Detroit Design Month celebrates Motown’s creative community with installations, activations, and happenings

Motor City Thrives

Detroit Design Month celebrates Motown’s creative community with installations, activations, and happenings

LoveITDetroit (Courtesy Consulate of Italy in Detroit and the Dante Alighieri Society of Michigan)

Organized by local non-for-profit Design Core, Detroit Design Month is a festival that celebrates all the Rust Belt metropolis has to offer when it comes to creative output. Defining design broadly, the multifaceted happening encompasses 80 or so activations; everything from the launch of new furniture concepts to the unveiling of site-responsive installations.

Tapping into almost every layer of the city’s urban fabric and complex history, a broad range of programming includes talks, workshops, performances, exhibitions, small business store tours, and—notably this year—scheduled visits to legendary venues that witnessed to the birth of the city’s very own music genre, Techno. The event is now in its 13th edition this September, and adopts a different approach to festival-making, one that is deeply rooted in fostering community through creative engagement and communicating its successes and challenges to the wider world.

“Our city is the only one in the U.S. with a UNESCO City of Design designation,” Design Core co-director Kiana Wenzel said in commemorating Onzie Deandre Norman’s Botanical City mural. “Things move quickly here when it comes to the development of new ideas.” The culturemaker was referring to Detroit’s recent design renaissance; one that takes its cue from the innovative spirit of its automotive industry past but that is far more concerned with achieving an environmentally and socially sustainable future. Throughout town, a strategic (not total) embrace of new technologies intertwines with the revival of age-old artisanal practice.

Rising Snake by Kit Parks (Courtesy Detroit Fiber Club)

Detroit Design Month doesn’t just highlight aspects of the postindustrial center’s gritty heritage that most people are familiar with. Deandre Norman’s collage-like mural is mounted on the side of the hotel and watering hole The Siren. With support from the Gucci Changemakers fund, it incorporates both elements that denote Detroit’s car manufacturing history but also the city’s lesser-known abundance of natural resources and parks.

Within this context, creatives from different backgrounds and with different ambitions are all invited engage in unfettered exchange for a while. Embodying this energy, Woodward Throwback is a studio producing one-off furnishings from materials carefully upcycled from derelict buildings. It’s all about finding clever ways to repurpose materials: chalk-board slate turned into tiled counters, and bullet-proof glass (with actual holes) is fashioned into coffee tables. Woodward Throwback’s downtown boutique stood out as part of this year’s Detroit Design Month Shop and See program—a series of stores outfitted with special activations.

Installation from Perspectives in Contemporary Woodmaking (Courtesy Detroit Month of Design)

There’s a certain level of unpretentious open-mindedness that runs through this city that sees multi-hyphenate talents like Mike Han put their expertise to vastly different mediums. He works with everything from repurposed blueprints, carpets, furniture, fashion accessories, and even beer. Presented at the Playground Detroit gallery, his first ever solo show in town, United by Design, coalesces all of these applications around his signature use of thick graphical lines. Developed with local producers such as Gardner White, Leon Speakers, See Eyewear, and Detroitissimi, the various works stem from his exploration into the potential of accessible functional art and circular design.

Through collaboration, he’s been able to blur the boundaries between what might have previously been thought of as high and low. It’s a similar spirit of cooperation and entrepreneurialism that inspired Elizabeth Salonen of industrial design practice Mottoform and ceramic artist Claire Thibodeau to approach Michelin-star chef Sarah Welch with the idea of producing a sensorial tablescape for her award-winning Marrow restaurant.

For local fabricator Citizen Robotics, it’s a matter of necessity. Erecting Detroit’s first-ever 3D printed house out of concrete hits the mark on multiple levels: affordability, site-specificity, and scalability. For the city’s wider creative community, accessibility aligns with an ingrained focus on developing transportation solutions. During Detroit Design Month, the College of Creative Studies mounted a two-day Design Jam session pairing various members of the community, local industry, students, and disabled individuals to quickly ideate on new product concepts—everything from better equipped car interiors to improved prosthesis.

Ancient Entanglements by Sanford Biggers (Courtesy Detroit Month of Design)

Overall, a more agnostic approach to tech seemed to define much of the innovation on display. The Carhartt-backed ISAIC (Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center) has a mission to teach individuals of varying backgrounds the skills necessary to produce garments at scale. Mixing and matching some of the latest innovations in fabric manufacturing, the platform implemented new digital processes—3D printing, laser cutting, another specific technology—are needed, blending technology with craft and handiwork. In doing so, ISAIC also champions a less wasteful approach to one of the most environmentally detrimental industries: fashion.   

With a similar mindset, Newlab opened its second location in Detroit this April, designed by CIVILIAN. Housed in a meticulously restored and adapted Albert Kahn book depository building, the new high-tech facility is already playing host to start ups and scale ups yet again incubating the future of mobility. Detroit is indeed a city where things move quickly. It’s the place where the outmoded idea of industrial design as being stuffy and disjoined is thoroughly turned on its head.

Adrian Madlener is a New York–based writer, curator, consultant and artist exploring craft-led experimentation and sustainability in art, architecture, and design.