It’s easy to miss the unassuming storefront sandwiched between a McDonald’s and an empty lot in Detroit’s Old Redford neighborhood. Behind the whitewashed façade, however, is the headquarters of the increasingly influential Nine Design + Homes, which has occupied the vintage building since October.
Named after their former Ferndale location on Nine Mile Road, the 10,000-square-foot space is the latest effort of Keith Bynum and Evan Thomas of HGTV’s hit Bargain Block fame. Housing a community space/classroom, a gallery and sales floor, and offices/a workshop, the Grand River location represents an expansion of their brand as well as an ongoing commitment to their adopted city.
Relative newcomers, the pair (partners in business and in life, they explain) moved to the Motor City five years ago in search of abundant opportunity and cheap real estate. They met in Colorado, while Thomas was in graduate school (he’s a carpenter with a doctorate in physics; Bynum is an artist), and had been flipping houses in Denver but were increasingly frustrated by the city’s prices.
Bynum had long heard about Detroit’s creative community. He took a red-eye on his birthday in January 2017 and looked at eight properties, purchasing one for just $12,000. “I didn’t actually see the inside of it,” he remembers, adding that when he did “it was a disaster.” Undeterred, the pair sold their last Colorado property in August and moved east. A few years and houses later, HGTV came knocking.
Working with real estate expert and Detroit resident Shea Hicks-Whitfield, the pair purchases modest city properties from sources such as the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Their goal is to buy several run-down or abandoned houses on a block and renovate them into artful yet affordable (and fully furnished) starter homes. Then they move on to another block.
Bynum credits television with nurturing his design sense, adding that while growing up he admired shows such as Frasier and Will and Grace. The couple’s creativity and accessible and affordable style have been large parts of Bargain Block’s appeal, with an episode on season one, which debuted in April 2021, featuring Bynum creating free-form wall art from cedar strips.
Community reaction has been positive, they say. “We are taking houses that are heavily blighted and not being lived in,” Thomas explains. “People want boarded-up houses to be fixed up. … It’s a positive thing for everyone.”
Fallen trees, plumbing problems, and dry rot have been among the challenges. “Some houses were too far gone,” Thomas explains, but more often than not they take the leap. “It’s really hard to pass up a $5,000 house, even if it’s missing a wall.”
They’ve been consistently impressed by the workmanship found in even the city’s more modest residences. “The craftsmanship and quality of those houses was insane,” Bynum explains, adding that “they are a testament to the time period [in which they were built].”
At the end of each episode in season one, the pair packed up their air mattress and other belongings in a grocery cart, moving down the street to their next challenge. That cart is now located near the entrance of the store, symbolic perhaps of how far they’ve come. Design assistant Justin Mueller, on board since July, says the retail space is a natural extension of the show and concentrates on an interesting mix of furniture and accessories from all eras that fits the brand. “We weave in vintage and new for an elevated look,” he explains.
That mix is a major part of the appeal. “Money shouldn’t stop you from having a great house,” Bynum says, describing their interiors as “budget conscious, with style.” Always on the hunt for the underpriced and unexpected, they “love thrifting, Facebook Marketplace, garage sales, and, when we have time, estate sales,” says Thomas. They also haunt local Habitat for Humanity ReStore locations, especially the one in Farmington Hills. “At this point, they pull things we like.”
Some finds end up on the show, others for sale in the shop. Featured during a recent visit was a sinuous curved sofa newly re-covered in sherpa and priced at $1,200. “The fabric on it was awful, but the shape drew us in,” Mueller explains.
“We look for anything unique,” adds Bynum, who decorates each Bargain Block house according to a theme. “I love the ’80s, and I’m really into geometric fabrics,” he adds. Not everything is old, however. “One way to style a room is to add one new item,” Bynum says, “maybe new accent chairs or a new dining table with thrifted chairs.” Plans for the store include more artisan and home renovation workshops, says brand director Emmi Mayo. “We are trying to offer things to the community that might be missing,” Bynum says.
That’s a Wrap
Bynum and Thomas recently wrapped up filming season two, featuring homes on Detroit’s west side; it will air this summer. You can see them now on Rock the Block, which pits them against other HGTV renovators. Along the way, they say, they’ve fallen in love with Detroit, its people, and its iconic architecture. They’ve enjoyed exploring the city’s vast architectural heritage. Bynum even admits to coveting the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Palmer Woods. “Aesthetically, that is my dream house,” he says. “The paneling, the windows … I just love it.”
Both are big fans of Detroit’s historic districts, including Boston-Edison and Palmer Woods. “They’re so different than the type of renovations we do. It would be fun to do something like that,” Thomas says, adding they might in the future.
“You never know.”
Season two of Bargain Block brings some changes. The couple no longer moves into every house they rehabilitate. “I don’t miss that element,” Thomas adds. Bynum agrees: “It just makes our lives so much easier.” Neither count a future move out, but it won’t be for the show. “We are always open to a better deal,” Bynum says, adding they keep their eyes on what’s available in Sherwood Forest, Boston-Edison, and Rosedale Park.
In the works is a possible spin-off series and their own “moody and eclectic” furniture line. Bynum hopes to make and sell more of his original art through the store. “I’ve been blown away by the response,” he says. They’ve also begun offering at-home design services, helping people get their look at home. Upgrades to the store, including a new eye-catching mural, are also on tap.
They look back over the past five years with wonder. “We have felt a lot of momentum building,” Bynum says. “I sometimes can’t believe how far we’ve come.”