Detroit Regional Chamber > Racial Justice & Economic Equity > Detroit Month of Design Creates Space Where Black Creativity Shines

Detroit Month of Design Creates Space Where Black Creativity Shines

September 7, 2023

Michigan Chronicle
Sept. 6, 2023
Ebony JJ Curry

The 13th iteration of the Detroit Month of Design Festival kicks off this September and runs all month long, uniting a diverse blend of creatives across the city. This wide-ranging series of events and celebration of design in all its facets – fashion, music, animation, architecture, infrastructure, food, landscape, and beyond – encapsulates the innovative spirit and talent that have earned Detroit the unique status of being America’s only UNESCO City of Design.

As we celebrate the 13th annual Detroit Month of Design, orchestrated by Design Core Detroit, it’s impossible to overlook the centrality of Black creatives and artists who have contributed not only to the festival but to the very fabric of Detroit’s evolving identity.

Month of Design is a platform for both designers and the broader community to celebrate Detroit’s role as a global epicenter of creativity. Last year’s installment featured contributions from more than 175 creatives, hosted over 80 events, and drew the participation of 50,000 attendees across multiple neighborhoods in Detroit.

As a recognized UNESCO City of Design, Detroit joins a global network of 43 cities committed to utilizing design as a tool for improving the quality of life for their citizens. This acknowledgment enables Detroit to leverage its considerable design assets toward fostering a future that is not only sustainable but also equitable for all residents of the city.

This year, the theme “United by Design” is not just a slogan but a clarion call. In a world often polarized, design has the power to unify communities, serving as a medium to explore social issues, preserve culture, and initiate change. And it’s a space where Black artists and designers in Detroit have taken the lead. With over 80 events slated throughout the month—from silent discos and pop-up shops to panels and art installations—the festival serves as a mirror reflecting the city’s diverse talents.

One such talent is Ken Walker of the K. Walker Collective clothing brand. As part of this year’s festival, Walker’s work not only elevates the initiative but also amplifies the broader cultural conversation about community and individuality. The Collective exemplifies the tenacity and resourcefulness that is the signature of Detroit.

“Detroit Month of Design is a pivotal platform for the creative community here. I have admired their relentless passion for providing opportunities and unique experiences that shine a light on some of the best creatives that Detroit has to offer,” Walker said. “I feel empowered knowing that we have an outlet to show the world that Detroit is a place buzzing with undeniable talent.

“I draw inspiration from the vibrant energy, resilience, and creativity of Detroit’s Black community, translating these influences into garments that carry stories of heritage, innovation, and empowerment,” Walker expressed. “My designs serve as both a homage to my roots and a statement of individuality, capturing the essence of Detroit’s spirit while pushing the boundaries of fashion. Through my work, I aim to amplify not only my craft but also the narratives and voices that deserve to shine on a global stage.”

Likewise, Eradajere Oleita, through her Chip Bag Project, brings an innovative yet socially responsive angle to design. By turning discarded chip bags into sleeping bags for the homeless, Kennedy’s project tackles the converging issues of environmental waste and urban poverty, imbuing design with ethical and social responsibility.

Oleita is a compelling blend of creativity, purpose, and cultural integrity. She describes herself as “a human first whose Blackness is the driving force of my creativity.” Oleita is not just a creator but a storyteller, an environmentalist, and a historian who aims to reclaim space in Detroit through activation and creative practices. When asked what the Detroit Month of Design means to her, she identifies it as “a space to collaborate and also ask critical questions of new people in design spaces,” a place that enables the rethinking of design itself.

The city of Detroit serves as a crucible for Oleita’s work, pushing her to stretch her creative boundaries.

“To be Black in Detroit means you are constantly being asked to push your creative. This is a city of superstars, and that mentality makes it possible for you to push yourself and your creative past what is considered regular,” she enthuses. The city has been instrumental in supporting every venture she has had, affirming that she is on the right track.

Looking ahead, Oleita has ambitious goals, both near-term and long-term. “Short term is increasing the impact of our warming kits program and being able to sustain full-year production,” she explains, and long-term, she aims to open an upcycling facility both in Detroit and overseas. “We want when you talk about sustainability, you think Chip Bag Project,” she asserts.

Oleita embodies the dynamic synthesis of personal aspiration, community obligation, and unyielding creativity. Like a prism, she refracts the diverse aspects of her identity — as an individual, a Black Detroiter, and a creative — into a spectrum of endeavors aimed at enriching her community and the world at large.

Kiana Wenzell, the Co-Executive Director of Design Core Detroit, is more than an organizational leader; she is a linchpin connecting creative vision to social transformation.

As she reflects, “As a brand I am a person whose father worked at Ford Motor Company and whose mother was a Detroit public school teacher. Design and education have always played a role in my life and that is reflected in the work I do today. As an individual I am a spiritual being living a physical purpose-filled life. As a Black Detroiter who creates, I use my platforms to amplify the history, talent, and voices of Black creatives.”

Wenzell’s role extends beyond the administrative, echoing her commitment to inclusivity and representation through partnerships like Gucci Changemakers. Her advocacy doesn’t merely add Black artists to the Detroit design narrative; it positions them as foundational pillars, vital to the story and its future. This ethos merges with Design Core Detroit’s overarching mission: to support and promote design-driven businesses that fuel the city’s economic growth. Wenzell’s voice is a testament to the integral role that design and education have played in her life and how she, in turn, uses her platform to amplify the contributions of Black creatives in Detroit.

So, what’s her mission in this landscape? “My mission is to continue to establish Detroit as a globally recognized and valued creative capital. In addition, my mission is to create opportunities for more people to embrace design as a tool to improve their communities and quality of life,” she declares. This philosophy unites with her deeper motivation, which she frames around the proverb, “To whom much is given, much more is required.”

Wenzell continued: “I have a responsibility to uplift and support creatives in Detroit because so many people have supported and mentored me. I am also driven by the fact that I see myself in the Black creatives that I interact and engage with.”

But it isn’t just abstract idealism; Wenzell’s engagement with Detroit Month of Design has tangibly amplified her own work. “I curated a walking tour of Lafayette Park and told the history of Black Bottom as my first festival event. The experience was pivotal for me because it boosted my confidence as a design practitioner, creative storyteller, and I learned that people were interested in hearing what I had to say.”

As for what’s next, Wenzell’s answer is both practical and visionary. “The work continues. In the fall we will begin planning the 2024 festival and our Drinks x Design series. We will continue offering business coaching and support to designers. We will continue providing matchmaking services that connect local designers to buyers. We will continue to tell Detroit’s design story locally, nationally, and internationally through our programs and events.”

Her narrative serves as a testament to how deeply the threads of individual passion, communal benefit, and cultural heritage can be interwoven in the fabric of Detroit’s design community. It is a dynamic ecosystem that has both nurtured her and been enriched by her contributions—a symbiotic relationship that underscores the collective heartbeat of the Detroit Month of Design.

Then there’s Taylor Childs, who has collaborated with Woodward Throwback Home for “Shop and See.” The initiative serves as another testament to Detroit’s economic and cultural revival, which has been and continues to be, spearheaded by Black artists and entrepreneurs. Childs’ work contributes to the dynamic commercial and aesthetic landscape, highlighting how the city’s past and future are inextricably connected through design.

“Month of Designs theme for the last two years has been united by design, I think that theme is always appropriate for the Detroit community because without community, there would be no unity. We are each other’s keepers. It’s a celebration of the work we do here in all areas of design,” expressed Childs.

“We use words such as hustle, endurance, and resilience to describe the people that come from Detroit. As a black creative we all share a similar story. I look at Detroit as the black story of perseverance. Most of our families were a part of the great migration. My great grandfather brought my family from the south, to work at Ford Motor company. In hopes to sustain a living. So of course, those words are the words you think of to describe us. Our root in history has been that.”

Detroit’s unique status as the only UNESCO City of Design in the U.S. isn’t an isolated accolade but rather an outcome of a communal vision and a long history of innovation. It’s a recognition that comes with a responsibility to utilize design as a tool for sustainable and equitable community growth. Being part of a global network of 43 cities that use design to improve the lives of their residents, Detroit takes its role seriously. And given the substantial contributions of Black designers, artists, and creatives, it’s clear that any conversation about design as a catalyst for economic development and social change in Detroit is incomplete without acknowledging their pivotal role.

The festival’s far-reaching impact extends beyond mere aesthetics and commerce. The Detroit Month of Design offers a transformative experience that not only highlights the city’s enormous talent but also crystallizes the broader social impact of design. It reinforces the idea that design isn’t just about creating beautiful objects or spaces but also about nurturing community, initiating dialogue, and effecting real-world change.

As Detroit transitions from its legacy as the automotive capital of the world to a hub for creative minds and social innovators, the Detroit Month of Design serves as an annual reminder of the city’s dynamic identity. This evolution is not merely a tribute to the city’s past but an investment in its future. And with Black artists and creatives continuing to trailblaze this renaissance, Detroit doesn’t just celebrate design; it embodies it. Therefore, the city and its people stand united by design, and that unity reverberates beyond the limits of a month-long festival. It is etched in the very essence of Detroit—resilient, diverse, and infinitely creative.