Detroit’s Got Talent

The annual Detroit Design Festival expands to reflect our growing art scene

Detroiters know design — after all, it’s the region’s collective creative talent that’s given the world the coolest, sleekest cars for more than 100 years.

Of course, design extends well beyond cars, and in recent years the city has seen an influx of cutting-edge talent tailoring everything from clothes and interior spaces to public interactions. The Detroit Design Festival, hatched in 2011 to promote and harness the city’s arty efforts, is back this year with five days of events intended to lure the local public, as well as design aficionados worldwide.

“The festival was established to connect and feature the work of Detroit’s various design communities — interior, product, graphic, ad, industrial, fashion,” says Matt Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), which organizes the festival. “They’re all doing really, really strong work, and all doing globally relevant work, but it was happening in silos.,” he says. “We thought, ‘What if we devoted a week of programming to featuring just this kind of work? To give national and international communities a flavor of what it means to be a designer in southeast Michigan?'”

A grant from the Knight Foundation is helping the festival to expand. Last year, it featured about 200 designers; this year, Clayson is aiming for more than 300.

The festival reflects the city’s burgeoning design scene. In July, Lawrence Tech University announced it would use a $300,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to create a new design center in Midtown, slated to open in 2014. The Avenue of Fashion (aka Livernois) is getting new life, thanks in part to a $200,000 ArtPlace grant that will fund art installations in the medians and vacant storefronts. Festival partner the College for Creative Studies in 2009 unveiled the Alfred A. Taubman Center for Design Education, which doubled the campus’ size and has helped drive the college’s growing impact on the city.

“We feel that Detroit design is fiercely independent and is fueled by the flexibility designers have here,” Clayson says. “You can design for GM by day and engage with the community by night. Individual designers don’t have to be affiliated with any one brand or company. It’s really unique for designers to have the flexibility that exists here. With the lower cost of living and our global connectivity, it’s something that’s really special that we need to continue.”

The festival departs from most of its peers by placing curating powers largely in the hands of the public. A one-week open call for submissions at midsummer leads to a community-sourcing phase. Volunteers and people with venues for the festival sort through the proposals and pledge support for the ones they like. A gallery owner, for example, can offer to host a proposed installation. For this year, the festival has added community curators in specific areas around the city.

“We want to encourage as much community support for each event as possible before the festival,” Clayson says. “It results in a very organic, community-based dialogue that’s fun to watch unfold.”

A few weeks after the submissions process ends, the festival begins. Among this year’s participants will be Middlecott Design, a firm that used the 2012 festival to announce its arrival.

“We wanted to make a splash in Detroit regarding our launch,” says Middlecott Design co-founder Brook Banham. “So we hosted an automotive-themed sketch battle as part of DDF.”

Prominent local artists judged the efforts of 12 sketchers, from professional car designers and CCS students to a 13-year-old aspiring designer. The event was such a hit that Middlecott staged another battle during a black-tie event for auto executives at the North American International Auto Show in January and is gearing up to host Design in Motion during this year’s festival. A graffiti sketch battle will run simultaneously with a car battle and a dance battle. The cars must be modified, and the graffiti artists will be asked to reinterpret their favorite — or most hated — automotive brand logos. The dance battle’s parameters seemed elusive even to Banham, so it should be fun to watch.

“The festival showcases Detroit and the creative content [that] exists here.”
— Brook Banham

“The festival showcases Detroit and the creative content [that] exists here,” Banham says. “All these funny little design firms and people doing crazy stuff in the city — hopefully it helps propagate the fact that Detroit is a creative center and leads to more people moving here and more design work being imported to and [exported] from Detroit.”

Last year’s popular Eastern Market After Dark will return to the festival, with 40 venues open for browsing and live entertainment. (Think Noel Night, but in Eastern Market and with warm weather.) Clayson says the festival is hoping to replicate the event around the city — in Southwest Detroit, the north end, and along the Avenue of Fashion. Many of the galleries and studios that participated last year said it was their biggest night of the year for sales.

This year, the festival also aims to be easier to navigate. Last year, says DC3 engagement manager Melinda Anderson, the festival lacked a central place for kids who are interested in design. This year, the Michigan State University Center’s garage will host a Youth Innovation Center. Kids with an eye for design will have an entire day to try numerous hands-on activities under one roof.

Also sprinkled throughout the festival will be various seminars, with topics such as design appreciation and how to make a living as a designer.

Cezanne Charles, director of creative industries at ArtServe Michigan, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening art and culture in Michigan, says the festival helps to broaden the appeal and understanding of design in a car-focused region. Last year, ArtServe hosted a panel discussion called Design Futures, featuring national and local design professionals, and the organization expects to participate again this year.

“Design, especially within Detroit, is still conceived of primarily as product design or industrial design,” Charles says. “The power to connect people and spaces is a little overlooked. The Detroit Design Festival represents an opportunity to highlight those non-object design practices. The part that I think is really phenomenal is it focuses on what design can do — and not just what design is. We have to sort of let it off the leash a bit.”

For the general public, she says, the festival offers plenty to enjoy.

“It’s really accessible,” Charles says. “It really is the kind of thing that you’re able to connect with — that you wake up with a product that’s used to clean your teeth and that’s design. Everybody has design in their life — from the moment we wake up to the cars we drive to the streets we use; it’s elemental.”



Detroit Design Festival 2013 Highlights

(Note: Events accurate at press time. For more detailed information, visit


Tuesday, Sept. 17

>> DDF Kick-Off Party
6-10 p.m.
A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, College for Creative Studies
The festival’s kick-off party in the historic Argonaut building (now the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education) will feature music and design exhibitions from top Detroit talent and CCS students, plus nine curated gallery showrooms.


Wednesday, Sept. 18

>> Toyota Lecture Series
6:30 p.m.
A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, College for Creative Studies
As part of the Toyota Lecture Series in Design — established through a $1 million endowment to the College for Creative Studies — prominent designers and scholars visit CCS. Speaker TBA.


Thursday, Sept. 19

>> Eastern Market After Dark
7-11 p.m.
Eastern Market
A hit at last year’s festival, this market-wide event will feature 40 venues in an open-house format, including galleries, restaurants, and studios, with musical performances and a pop-up beer garden.

>> Buckminster Fuller Documentary
Detroit Film Theatre
Two showings: 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Buckminster Fuller was an architect, engineer, and inventor. In a one-hour “live documentary,” Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green will narrate a series of live clips and archival footage while Yo La Tengo performs the original score.

>> Architecture Awards Celebration
7 p.m. Ticketed event ~ 9 p.m. Open to the public
Eastern Market, Shed 3
The American Institute of Architecture’s Detroit chapter moved its annual awards program to coincide with Eastern Market After Dark. The program showcases excellent design and recognizes firms and individuals who make significant contributions to the built environment. The year’s event will feature live music and lighting installations, along with a look at dozens of the best architectural projects from metro Detroit firms.


Friday, Sept. 20

>> Revolve: Avenue of Fashion
Revolve Detroit is helping to transform the historic Avenue of Fashion (aka Livernois) through 10 formerly empty storefronts, taken over by artists, designers, architects, and entrepreneurs. The spaces include move-in ready retail spaces that can become new stores, vacant storefront windows that can host art installations, sides of buildings that could host large murals, and public courtyards and medians for sculptures, performances, or events. The DDF event will showcase
all of the spaces and feature performances, openings, and parties.


Saturday, Sept. 21

>> Design in Motion
All day
Location TBA
Explore underground Detroit design, including a customized-car show and a graffiti sketchbattle. The daytime event will transition to night with DJs and a dance battle to kick off a late-night party.

>> Youth Innovation Center
9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Michigan State University Center Garage
The Youth Innovation Center will give the K-12 crowd a place to explore design. The coG Studio, a children-focused architectural firm in Detroit, will host an interactive, hands-on doodle pod. The Lego Club of Michigan will offer an exhibit and hands-on activities. A documentary about local kids rehabbing a home on the city’s west side will air.


Sunday, Sept. 22

>> Guided Walking Tours of Lafayette Park
Get an up-close view of storied Lafayette Park and architect Mies Van der Rohe’s vision for the neighborhood.

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