Detroit Month of Design Offers an Ambitious Lineup for 2020

Celebrating the 10-year-anniversary of Month of Design, Design Core Detroit presents a new program called Design in the City as well as livestream music performances and outdoor art events
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Designer and curator Katherine Johnson addresses systemic racism’s effect on the Black community in her installation, Internal Inferno. // Photograph courtesy of Design Core Detroit

The pandemic has put a damper on much of Detroit’s creative scene, but it hasn’t derailed Detroit Month of Design. In fact, the event’s organizers even managed to add an ambitious new program this year with a bit of help from Gucci.

Created by the nonprofit Design Core Detroit, Detroit Month of Design has become an internationally recognized, month-long celebration held every September. Now marking its 10th year, the highly anticipated multidisciplinary festival promotes design as a catalyst for economic growth in the city, showcasing all facets of the field, including apparel and accessory design, architecture, urban planning, graphic design, animation, and user experience design.

“Design Core’s mission is to establish Detroit as a globally valued and recognized resource for creative talent,” says Kiana Wenzell, Design Core’s director of culture and community.

The event also honors Detroit’s designation as a UNESCO City of Design, a recognition the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization bestows to celebrate the unique design industries of select cities around the world. Detroit is the first and only U.S. city to receive the designation.

In a typical year, tens of thousands are drawn to Month of Design’s workshops, seminars, exhibits, tours, and open studios. In a concession to the pandemic, more than 20 of this year’s 65 events will be virtual, while in-person events will either be outdoors and guided or will require registration to control capacity.

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Costume designer Nabeela Najjar’s installation, Softly Away, features garments and floral pieces inspired by nature and her dreams. // Photograph courtesy of Design Core Detroit

Despite the pivot, Design Core is introducing a new program this year called Design in the City. Powered by a $45,000 grant from Gucci’s Changemakers North America Impact Fund, the program aims to support budding fashion and accessory designers. Seven self-taught and academically trained designers each received a $2,000 stipend to create installations and were paired with local commercial spaces to host their work through September. Five recent graduates of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies will also present a self-funded joint installation.

The participating designers received virtual mentorships from both the program’s support team and from an industry advisory council, which provided business plan and marketing support and guidance on creating their installation layouts.

The new program is modeled after a similar one in Graz, Austria, a fellow UNESCO City of Design. Wenzell and Design Core’s director of business programs, Bonnie Fahoome, submitted their Design in the City program idea — which they modified to focus specifically on fashion and accessory designers, with an emphasis on women and people of color — to the open call for Gucci’s grant program in late December. The project was selected in January in the first round of recipients.

“It’s our first year doing it, but it’s eye-opening and it’s a professional development program,” Wenzell says. “And that’s what some emerging designers really need to have a long-term career in the industry.”

One of those emerging designers is Katherine Johnson, 23. Her installation, Internal Inferno, has taken on new meaning since she started working on it. As an artist, she is inspired by events that directly affect her, her family, and the Black community, and her installation originally focused on the health disparities the Black community has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor moved Johnson to take her installation a step further to address systemic racism as a whole.

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Artist and researcher Cristin Richard investigates the future of sustainability and the relationship between humans and nature in her installation, Excess Baggage. // Photograph courtesy of Design Core Detroit

“I wanted to break that down in my exhibition. Speaking to my personal experience, hoping to sympathize with others and uplift the Black community,” Johnson says. “Speaking on systemic racism, but also our resilience and our beauty … how we’ll continue to rise and reach within ourselves and our communities and be the change that we want to see.”

Internal Inferno is hosted at Detroit-based cooking demonstration space The Kitchen, by Cooking with Que. Johnson will cover the space with digitally printed wallpaper and furniture coverings in an original textile featuring imagery that represents her and her ancestors.

Johnson will also present four garments that explore the “transformation from fire to love.” One will be her version of a hazmat suit: a hybrid of firefighting gear and personal protective equipment, in part symbolizing the virus.

Johnson’s installation is just one example of why Design Core thought it was important to emphasize women and people of color for the Design in the City program.

“You look at the design industry — there’s a lack of diversity,” Wenzell says. “It’s really important for me to have more multicultural voices heard and part of design processes. Because we’re all users of design, but we don’t always have a say … in the process of design.”

A Detroit Month Of Design Sampler

This year’s Detroit Month of Design will feature 65 virtual and in-person workshops, competitions, tours, and other events — below is a taste of what’s in store

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Local Color: Natural Dyes of Detroit // Photograph courtesy of Design Core Detroit
Local Color: Natural Dyes of Detroit

Created by Kayla Powers, a Detroit-based textile artist and owner of Salt Textile Studios, Local Color is a yearlong study of natural dye plants and the presence of nature in an urban environment, presented through 12 tapestries that Powers dyed using plants foraged from around the city and wove from 50 skeins of wool. The weavings will hang in an outdoor installation along the Dequindre Cut for people to view at any time. Sept. 1-30. Opening event on Sept. 5. No cost. Dequindre Cut Greenway, Detroit.

Music x Design

Enjoy house and techno music spun by DJs from Berlin, Chicago, and Detroit during this 24-hour livestream music event organized by AIGA Detroit. Celebrating these cities’ contribution to electronic music, each city will present four DJs who will each play a two-hour set. Sept. 3 and 4. No cost.

Building Materials

Printmaker and sculptor Lindsay Splichal’s exhibit explores her family’s construction heritage and the connection between architecture, space, and the mediums of sculpture and print. Organized by Playground Detroit, Splichal’s exhibit will include monotypes designed with foam, paint, cement, asphalt felt, acrylic, and Xerox transfers. Attendees can register for a 30-minute individual or group viewing of the outdoor installation. Sept. 17-Oct 7. No cost. 8711 Grand River Ave., Detroit

Visit for the entire festival lineup, registration information, and updates.