Detroit Design Festival gets bigger, better, and more international 

Putting the 'D' in design

Motown may be better known for its motors and music, but the city has a strong — if underappreciated — design economy as well. Just ask the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. For the past five years, the group has worked to highlight the region's creative industry with its annual Detroit Design Festival, which is now poised to be its biggest yet.

"It's kind of this invisible economic force that isn't quite getting the recognition that it deserves," says Ellie Schneider, interim executive director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, or DC3. She says that part of the problem is quantifying creative industries, which defy conventional categorization in terms of economic development.

For example, Schneider says many creative industry workers are freelancers, and don't get counted when the state assesses its full-time employees. "There's about 27,000 in the state who work in creative industries, and about 13,000 that are independent contractors — meaning that they weren't counted in the overall numbers," she says.

The Detroit Design Festival takes this invisible industry — which includes graphic design, fashion, architecture, interior design, and more — and pulls it out into the open with events meant for a mass appeal in venues across the city. According to Schneider, this year's programming is the festival's most ambitious to date.

The festival kicks off with Drinks x Design mixer from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at St. Vincent Corktown (2020 14th St., Detroit), featuring free drinks, food trucks, live music, and open house studios.

New for 2015, the festival will offer Industry Days. The two-day conference, which takes place Tuesday, Sept. 22 and Wednesday, Sept. 23, features design professionals from cities like Toronto, Montreal, Geneva, and more discussing topics like architecture, policy, urban manufacturing, and community development.

As in past years, the festival will throw Eastern Market After Dark, an evening of featuring studio tours, a fashion show, and other happenings, which will be held from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 24. The festival will also once again host a Design Village from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26 at the Display Group (1700 W. Fort St.), where shoppers can buy furniture, home wares, and fashion created by designers from Detroit.

Other happenings include a Detroit architecture scavenger hunt; Red Bull Creation, a two-day "hackerthon" that pits teams of inventors against each other; a walking tour of Detroit's historic Ludwig Mies van der Rohe-designed Lafayette Park neighborhood, interactive installations on the Dequindre Cut greenway, and a performance by visual artist Nick Cave. (See the festival's official website for the most up-to-date schedule.)

Beyond the festival, new this year the DC3 is launching the Creative Co., a network that aims to unite Michigan's creative industry workers and help pair them with design needs from across the state.

"Creative Co. is sort of a phase two of our business incubator program that we've been running for the past four years," Schneider says. "It was designed as a yearlong residency program for all types of creative businesses, where we helped them do everything from forming their business plan to forming an LLC and early-stage business development. We've moved out of that stage now to working with actual existing businesses as well as freelancers, which is one area that we've never really been able to serve."

Schneider says the hope is serve what's already out there. "As opposed to saying, 'Let us help you build your business,' we're now saying, 'If you have an existing business, we can help you to refine it and really help get past those challenging issues,'" she says. "It's a networking opportunity, it's business training, it's a concierge for general businesses who are looking for any kind of creative service to come to us and we can connect you to an entire network of designers to bid on your contract.

In all, this year's festival features more than 500 designers, and is expected to draw more than 40,000 attendees to 30 events. "The quality and diversity of events offers something for everyone, and speak to Detroit's role as a global center for design," Schneider says.

Detroit Design Festival is Tuesday, Sept. 22 through Saturday, Sept. 26; see website for full schedule and participating venues; detroitdesignfestival.com; free and open to the public.

More by Lee DeVito

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