Detroit’s Revved-Up Design Scene

Detroit’s Revved-Up Design Scene

Shinola, a leather accessory brand, leads the pack of start-ups setting up shop in the Motor City.

“If you can build a Swiss watch factory in Detroit, you can do anything,” says Daniel Caudill, the creative director of Shinola. While the brand is co-owned by the Texan company Bedrock Manufacturing and the Swiss timepiece maker Ronda, Shinola makes and sells its growing collection of watches, bicycles, leather goods and journals in the heart of the beleaguered Motor City.

At its modern factory inside the 2,785-square-metre College for Creative Studies (formerly the Argonaut Building, designed by architect Albert Kahn for General Motors’ research labs), Shinola painstakingly assembles its leather-strapped timepieces – the brand’s bread and butter – mostly from local materials. The company hand-picks employees from the college, along with former auto plant workers, some of whom already have training in tool and die manufacture.

Its midtown showroom is located two kilometres from the factory, just a stone’s throw from the Detroit Institute of Arts and the city’s first Whole Foods location. Its neighbours are home accessory and design shops, such as Hugh, Nest and City Bird. The company took over an old brick-clad Jeep warehouse, salvaging the original skylights and adding a wall of glazing where bicycle assembly and welding take place.

Shortly after its Detroit opening last June, Shinola launched a storefront in New York’s Tribeca district. In a Donald Judd–inspired interior, the brand’s exported goods are presented on display cases made in Detroit.

The proof is in the products
Call it a creative class revival. As well as Shinola, other artisans – such as leather goods maker Detroit Cargo and small-batch ceramist Elysia Vandenbussche of Local Portion – are staking out their terrain in the city. Two additional bike makers, Detroit Bicycle Co. and Detroit Bikes, have recently set up shop. The city’s financial predicament may pose a challenge for any business, but its abundant, affordable studio spaces are attracting new brands eager to explore and promote the value of American manufacturing through modern, well-made products.

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Detroit Cargo’s leather handlebar bags are finished with antique hardware.

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Detroit Bicycle Co.’s frames come in classic styles with copper-plated components.
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Runwell, Shinola’s first watch line, houses a Detroit-built internal mechanism of Swiss parts within a sandblasted black steel case. The U.S.‑made leather strap is stitched in Florida.

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