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Detroit: A City of Design

With auto, fashion and IT, Detroit influences design like no other city in the world

By Dawson Bell

Page 20

Detroit’s gotten a lot of publicity lately for its growing reputation as place where young people are increasingly drawn by opportunities to live and build and create.

It is, for the most part, publicity that is deserved and welcome.

But there’s something missing in many of the accounts of Detroit’s new found celebrity – a sense of the Detroit region’s role as one of the nation’s creative centers for much of its history. And an appreciation for how much that legacy has sustained and nurtured the kind of creative endeavors – design, style, architecture and the like – that make today’s scene possible.

Detroit is, and long has been, a city of design in the broadest and deepest sense.

In fact, it is literally a “designed” city (thanks to Augustus Woodward, who conceived the idiosyncratic spokes-on-a-wheel street artery system that is nearly unique to Detroit after the devastating fire of 1805). The Detroit area is also home to some of the most iconic works of the world’s most prominent designers and architects (e.g. Belle Isle, the brainchild of Frederick Law Olmstead, the architect of Central Park in NYC among many others, and Albert Kahn, who virtually invented modern industrial architecture and designed much of the Detroit skyline).

And, of course, the Detroit region has, for virtually all of the last century, been ground zero for design and innovation in the auto industry, one of the most creative and transformational forces in modern life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Detroit is, and has been for some time, home to the highest concentration of industrial designers in the country.

That heritage is a key component in the hipster revival, and a broader emerging consensus that Detroit offers almost unrivaled opportunities for creative people and creative enterprise, says Matt Clayson, who served until recently as director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center.

The Center, founded as a cooperative venture of Business Leaders for Michigan and the College for Creative Studies in 2010, was launched to leverage and accelerate those opportunities, Clayson says, giving creative entrepreneurs early assistance with client development, business and marketing practices and raising awareness.

Those efforts have succeeded remarkably well, Clayson says. Early clients – he cited designer Chandra Moore’s coG-studio and the video production firm Detroit Lives among others – have demonstrated strong growth in a relatively short period of time.

“At the time we started, no one was talking about Detroit (as a creative center),” Clayson says. “That’s changed now.”

Change that was evidenced recently by a New York Times story about the migration of artists, designers and entrepreneurs from Brooklyn and New York City to Detroit. Headlined “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit,” the story recounted the experience of NYC expats liberated by their relocation to Detroit.

“You can find your purpose in Detroit, which is nearly impossible to do these days in New York,” said one.

Clayson recounted a conversation he had at a November conference with a colleague from the esteemed Brooklyn-based art and design school Pratt Institute who told him he was “hearing a lot about the energy and optimism emanating from Detroit,” and that he was “losing a lot of people to Detroit.”

“It’s reverberating,” Clayson says.

LTU: A Design Center

Detroit’s momentum as a 21st century design center will accelerate in 2016 with the opening of Lawrence Technological University’s Detroit Center for Design and Technology, located on Woodward Avenue in Midtown.

The new center will serve as the home for LTU design and technology programs, a ground floor gallery, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and recent graduate recipients of entrepreneurship grants from one of the projects founders, the Hudson Webber Foundation.

Amy Deines, interim Dean of LTU’s College of Architecture and Design and the executive director of DCDT, says the center will feed on and contribute to the energy attendant to Detroit’s re-emergence as a locus of creativity.

The opportunity to be part of an emerging environment where there is institutional support for risk-taking “appeals to creative people,” Deines says, “I can’t wait.”

Despite that progress, some of the efforts to solidify Detroit’s stature in the design world have been slower to reach fruition. Clayson says DC3’s work on the development of physical infrastructure for “creative density” in the city’s commercial and residential neighborhoods have been only moderately successful. That’s partly because the Detroit region is vast and sprawling, he says, and partly because the work is being done almost entirely by non-government entities.

“We don’t have the luxury of an arts and cultural affairs department,” Clayson says.

Detroit Garment District

Karen Buscemi, the founder and president of Detroit Garment Group, has faced similar obstacles launching a Detroit garment district for fashion designers, producers, retailers and related support services.

But she’s getting close.

The non-profit Garment Group grew out of Buscemi’s experience as the editor of the Detroit-based magazine, Styleline, where she realized the region had a wealth of fashion and style talent, but little in the way of support infrastructure. Its mission has been to provide talented and aspirational designers with the kind of services (especially specific skills training and business development) they were unlikely to encounter otherwise.

The Detroit area has terrific art, fashion and design educational institutions (Wayne State, Lawrence Tech and College for Creative Studies and others), Buscemi says, some graduates can struggle applying business fundamentals.

The vision for a Detroit garment district is to create a place where designer talent is translated into commercial success. Buscemi says planning for the district is well underway, with a site in Midtown identified and at least 27 potential business occupants ready to sign on. She hopes to have an announcement in 2016.

Of course, while all these entrepreneurial efforts are underway the Detroit region’s well established creative industries are in the midst of their own renaissance, one that both influences and is influenced by the growing creative culture in the area.

Vibrant Designs: From Visteon to Varvatos

At Visteon, the automotive supplier and Ford Motor Co. spinoff headquartered in Van Buren Township, Innovation and Design Manager Richard Vaughan says “the design community is one of the most vibrant parts of life in Detroit.”

Virtually all the members of his design team are graduates of the College for Creative Studies, Vaughan says, people of diverse backgrounds who were drawn to SE Michigan by the number and variety of creative occupations available.

His designers are passionate about creating products that serve consumer needs for both utility and style, Vaughan says. And they realize that Detroit, on track to become the world’s leader in autonomous and driverless-vehicle technology, is a place where they can realize their dreams.

“I’ve been around here a long time,” says 44-year-old Vaughan, “and I think it is the best time ever to be a designer in Detroit.”

Legendary New York designer John Varvatos, who teamed with Chrysler to style a special edition of the carmaker’s 300 sedan, agrees.

The city of his birth is “a great place for design because the people of Detroit are passionate about what they do,” Varvatos says, “It’s a city filled with determination and integrity.”

Detroit truly has a style of its own, one developed over decades, tested by adversity and vibrant today. Detroit is a city of design.