Life in the factory

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The massive structures standing at the intersection of I-75 and East

Grand Boulevard are impressive brick and glass monuments to Detroit's bygone industrial glory days. Designed by Albert Kahn, Russell Industrial Center (RIC) was once the site of automobile and airplane manufacturing. Although its days as the hub of industrial production may be long past, new forms of production have been taking root within its cavernous spaces, based not on cars, but on imagination, creativity and vision.

These days, approximately 120 commercial tenants lease space in the complex, two-thirds of which comprise a diverse group of artists, including painters, graphic artists, photographers, clothing designers, architects, sculptors, glass artists and musicians — such artists as Tania Fogoros, who set up in the RIC 11 years ago with screenprinting shop the Highway Press. Albert Young of Michigan Hot Glass, a CCS instructor and sculptor in steel and glass, is one of the more long-lived tenants. In contrast to Fogoros' room, which screams with rock posters and colorful T-shirts, Young's space at RIC brings to mind an archaic forge with his blazing metal glass furnaces and 'glory holes' (hot workstations).

In the past seven months, 34 new tenants have moved in, half of whom are artists. Emblematic of the new type of industry flourishing within RIC is Sensitile Systems, a company that produces interactive surface materials that respond to shadow and light. Founded by architect, engineer and inventor Abhinand Lath, the two-year-old business occupies 9,000 square feet, employs 10 individuals and ships product to top architects and designers all over the world. The Sensitile line features singular tiles that can be applied to floors, walls or any surface, including "scintilla," which reconfigures moving shadows to create unexpected rippling patterns, "lumina," which diffuses a single point of light to create a luminous surface and "jali," which creates ethereal, lace-like patterns inspired by traditional Indian perforated stone screens.

Also in residence for the past five months are architects Roger Berent and Kyle Hulewat of Metropolitan Architecture Practice, who tackle projects ranging in scale from large lofts to residential additions and commercial interiors, incorporating environmentally sound principles of the green building movement into their designs. Graduates of the University of Michigan, both were previously employed at a suburban firm, but were drawn to the special qualities of the raw industrial space, as well as the opportunity to be part of a creative community.

Presiding over Anti-Suck Records recording studio for the past 8 months is Collin Ozment and his formidable pit bull, Cirbirus. Ozment likes that there's no "noise" ordinance, and since tenants have 24-hour access to their studios, he's able to record very late at night. In addition, he enjoys "the best parking space ever" — his motorcycle rests against the wall in the hallway, just outside his door.

Other tenants include the Schultz bindery, Detroit Film Society, Cool Clocks, Gonzalez Design Engineering, Motor City Candleworks, Detroit Furniture, Stack Woodworking, an Arab artists collective, a martial arts studio, RP Antiques, Bestway Import and Export and many others.

According to Eric Novack, who is in charge of commercial leasing and advertising for the RIC, the buildings contain 2.2 million square feet of space, of which 650,000 square feet are in use and another 500,000 are available to lease. Half of the total square footage is in need of renovation. Novack says that reasonable rent is what makes RIC work: A small studio of approximately 600 square feet costs $400 a month and a 10,000-square-foot space leases for $2,500 a month, with the option to sublease.

Which amenities matter to artists? RIC provides security personnel. Having experienced problems with crime at previous studio locations, this service has kept Hot Glass' Young happy for years. RIC also offers tenants the option to alter the studio spaces any way necessary to enhance their work.

Then there's the matter of close proximity to dozens of other creative individuals. Now home to two galleries — Detroit Industrial Projects (see sidebar) and Galerie Camille — Novack hopes there will one day be a network of galleries throughout the center. But for now, the energy of the artists and entrepreneurs there create a dynamic community that's growing stronger as each day passes.

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