Introducing the Nordin Brothers: The Duo Behind the Detroit Design Center
You may not know their names, but chances are, you've seen their art
You may not know Israel and Erik Nordin’s names, but chances are you’ve seen art from their Detroit Design Center. Maybe you rang in New Year’s when their “DBurst” sculpture took its first few midnight drops. Or locked your ride on one of their Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood bike racks.
Their work also helped open Beacon Park on Grand River. The DTE Foundation-sponsored exhibition called “Spark” was 10 objects representing the “burst of energy and explosive growth currently happening in Detroit,” Erik says. “It’s capturing a moment in time when energy is buzzing. People can feel it. You can’t fake that sh*t.”
He should know. The brothers — who were also founding fathers of the Detroit Design Festival — have been encouraging that local art surge for years.
Recent installations include a“Generations” sculpture dedicated to veterans in Corktown and a 26-foot piece called “The Seed” for Sterling Heights.
Art influenced the brothers’ early lives. Their mother was a painter and their father, a guitar player. But it was hard making a living in music, so their father started a business called Bulldog Steel along the railroad tracks near Michigan and Livernois. At its peak, there were 30 employees — including the brothers, who worked their way from the worst jobs on up.
Meanwhile, Israel studied ceramics and glass at the College for Creative Studies, and Erik studied music at the University of Michigan (his band is called The Strange).
When their father retired, he sold them the building. While they had been doing art work on the side, Erik says they “didn’t want art to be a hobby.” So they went for it.
While they’re proud of their work, Israel adds, they’re also proud of surviving. It wasn’t always easy. They started with small jobs for bars and restaurants. Then some interior design pieces (including award-winning work honored by Hour’s sister publication, Detroit Home).
Weld by weld, they developed a roster of clients. Their work can now command up to six figures.
Israel Nordin (left) and erik Nordin
The bulk of that work takes place in the Michigan Avenue studio, which is accessed through several locks and doors, and getting past a greeting by a pair of “friendly” dogs (so long as you’re with one of the brothers, one might guess). Inside, a small anteroom holds a few barber chairs and a mess of small-scale prototypes and parts.
The main shop is a 12,000 square-foot cavernous throwback to Detroit’s industrial past with overhead cranes and industrial machines for flattening sheets of coiled steel. Partially finished pieces are everywhere, as are raw materials begging for the right inspiration, including old movie projectors from the Madison Theatre.
The best inspiration comes from collaboration, says Israel. “Everyone has a different story. The biggest influence is the client … we apply something from their life into the work of art.”
For example, a key to a piece made for The Whitney restaurant was inspired by it being “a building that’s this gem is in the middle of the city,” Israel says. Another piece rests in a 400-pound block of granite, because the client’s father loved mountain climbing.
“The artwork are the tools or materials to tell that story,” Israel says.
One of their more recent projects isn’t a sculpture at all. It’s a Midtown event space/gallery/outdoor sculpture garden they’ve been working on for three years.
The former auto shop also doubled as a studio for the fashion shoot on the accompanying pages. The brothers collaborated with Hour’s creative team to develop custom pieces, including a hoop swing and a goddess-like headdress. Other art pieces served as backdrops.
Meanwhile, many of the Beacon Park works are in the sculpture garden next door, awaiting their next life as part of a traveling exhibit this spring.
The new space is close to home for the brothers, who both live in the now thriving Midtown. (Although Erik, who has lived there for some 20 years, is glad to see Midtown “maintain a bit of its attitude.”)
The brothers operate like a mini football team, each bringing strength to a position. Erik does a little of everything and concentrates on the business end. Younger brother Israel is a master builder, with a flair for structure. When needed, they call on another brother, Chris, who runs glassblowing company Furnace Design Studio with his wife, Michelle Plucinsky.
In other words, they divide and conquer. And bicker a bit, too.
At press time, the brothers were having a healthy debate over what would be the best design for the event space’s staircase. They are siblings, after all.
Visit detroitdesigncenter.com for more about the Nordin brothers’ work, as well as some video of past installations.