By design

From the drawing board, the darkroom and the sewing machine come the brain-tingling works of the “Design Show” that opens this Friday, Jan. 10, at Detroit Artists Market. A panorama of Motor City styles of the non-automotive kind, it brings together five fashion designers, five furniture designers and five fashion photographers in a visual group-grope that opens more imaginative closets and poses more horny questions in one place than we have a right to expect.

Conceived by co-curators Monica Sklar and Nikki Barbour as a break from January auto show-itis, this installation of fresh fashions, avant-to-accessible accessories and severe scopophilia is all over the map of looks and trends. Which doesn’t just mean that style in Detroit lacks a dominant tendency — it also indicates a healthy anything-goes attitude when it comes to dressing up bodies, living spaces and libidoscapes.

For starters, it would be hard to put together a more visually diverse sample of Detroit fashion photographers than the group assembled here: Emin, Nicola Kuperus, Angie Baan, Chris Scalise and Scott Sprague. Emin — who is also publisher and creative director of Royal Oak-based Clear, the fashion and design magazine — offers six images of the ambiguously fetching Ana Mihalcic from Croatia. Those already familiar with four of these high-toned shots from Clear’s latest issue might have wanted more of a surprise, but why quibble, n’est-ce pas?

Kuperus has stolen enough time from her exploding techno-rock career with Adult. to produce three more of her infamous glamour catastrophes, here on the painfully tongue-in-cheek theme of gardening. Her models, most of them elegantly dressed murder victims, sport hedge trimmers, a garden hose and a shovel.

Otherwise Baan, Sprague and Scalise take radically different approaches to the female figure — from a gently vernacular idealism (Baan), to a courageously wispy, silhouetted dreaminess (Sprague, pictured), to a fetish vision of fishnets and corsets (Scalise) that’s fast approaching exhaustion as a photographic subject. In fact, an unavoidable subtext of most of this show’s photographs is that the almost obligatory fetishism of the past decade is wearing thin. Obvious or subtle, traditional or revised, one kind of fetishism or another inflects the images of Emin, Kuperus and Scalise. As a result, their pictures seem instantly nostalgic.

Of course, clothes usually grab the design spotlight, and the creations by the five local couturiers at DAM make the gallery look like one of those sparsely decorated boutiques that have little to offer at very high prices. Except that the styles displayed here — on manikins and hanging from the walls — reflect a whole range of sensibilities.

One fabric allowing us to dress more ecologically, as we light up the eyes of voyeurs at gallery openings and clubs, is hemp — not the smoking kind, but hip stuff nevertheless. Designer Beth Breidenstein’s Spiral line of relaxed, elegant outfits turns hemp into women’s coats, men’s pants-and-jacket combinations (too laid-back to properly be called suits), with a sober palette of muted tones — gray, black, — and a roomy approach to fitting.

Then Nahla Shaaya puts silk and Chantilly lace through fairly familiar paces, with a sensuous accent on the feminine. Her clothes are all flowing black-and-tan glamour calculated to make the Big Bopper in your life sit up and scream, “You know what I like!” Her fine detailing includes delicately lovely drawstrings and beads, as well as over-the-top sparkling bangles.

Eugenia Paul — actually a couple, Eugenia and Paul — presents a striped, plunge-backed gown that really makes you want to hold the body in it, as well as a black, one-sleeved, diagonally hemmed evening dress (two variations on this idea are also part of Shaaya’s collection) that makes “daring” a household word. Laura Rockwood shapes metallically threaded fabric and layers on netting for a very retro look. Her red-and-black two-piece dress — with a flower motif and a top that laces up in back — is a retro knockout. And Rachael Gabrielle Bukay silk-screens ’50s cultural icons (e.g. Elvis) onto slips, half-slips and girdles for a pop-kitsch effect. Her pink nightgown with overexposed black-and-white images of Jayne Mansfield is a lowbrow homage to necrophilia.

But if someone needed extra motivation to see “Design Show,” its quintet of furniture designers — Chris Bennfield, David Gillespie, Michael Moosh, Adam Shirley and Gonzalo Rodriguez — should provide plenty. Their installations run a gamut, from the stark, two-dimensional conceptualism of Cranbrook Academy of Art alum Bennfield (who conceives his projects in terms of “half hope, half fear”) to the deft minimalism of College for Creative Studies grad Rodriguez (whose sensual combinations of wood, metal and glass recall both Memphis furniture and ultra-modernist sculpture).

Of all the participants in this optimistic show, the furniture designers pay the most attention to detail. As maniacal as photographers can be about print quality, as picky as couturiers can be about hems and cuts, furniture designers out-exact them all. Not only do Moosh’s trompe l’oeil creations (pictured) give us mahogany that looks like black metal, reconstituted veneers and cast-urethane tops that suggest something other than what they are, but his tables and desks are carefully finished to the point of eroticism.

Gillespie’s pieces, like those of Rodriguez, run variations on Memphis style and are both humorous and user-friendly, with quietly naive references to such everyday objects as birdhouses and daisies. His prolific output includes cabinets, tables, desks, an entertainment center and a pragmatically appealing series of opaque lamps.

And Shirley anchors it all — philosophically and visually — with his black metal stools, enigmatically purposeless objects and wall sculptures. There’s an aura that’s both Asian and medieval about his pieces that provides a weighty conclusion to this passionate rendezvous with Motor City imaginings.


“Design Show” opens Friday, Jan. 10, 7:30-11 p.m. at the Detroit Artists Market (4719 Woodward Ave., Detroit). Admission is free. A special creative black tie preview — featuring a live strolling fashion show, music by WDET’s Liz Copeland and catering by Zodiac Restaurant at Neiman Marcus — takes place the same evening, 5:30-7:30 p.m. ($25 in advance or at the door — RSVP at 313-832-8540). The show runs through Feb. 2. For more information, see

George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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