Detroit's design community has expanded its annual September festivities from one week into an entire month — proving that the 2015 "City of Design" award from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was more than well-deserved.
Detroit was the first U.S. city to earn such a title, joining other cities across the globe like Montreal, Berlin, and Shenzhen. "It's been a game-changer," says Melinda Anderson, creative director for Month of Design organizers Design Core Detroit (formerly known as Detroit Creative Corridor). "It's a designation that will hold for the next 10 years. Just having access to those cities and what they've done with the designation to stimulate their creative economy has been huge for us."
The idea for a Detroit Month of Design first surfaced last year to unite several separate events that already existed under one umbrella, including the weeklong Detroit Design Festival. This year, Design Core Detroit has kicked the concept into high gear, with more than 40 events planned for the month.
Those include mainstays like Murals in the Market (Sept. 13-22), the Eastern Market After Dark gallery and studio crawl (Sept. 20), and Light Up Livernois (Sept. 29). New this year are events like "Shape: Defining Furniture In Michigan's Design Legacy" at Shinola's Detroit flagship store (Sept. 7) and Focus: On Detroit Photography Festival in Detroit's Cool Cities Park (Sept. 15). Another major highlight of this year's festival is the Junior League of Detroit's Designer Showhouse — a collaborative project that will invite the public into Boston-Edison's historic Charles T. Fisher Mansion, now owned by actor Hill Harper, where each room will be transformed into a unique installation from national and local interior designers (Sept. 15-Oct. 7).
All of that is in addition to programs like Youth Day (Sept. 15, at the Michigan Science Center), a competition that awards cash prizes for traditional Jewish Sukkah huts that will be on display in Detroit's Capitol Park (Sept. 23-30), and a smattering of other panels, lectures, and more.
Isabelle Weiss, who helped organize the Shape furniture design exhibition through her furniture retail company Next:Space, supports Anderson's vision that the design festival can help kickstart Detroit's creative economy. Weiss first got her start curating furniture exhibitions through the Detroit Design Festival in 2015, and was able to parlay that into her own company. "It seemed like a really great platform to start building this business," she says.
‘I went to architecture school, and what I really hated about it was it could be so uptight. I always wanted to make design fun and tangible and accessible.’
With the Shape exhibition, Weiss says she aims to draw a clear line from iconic Michigan designers like Charles and Ray Eames to designers working today. "I think what's really the most important underlying thing is they understand the significance of a design legacy," Weiss says. And a newer company like Detroit-based luxury watchmaker Shinola, she says, is the perfect place to host such an exhibition during the Month of Design. "They push it all the time — their legacy is Detroit, and their legacy is good design in Detroit," Weiss says. "They believe design legacy is important."
Despite the UNESCO designation, Detroit's design legacy might not be as well-known as other regions' like Los Angeles Modernism or Germany's Bauhaus school. But by hosting a month of design, Detroit's organizers are hoping to help make it more defined. A panel discussion titled "The Detroit School" set for Lawrence Technical University's Detroit Center for Design + Technology (Sept. 18) will drive that point home.
As Anderson points out, the festival is as much about Detroit as it is about design. Anderson says by bringing these events to different venues and neighborhoods around the city, it will help strengthen ties within the creative community, creating collisions and collaborations. "We want people to come back and show support," she says. "That's what the platform does for the month — it brings you to different neighborhoods, and we hope that people will go back."
Most importantly, Anderson says she hopes people have fun. "I went to architecture school, and what I really hated about it was it could be so uptight," she says. "I always wanted to make design fun and tangible and accessible."
She also wants to bring attention to design — something that she says is right there under everyone's noses, especially here in Detroit, but can easily be taken for granted. "I really encourage people everywhere to think about how design impacts from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed," she says. "Just helping people understand that design is everywhere, we've been able to get them to have that lightbulb moment — like, 'Oh my god, I get it.'"
Detroit Month of Design starts Sept. 1 and runs through the end of the month at various venues throughout the metro Detroit region. The full schedule and more information is available at detroitmonthofdesign.com.Get our top picks for the best events in Detroit every Thursday morning. Sign up for our events newsletter.