Like so many Detroit-area kids coming of age in the 1990s, Lily Diego and her friends misspent part of their youth traipsing through the vacant, hulking shells of monumental buildings left to decay along with the city itself.
They’d swoop in for late-night electronica parties at the Packard Plant or the Russell Industrial Center or “find our way into the train station and The Book Depository to look at the graffiti and see a life that once was when it was in its limelight,” she says.
That may explain why her role in redesigning The Book Depository is a defining challenge
and honor of her career so far.
“When Ford brought this to us, to help with, it was this explosion of emotions because I felt my teenage self, my early-20-year-old self, get super excited that we could be part of something that was a part of our history, something that I’ve always looked at with such intrigue,” says Diego, 46, now the design director for Gensler Detroit, the local arm of a global architecture and design firm that was hired to design The Book Depository.
Diego, the first American-born member of her Filipino immigrant family, was a rebel in other ways, too. Her parents expected her to go into medicine, so the Bloomfield Hills native studied neuroscience as a University of Michigan undergraduate, got a master’s degree in biomedical sciences at Wayne State University, and put in a year of medical school there before realizing her passions lay elsewhere.
“It was right before I had to start truly cutting into cadavers when I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, no, never mind, I don’t want to do this,’” she recalls.
Her U-M friends were all “creatives” — designers, filmmakers, and artists — and one helped her land a job in 2000 doing administrative work for Charlene & Co., a Bloomfield Hills interior design firm. Six months along, the firm’s namesake, Charlene Morris, offered to train her. Six years later, Diego and Morris founded an offshoot firm called A Perfect Setting that focused on designing luxury residential and office spaces.
Diego bought out Morris in 2008 and ran the new firm while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in architecture at Lawrence Technological University.
“Sometimes I would have contractors and colleagues coming in the studio to talk about projects at the same time I was trying to complete my studies,” she says.
One early memorable job, she says, was designing Nude the Salon in Birmingham in 2011 for a hair stylist friend. What’s interesting about it is that the aesthetic — raw and rustic, lots of exposed ductwork and lighting — would fit neatly at the Book Depository if someone were to open a salon there.
That’s not an accident, Diego says: “A lot of my designs are rooted in Detroit and reflect that this is a manufacturing and fabricating city. … Those elements are extremely natural for our region to design with.”
Diego’s designs were also in two well-known Detroit restaurants that have since closed, West Village’s Craft Work and Eastern Market’s La Rondinella.
Diego joined Gensler’s Detroit office in 2017 and is currently at the epicenter of two of the firm’s most significant projects — the Book Depository and a $60 million renovation of Chicago’s iconic Merchandise Mart. In both cases, the task is to reinvent a historic site for the 21st century.
“Every building has a story — especially when it’s designed by greats like Albert Kahn — that you want to honor,” she says. “You can juxtapose modern aspects to it and create a new story, or an adjacent story, a marriage of it. But I love being able to keep and maintain what has developed as the history of the city.”
She sees these renovations as, in some ways, a reflection of her own story from would-be medical student to where she is now.
“In terms of my journey and how it relates to the work we’ve done with [The Book Depository], both prove that anything can be redefined,” she says. “There’s always a turn of a page. It’s a reimagining, and as long as you have the interest, the fervor, and the intrigue to do it, you can.”
Read more about the Michigan Central Project here, and don’t miss the interview with the Hour Detroit interview with the project’s overseeing architect here.