Post-industrial. Rust belt. Across the Great Lakes, descriptions of American cities are almost inevitably furnished with at least one of the two phrases, conjuring up images of abandoned warehouses, broken sidewalks and empty streets. Conversely, the same terms are a prelude to the gentrifying coffee shops, boutiques and art galleries that seemingly erase the city that came before. From Cleveland and Milwaukee to Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the narrative follows the same dispiriting pattern — though nowhere more acutely than in Detroit.
Fortunately, Motown’s design culture tells a somewhat different story. Organized by NGO Design Core Detroit, September’s Detroit Month of Design highlighted the local design scene’s connections to — and inspiration from — the city’s manufacturing heritage. In lieu of a schism between an industrial past and a creative future, much of the 30-day fair (which comprised over 80 events) highlighted a diverse and multi-disciplinary design community that draws on the city’s rich heritage of automotive and manufacturing innovation to imagine new possibilities.
Case in point, a visit to the former Detroit Book Depository, which has been artfully reimagined by the Ford Motor Company. Recently profiled in Azure, the Albert Kahn-designed building — which also served as a post office branch and mail warehouse, and then a facility for Detroit public schools — sat empty for 35 years before being converted into a home for Newlab, which provides a hub for startups pioneering equitable, sustainable new mobility solutions.
From woodworking and metal workshop — which make use of Ford’s automotive equipment — to advanced digital fabrication facilities, the space hosts a wealth of emerging businesses, focusing on everything from bio-based transportation materials to fossil fuel alternatives and environmentally friendly alternatives to window air conditioners units. Designed by Gensler and Brooklyn-based studio Civilian, the 25,000-square-metre structure also features a range of open-office workspaces, inviting collaboration between varied businesses and design disciplines. Next door, a restoration of Michigan Central Station is also nearing completion, with the iconic building set to become the centrepiece of Ford’s mixed-use commercial hub.
Organized around the theme of “United in Design” — a moniker shared by artist Mike Han’s standout gallery exhibition — this year’s festival highlighted connections between disciplines and industries across Detroit and beyond. At the Carhartt Workshop and Company Store on Cass Avenue, for example, the workwear brand’s retail space is paired with a second-storey workshop and community tool lending library, which even draws in cross-border visitors from neighbouring Windsor. And on the third floor, the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC) offers education in garment production, as well as a small manufacturing hub. Among their products? The iconic Carhartt beanie sold downstairs.
In downtown Detroit, the Woodward Throwbacks showroom and gallery showcased furniture made from discarded pieces of the city’s past. Scuffed up bullet-proof glass is fashioned into an elegant coffee table, a school chalkboard is transformed into the store’s own surprisingly luxurious shop counter, and 20th century “Party Store” signage becomes residential cabinetry. At the nascent Detroit Design District — a former industrial neighbourhood undergoing a transformation led by Method Development — gallerist Isabelle Weiss and artist Paula Schubatis partnered to animate a long-vacant 1930s building through an immersive exhibition where Schubatis’ fiber artworks almost seem to merge with the industrial architecture, like thick, intricate cobwebs emanating from the ceilings.
Marking its 13th year, this September’s Detroit Month of Design presented a diverse and wide-ranging look into the Motor City’s unique creative milieu. And while the Fordist scale of 20th century automobile production will — probably for the better – likely never be replicated, the city’s robust industrial character is continuing to shape local design. From Quonset Huts and 3D-printed affordable homes to inclusive placemaking projects, a 20th-century industrial powerhouse has gradually shifted into a new gear.
“Detroit is a key player in this century’s cultural and technological development,” said Kiana Wenzell, co-executive director of Design Core Detroit. “We are a well-positioned hub with a unique design history, which encompasses our city’s incredible array of historical and geographical influences. As Detroiters continue to innovate and reimagine their city’s rich industrial legacy, I suspect that we will see even greater attention and collaborative interest from design leaders around the world.” You wouldn’t bet against it.
Lead image: Mike Han’s Modern Vandalism: Albert Kahn Collection, featuring Han’s design overlayed on a Kahn blueprint.
The annual fair’s 13th edition highlighted Motown’s unique design heritage — and its bright future.