In 1886 The Sydney Soap and Candle Company of Mayfield East was the biggest and most modern equipped soap manufacturing plant in the southern hemisphere.
Now, 135 years later, in typical Newcastle fashion, the 900-square-metre warehouse hosts eight hands-on artists working on everything from sculpture to furniture to photography.
They call it The Soap Factory, but it doesn't have an official website or even an Instagram account. Nevertheless, fascinating work is happening within, individually and collaboratively.
Jewelry maker Sophia Emmett and furniture designer Jono Everett are the co-founders. Originally from Canberra, the pair had friends in Newcastle and would regularly come to visit.
"When you arrive in Newcastle, you're in awe of it. You know it's hard to get your head around what this town is, but what you do know there is this manufacturing history; it's a steelworkers' town," Everett says. "Every time we visited, we went on a tour eyeing the sheds. We couldn't believe how Newcastle was a mix of light industrial in with suburbia."
In 2010 he took a contract with the Newcastle Museum and they relocated. It took them a few years to find the right workshop, but as soon as they found it, they knew it was perfect. They loved how it was steeped in history with timber beams, wobbly floors and so much light and character. It was far more space than they needed.
They signed a 10-year lease in 2014 and then did a call out for artists. They wanted people who could skill share while also being able to critique each other's work. Artists had to be ok with a space that would have chemicals, noise and dust. Everyone would have 24-hour access and could realise their creative dreams.
"We went out and invited other artists. The premise was something that was community-based and focused and trying to draw in artists from different mediums," Everett says. "It's worked really well,"
They officially opened in 2015. Everett and Emmett lead The Soap Factory; he jokes they're like the parents. They both had prior experience in shared work spaces. They call the shots and people respect that.
"You need people to manage it; you can't run a space like that in a democratic forum. We don't do meetings. We've never had a meeting, and we'll never have a meeting," Everett says.
Along with Emmett and Everett, current artists are sculptor Julie Squires, photographer Edwina Richards, lighting and design artist Amy Vidler and three furniture designers - David Stayte, Tom Patterson and Hannah Cheetham.
Each artist at The Soap Factory have projects on the go. One recent multidimensional project incorporated design, law and gender equality.
Twenty-nine-year-old Cheetham's furniture-designing business is called Built In Kind. She's also employed as a project officer by Out(fit), a not-for-profit, female-led community engagement program that provides pro-bono and in-kind design and build assistance to charities and organisations.
Out(fit) needed an affordable space to build a mock courtroom for the Newcastle Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service. The furniture would be used to imitate a courtroom environment, giving victims of domestic and family violence the opportunity to experience a realistic setting. A mock courtroom can help survivors prepare for a final hearing. making it easier for them to face their abusers and make their case.
They built the furniture at The Soap Factory. Over two weeks 18 volunteers built seven separate pieces.
"It's interesting because all courts have the same structure and element. The first one is a really big magistrate's bench. It came apart in multiple sections. There was the bar table where lawyers and representatives would sit. We had the associate bench. There was a witness stand. There was a dock, where the accused would sit behind a Perspex facade," Cheetham says.
It was constructed so that it would never go obsolete and they could easily disassemble, repurpose, re-nail and redress. Round 2 Timber donated the recycled wood.
"It's what I believe in, not just social human justice but environmental justice," Cheetham says.
Several volunteers had architecture backgrounds and were interested in law and the justice system and architecture's role in it.
When they finished the project, everyone was inspired with new connections and ideas.
"People want to embed volunteerism into their practice and learn how to delegate a certain percentage of their time to community projects. That's the stuff that makes you feel good," Cheetham says."
She loved that the artists mingled and chatted with the volunteers.
"People would come in feeling a bit scared and intimidated. They left feeling really brave, empowered and confident," Cheetham says. "It was really cathartic. It reframed people's sense of ownership in a construction space, often associated with the perpetrators, not survivors."
It's one of many different interesting projects happening at The Soap Factory.
"We're a bit humbled by Hannah's amazing connection to Out(fit) and the work," Everett says. "When she approached us about hosting that as an event in the space, to have volunteers which were mainly women of various ages come and upskill and build this mock court, we were like 'oh yeah, come on down. They took over. It was just so great. They were really amazing people."
The mock court case was one smaller project within a big space where different makers are reshaping the city and its history.