For the Most Exciting Design Scene No One’s Talking About, Head to Detroit

The only UNESCO City of Design in the U.S. is experiencing a cultural renaissance that you need to see for yourself.
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Once an urban epicenter thanks to the automotive boom, Detroit, Michigan, has no doubt suffered from deindustrialization, its population plummeting from a peak of 1.86 million in 1950 to just over 673,000 in 2017. The aftermath has been well documented—urban decay, a crumbling social infrastructure, rampant unemployment—but in recent years, another narrative has emerged, and grown steadily louder: one of experimentation and revitalization.

For Detroit Design Month 2019, design studio Form&Seek curated an exhibition of works by local designers entitled Substance, so named for its focus on material exploration. Above, Aaron Blendowski’s aptly named Popsicle Stick Chair celebrates the durability of cypress wood. Co-curator Sophie Yan’s own Knottoman was created by hand-knotting vegetable-tanned leather on a steel grid cube. The mirror is by Thing Thing, a studio that specializes in hand-sorting and manipulating recycled plastic.

As is often the case, young creatives are leading the charge. Artists, designers, and the like have been slowly transforming and reclaiming deserted neighborhoods, an effort that earned Motor City a new moniker as a UNESCO City of Design in 2015. To date, it’s the only city in the United States to have that designation.

Located in a newly awakened downtown, Détroit Is The New Black (DITNB) is a brand, retail shop, event space, and art gallery that celebrates the city’s creative output. All of the store’s display furniture was made by local design studio Donut Shop. "DITNB started with the intention of creating a space for diversity in a changing city landscape," says founder Roslyn Karamoko. "I was inspired by the artists and creative talent fueling the culture of the city and wanted to create a brand to promote that energy. I felt passionate about bridging the history of the city with the evolving narrative of renaissance."

Pewabic is a National Historic Landmark pottery studio co-founded in 1903 by ceramic artist Mary Chase Perry Stratton, who would go on to influence ceramics programs at the College of Creative Studies, Wayne State University, the University of Michigan, and Cranbrook Academy of Art. Today, the studio also offers courses for the public and an upstairs exhibition space. There you’ll find Get it while you can by Jessika Edgar, a piece that incorporates ceramic, acrylic pearls, and faux fur.

Though it’s largely overshadowed by the legacy of the auto industry, design has always been part of Detroit’s DNA. The famed Cranbrook Academy of Art, located in nearby Bloomfield Hills, served as an "incubator" for midcentury luminaries like Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, and Niels Diffrient, to name a few—and continues to nurture the talents of today’s best and brightest. In 1949, the Detroit Institute of Art staged For Modern Living, an exhibition that declared a "new concept of beauty" for the modern home (historian Deborah Lubera Kawsky delivered a comprehensive lecture about it for Detroit Design Month). Drive along the eastern edge of downtown Detroit and you’ll find Lafayette Park, a leafy enclave comprising the world’s largest collection of buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe (it’s also where Kyle Hoff, co-founder of the successful Detroit-based furniture company Floyd, lives). In neighboring Grosse Pointe Farms, you’ll find the last-standing home designed by Alexander Girard, who moved from New York to Detroit in 1937. The list goes on and on.

Floyd—whose well-designed, affordable, shipped-to-your-door furniture has taken the internet by storm—has a showroom in Detroit’s Eastern Market.

During Detroit Month of Design, Floyd hosted a postmodern pop-up shop called Ecce Pomo ("Behold Postmodern"), put on by Joe Posch, who also runs design store Hugh.

In September, the city celebrated its UNESCO City of Design designation with Detroit Month of Design. The program, organized by Design Core Detroit, celebrates the work of designers and organizations that have brought the city back into the limelight. "Artists and designers are central to the city’s revitalization," says Olga Stella, executive director of Design Core Detroit. "They’re often the first ones working to improve neighborhoods. Often, the way they’re working is special because it is about building artistic expressions or design solutions that flow from the community itself."

Artist Jack Craig heats a PVC water pipe in his McDougall-Hunt studio, which he purchased last spring and made functional with the help of "friends, YouTube, and Craigslist." First, 40 tons of debris and 400 tires need to be cleared out. "The process is complex and expensive, but still only achievable in a place like this," says Craig.

Craig molds and manipulates softened PVC pipe around slabs of kitchen countertop materials to create otherworldly side tables.

Take the case of Jack Craig, an artist who moved to Detroit nearly a decade ago to study at Cranbrook. After graduation, he lived and worked in Banglatown, a neighborhood known for its Bangladeshi-American residents and growing artist community. When his home and studio were sold, Craig bought a derelict, overgrown studio in McDougall-Hunt, another creative enclave. "I purchased my building from the Detroit Land Bank last spring," he says. "It cost me as much to clean it as it did to buy it. The building didn’t have a roof, doors, or windows, and I removed 40 tons of debris and 400 tires just to clear it out, but I liked the scale and location."

NEXT:SPACE founder Isabelle Weiss immerses herself in Emilio’s Flux by zuckerhosen, a hybrid work merging furniture, painting, and sculpture. The piece is part of the gallery’s focus on future-thinking furniture. "I built NEXT:SPACE to be a living archive for the future," says Weiss, whose background is in art history and appraisal, "pushing the evolution of Michigan’s design legacy to new and exciting territory—and documenting the people, objects, and stories shaping this new generation."

Thanks to the frontier spirit of folks like Craig, decaying communities have a chance at rehabilitation. Isabelle Weiss, Detroit native and founder of NEXT:SPACE, the city’s sole gallery focused on furniture and lighting by Detroit studio designers, agrees: "The climate for entrepreneurship is just right—not to say it is easy—and has been percolating for a while." She cites new development downtown (fun fact: Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert owns some 100 buildings through his firm Bedrock Detroit), rising real estate prices, a hospitality boom, and an art and design scene that could only be born of Detroit.

Designer Chris Schanck is perhaps best known for his Alufoil series, wherein he sculpts discarded materials like foam, covers them with candy-wrapper aluminum foil, and seals them with resin.

Light artist Patrick Ethen’s exhibition Field Condition displayed several of his ethereal pieces, each purposefully hung away from the wall to expose their intricate wiring. Rising Tides, shown above, translates the rippled surface of water into white LED lights.

"It’s not all just industrial-looking raw steel and reclaimed wood as some may think," she cautions. "Detroit design stretches way beyond, in both concept and craft, though our industrial legacy does play a vital role. In Detroit and the metro area, you can get anything fabricated out of just about any material you can imagine. This allows many designers to develop a greater understanding of materials and process which, in turn, leads to greater experimentation."

Launched during Detroit Month of Design, ARCADE is an installation by Fernando Bales and Elise DeChard that activates the courtyard of Simone DeSousa Gallery and its adjacent store, Edition. The concrete arches were cast in corrugated irrigation tubes.

The danger, of course, is that larger developers will take advantage of the bushwhacking done by artists and designers, acquire healing neighborhoods, and build up in an exclusionary way. Philip Kafka, president of real estate company Prince Concepts, sees the opportunity to grow while engaging the city and its tough-as-nails spirit. Starting with True North, an award-winning live/work community comprising eight Quonset huts designed by architect Edwin Chan, Kafka has been bringing funk and vitality to a neighborhood known as Core City through residences and restaurants.

Prince Concepts tapped EC3 to build True North, a live/work community of prefabricated Quonset huts, each oriented to maximize daylight and framed communal outdoor spaces. "I wanted to give people affordable, but also inspired, space," says Kafka.

The end walls feature custom steel frames around polycarbonate panels; the interiors are plaster or plywood.

"Most developers are playing the standard game of buying in ‘safe’ areas and building an uninspired product," says Kafka, who has advice to dispense: "Come on, guys, step it up! Loosen your ties and get out on the streets. This is an awesome and wild city—tough and difficult and even sad at times, but amazing and inspiring, too."

Ochre Bakery, designed by Detroit- and New York–based firm Et al. Collaborative, resides in Core City Park, formerly an abandoned parking lot across the street from what is now True North. The park was developed by Prince Concepts with landscape design by D.I.R.T. Studio.

Once again drawing national attention, Detroit is poised to model a more thoughtful regeneration than similar cities have seen. "Like many cities experiencing new investment, Detroit is struggling with how to ensure that economic growth is inclusive and equitable," says Stella. "It’s important that the people who helped neighborhoods hold on through the toughest times can prosper as things get better."

A Back-of-the-Envelope Guide to Detroit 

We asked Olga Stella, Jack Craig, Isabelle Weiss, Philip Kafka, and Roslyn Karamoko to share some of their favorite places in Detroit. Think of it as your back-of-the-envelope city guide—by no means is it exhaustive, but it’s the cool kid’s entry point into wild and wonderful Detroit.

To See & Do:

Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Michigan Opera Theatre, The Henry Ford Museum, Cranbrook Art Museum, Playground Detroit, The Heidelberg Project, The Carr Center, The Ten Nail Bar, David Klein Gallery, Simone DeSousa Gallery

To Shop:

Détroit Is The New Black, Marketplace Antiques Gallery, Tom Gibbs Studio, Orleans and Winder, Hugh, The Lip Bar, DCreated Boutique

To Explore:

Belle Isle Park, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park

To Eat & Drink:

Trinosophes, Ochre Bakery, Astro Coffee, Rose’s Fine Food, Selden Standard, Takoi, Dearborn Meat Market, Two James Spirits

To Get Involved:

Knight Foundation, Build Institute, TechTown

Related Reading:

Here’s Why You Need to Visit Columbus, Indiana This Year

Here’s Why You Should Be Paying Close Attention to Colombia’s Design Scene

Journey by Design: Richmond, Virginia

Travel, meals, and accommodations for this story provided by Design Core Detroit


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