dougherty, founder and executive chairman of Maker Media, to talk about the festival and how it has evolved. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 A man rode around Maker Faire in this cupcake car with a fake candle attached to his helmet.
A man rode around Maker Faire in this cupcake car with a fake candle attached to his helmet.
Kurt Wagner/ Re/code

Re/code: What prompted you to start Maker Faire 10 years ago? How do you come up with an event like this?

Dale Dougherty: It really did start with Make Magazine. We started to create projects based on what makers were doing, and I had the opportunity to meet lots of them and I thought they were fascinating people that others don’t get to talk to or see their work. I thought there was magic just meeting them and seeing their eyes light up. I understood that the makers were the stars. We create a venue and they just bring what they’re doing.

How has it evolved over the years? How would you describe Maker Faire to someone who’s never been?

Mostly what I’ve wanted is to make this popular and get more people here. We’re not just getting people who identify as makers here, we’re getting lots of people who want to have a good time with their family. They’re curious and that’s a good place to be. They believe their kids should be exposed to this in a cultural sense. This is somewhere on the spectrum between Burning Man and Disneyland. It’s not as packaged as Disneyland but not as wild and crazy as Burning Man.

As you’ve grown you’ve added lots of big sponsors, and also big participants. Google and Facebook both have booths here. How do you keep the event from feeling too corporate, like what South By Southwest has become?

That’s something we’d like to avoid. We really try and talk to [sponsors] about not bringing trade show booths here. The thing that we ask our sponsors to do is find a way to engage and interact through some activity. Don’t just stand there and pass out brochures or get people to do stupid things. The sponsors realize we have a pretty smart audience. So it would almost be wrong to look at them as an average consumer audience.

Have you noticed any particular themes this year?

I’m not an organizer of themes here so much. We’ve seen patterns emerge, like 3-D printing and drones. If I’m forced to pick something, I’d say wearables. There seems to be a lot of energy in the combination of fashion and functionality and technology coming together.

How do you think about this specific event here in the U.S. compared to Maker Faire events in other parts of the world?

The core of what we’re trying to do here is celebrate making in our culture. Not celebrating consumer culture, but celebrating maker culture. That’s a key thing. There’s something particularly resonant about that, something we’ve missed, something that’s been marginalized [here in the U.S.]. We used to be proud of things that we made. Making used to be a middle-class virtue. It was a point of pride … I think we’re trying to bring that back to the center of attention.

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