Designing Wonder and Awe
Christian Baum is hard to miss in State College. You’ve probably seen him around, maybe at the co.space, the residential community for changemakers; or perhaps at New Leaf, the first coworking space in Centre County, which he also cofounded; or maybe you heard about his recent win of the CBICC’s Young Professional of the Year award; or maybe you’ve seen him careening around town in a dinosaur costume just for the fun of it.
Baum is a doer, to say the least. And he values doing in himself and in the people around him. “I want people to act on their ideas and dreams,” he says. “Too many people have ideas and dreams and then do nothing. That doesn’t help anyone. I want people to make their great ideas come to life.”
But how and what he does is different almost every day. The bulk of his work is in design, ranging from branding for Johnson & Johnson’s TEDx series to redesigning the outdated lobby at Videon. It’s gorgeous work, all about the human experience of space and place. But he’s also a marketing director in his family’s fabrication business. And soon he’ll be launching Escape Happy Valley, a new escape room business that gives people an interesting place to spend time and a new way to explore the region. The paycheck certainly doesn’t define this local changemaker. It’s his love of people and his ability to create wonder and awe in all of his work.
This ability started young; as a second grader in Lancaster, he drew a picture of Simba (from Disney’s The Lion King) and all of his classmates gathered around to see. They were entranced by such an accurate depiction of a character they loved. “That was my first experience of doing something that helped people experience wonder,” Baum says. “They weren’t interested in me; they were excited about the picture. I just happened to be the one to make it for them.”
Baum wasn’t always such a public figure. For all of high school, he defined himself as the shy one and spent most of his time alone. He even wore the same baseball cap for years out of a need for comfort and self-protection. Being closed off was easier. “What you find is that you make things because you needed it first. That’s true for everything I make.” His family was very tight-knit and loving, but he needed to find support outside of that unit. “Some people have never experienced that kind of unconditional support. I want to give that to people in everything I make, like in co.space, our residential community where people can find that loving home, maybe for the first time.”
While attending art school at Maryland Institute College of Art, he moved from drawing characters to designing experiences. “I found I kept moving into more 3D experiences like architecture and environmental design of spaces. People have to walk into it and move around. It’s more immersive.”
Moving to State College was part of a permanent lifestyle and perspective change for Baum. He had been working construction for his family’s business, often in rural parts of the country with little access to the outside world, and had hit rock bottom. He needed a change. “I knew what kind of people I wanted to be around and so I followed my friends Spud Marshall and Eric Sauder to the area.” For several years, they lived for free where people gave them space and saved up money for their ventures. In those years, they founded New Leaf Initiative and several other ventures — some of which failed. “We made some big mistakes,” he notes.
But working in State College helped them find their way. “When you do things here, it’s like working with family,” Baum says. “It’s not all business. People truly care about you and your work. They have your best interest at heart. That’s why I like it here and others do as well.” Cities, he notes, are full of vibrant energy but sometimes overwhelmingly so. In this area, Baum sees the opportunity the build the things you want. “You get to be a maker and doer rather than just a consumer.”
The Big Idea he’s working on now is how socially minded, sustainable business can create lasting cultural and economic change in the community. If that, or any of his other projects, sounds like something you’d like to discuss with local changemakers, just pop downtown on a Tuesday evening for That Group, a weekly meet-up at Liberty for people who like other people. “It’s about relationships, which is the best kind of networking.” And that includes any number of weird and different things for Baum, so if you aren’t sure where to turn to or who to ask, he’s totally available to help. •SCM