Designing Detroit

Expectations and revelations from the inaugural Detroit Design Week

The Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3) has been working hard behind the scenes organizing, qualifying and quantifying Detroit's robust yet splintered design community. 

Led by Matt Clayson (who was, before DC3, legal coordinator and promotion manager at the Michigan-based online promotion campaign group ePrize), the DC3 team was instrumental in helping coordinate and produce the Rust Belt to Artist Belt conference this April, which saw a few thousand artists and creatives convene in an attempt to better understand post-industrial cities — such as us, Cleveland, St. Louis, Pittsburgh — in transition. 

Then, in mid-July, the center announced its creative ventures program, in which 13 businesses were enrolled in an incubator and acceleration curriculum as ventures-in-residence at the DC3 campus, inside the Alfred A. Taubman building, home to much of the College for Creative Studies operations. The creative venture residents include fashion, graphic and interior designers, programmers, and an array of multimedia artists. 

(When Kickstarter CEO Perry Chen — the king of crowd-sourcing — visited Detroit, he held court at the DC3.)

For its third and perhaps most ambitious act of the year, the Detroit Creative Corridor Center will produce a weeklong Design Festival, a citywide celebration featuring a series of "happenings," installations, exhibits, workshops, fashion shows, film screenings, panel discussions, performances, parties and competitions. 

That week, Sept. 21-28, the DC3 will set the city abuzz with design engagements from New Center to downtown, Eastern Market to Woodbridge. 

We sat down inside the highly designed confines of the DC3's headquarters with Clayson, festival director Melinda Anderson and project coordinator Jakki Kirouac to get the 411 on the DC3 and this ambitious design throwdown.

Metro Times: Why does Detroit need a Design Festival?

Matt Clayson: It's important to begin to change the dialogue about the role of design and design-arts community in Detroit and the role they play in transforming the city's economy. Detroit has a higher concentration of industrial and commercial designers in the workforce than any other region in the country. Their work is taken for granted. It's time to expose that work beyond the community of creative practitioners.

MT: Is this weeklong affair the culmination of the work DC3 has done in the past year? What was the genesis for this event?

Clayson: As part of our initial framework in creating the Detroit Creative Corridor Center we talked with many practitioners within the creative community and asked them what kind of gaps needed to be filled, and what needs were not being met in the current landscape. We found there wasn't a real organic opportunity to connect a lot of what's happened and raise that in an authentic way to noncreative audiences. Design capitals all over the world have user-generated design festivals to feature the breadth of their design community. It's a global practice with a Detroit spin.

Melinda Anderson: We'd originally only planned for 15 or 20 events, but we left it up to the designers to dictate what the event would be, and, after a series of info sessions and work sessions, we're now looking at more than 60 events. Fashion design shows, furniture exhibitions, as well as design charrettes and competitions. It's refreshing. 

MT: Where in the city is this festival taking place? As far as timing and geography is concerned, what was the strategy?

Clayson: From a strategic perspective, the beauty of the festival is that it's driven by the community. There were 60-plus design projects pledged from around the city, and more than 20 venues. Melinda and project coordinator Jakki Kirouac worked hard to match the right events with the right venues. Then we began to cluster different activities on different days in different areas, from the North End to downtown. 

Anderson: Timing was very calculated. Detroit Fashion Week starts at the top of the week and the festival's span also shares time with Detroit Restaurant Week. We're not taking away time or attention from these other events; we actually proposed to collaborate with them and expose our audience to one another. There was excitement and energy for the most part. 

MT: On the website, I saw several city organizations got involved — who was maybe the most surprising co-collaborator?

Jakki Kirouac: Michigan State's been really great. They're relatively new to midtown but they've been great at opening some doors for us, encouraged us to book their venue on days they weren't typically open and — of course, this can't be the case with all venues — they even said they'd incur all necessary costs. 

Clayson: As a Spartan it makes me proud to hear Michigan State was so accommodating, but geography and place is one of the coolest things about the festival because we didn't plan any of these events — we're actually calling them "happenings" — we just provided a platform and place for them to occur and connected them to resources as well as potential team members and volunteers. Really we're just ensuring the caliber of these happenings are worthy of a design festival that we hope will help Detroit's creative community self-identify. 

MT: What are three or four of these "happenings" that we definitely shouldn't miss?

Anderson: One that strikes me is a group that calls itself D's Creatures. The lead on the project, William Tyrrell, works for the parade company and went to CCS; some of the other team members are teachers. They're custom building these huge creatures, and the production will culminate with an unveiling at a fashion show on a Saturday. They incorporate technology and found materials to bring it to life. That'll be at the Quark Gallery at 6166 Woodward, in the old Dalgiesh dealership. Wayne State and TechTown loaned the space, and they've had free rein of the space to build out these creatures. I also think the design battles will be really exciting. Live music, art and design will unfold and fly around before your eyes. 

Kirouac: I think that rapper and DJ Nick Speed is presenting one of the most exciting happenings. He'd been attending our info sessions and we'd been thinking about the perfect venue for him to present his Nick Speed Orchestra (featuring rappers, DJs and techno artists the likes of Phat Kat, Stretch Money, Mad Mike Banks, Jon Dixon, DJ Sicari, Cecilia Sharpe, Boldy James along with a live string section). We learned that Black Star, a duo comprised of rap icons Mos Def and Talib Kweli, were going to be in town at St. Andrew's on Wednesday, the festival's kickoff. So we kind of pushed Nick Speed into the Shelter that same night. It's great to put our stars on the stage in the same building as these international stars in their genre. 

Clayson: And I really like the "Mind the Gap" competition. It was one of the very first ideas to come through the door and it's proved to be one of the most ambitious proposals. It's like a parallel tract outreach effort to engage the community in coming up with creative solutions for in-between spaces. So the Detroit Design Festival put a call out, Mind the Gap answered the call, and called out from that platform for more specific engagement in the community. 

MT: "In-between spaces"? What exactly are you talking about?

Clayson: In-between spaces are those often overlooked transitional spaces like alleyways, those diagonal paths you see cutting through vacant land, underutilized streets and parks. They're fascinating spaces that add context and fabric to the city. They're highly unique, but might not be appreciated. They need some attention and it looks like they're going to get just the right kind. 

MT: Before the announcement of the fest, you announced a class of creatives-in-residents — these sort of artful entrepreneurs — providing an incubation hub at the Center. The festival is big news. What's next? 

Clayson: Well, we're trying to find a way to use the momentum from the design festival to continue those engagement activities where, both live and online, these creative practitioners can be exposed to each other and to new markets. That's really our pipeline for how we're identifying the next level of talent that could be connected to our next project, a TechTown project, or our resident program. And it's a fair process. More so than us just tapping our respective immediate peer networks.

MT: Considering the breadth and scope of this inaugural design throwdown, what should success look like? Not for the DC3 but for the people who attend?

Clayson: Well, we'll have old-school metrics such as number of people who attend, happenings proposed and happenings that were produced. But I think the intangible, hard-to-track piece can't be measured for another two years, when we can then look at what design conversations are happening in Detroit as a socio-economic engine driving positive change. And I'm not talking about getting attention from the arts writers at The New York Times — nothing against them — but from the business writers in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

The Detroit Design Fest kick-off party happens from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 21, at New Center Park, 2990 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. An afterparty with Nick Speed Orchestra is planned at the Shelter. See for more info. 

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