Meet Matt Clayson of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center and Detroit Design Festival

Sep 17, 2014 at 1:00 am
Southeast Michigan is home to the highest concentration of industrial designers in America — six times more than the next region, according to Matt Clayson, executive director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center. That means we're easily exceeding places like New York and San Francisco when it comes to industrial design — and the creative design industry paid $3.6 billion in wages in 2011. It seems to Clayson — and to us — that those kinds of numbers are something to be paid attention to and celebrated. To learn more about this industry and the upcoming Detroit Design Festival (which MT is a part of), we sat down with Clayson. This is an excerpt from that conversation.

Metro Times: What is the Detroit Creative Corridor Center?

Matt Clayson: The Detroit Creative Corridor Center is a non-governmental organization that advances Detroit's creative industries through supporting and growing early-stage creative sector businesses, through connecting them to business opportunities outside of the creative world. We help them grow their revenues, employ more people, and be more fiscally sustainable so they can locate in the city and have a growing practice here. Then we do a lot of advocacy work focusing on sharing what's happening and providing a platform where designers and creatives can share what's happening with regional, national, and international audiences.

It helps fuel a narrative about Detroit as a global creative center and global design center. Then, we commission a series of studies, which backs that up with quantitative data. So, what is the economic impact and economic output of the creative industries in southeast Michigan and the state of Michigan? We work with a lot of partners on that.

MT: What is your connection with the Detroit Design Festival?

Clayson: We program it. We raise all of the funds to help it happen, under a separate and distinct brand, because it's something that can be owned by the community. We wanted something that's owned and fueled by a community of designers, by a community of practitioners, and we just provide the back of house to make it happen.

MT: What kind of programming do you have at the Detroit Design Festival?

Clayson: It's a mix of exhibitions, expos, workshops, lectures, neighborhood open houses, and parties. The exhibition's expos are all about getting people to think to source locally when they're buying consumer products and design goods. It's connecting interior designers, architects, furniture designers, furniture makers, and fixture makers, so they can source all of their work from Detroit-based sources. Everyone likes a good neighborhood open-house block party, so we do that to kind of bring the community buzz to it. The independent happenings are an opportunity for designers to do whatever they want — get some funding for it and be connected to the festival, and the workshops, lectures ... that's kind of the industry piece, so it's about developing an industry-relevant dialogue that will share external best practices with Detroit's design industry.

MT: What are you most excited about seeing or bringing to the public with this festival?

Clayson: We're doing a design village in partnership with Dlectricity, so we'll have a good 15 to 20 of the region's top designers with an emphasis on Detroit-made — that intersection of design and manufacturing in the city all on display there. There'll be fashion-design workshops going on, something a little interactive, lighting design, furniture, fixtures, and all that stuff. We're doing a designer crawl downtown that I'm pretty excited about, that will really focus on that critical mass of design houses that have opened up and some existing ones that have been around too, because we always want to remember the foundation that's here and places like Gyro [Creative Group] and LovioGeorge, who have deep roots in this area. We've had over 40 firms move to this creative corridor geography over the past four years: there's a large cluster of these firms downtown, there's a growing digital media advertising design district around Grand Circus Park, there's architectural cluster that's growing downtown, Midtown has this growing design district on Cass and Canfield. So the design crawl will be fun!

MT: How do you see Detroit Design Festival moving into the future?

Clayson: It has to be a place where Detroit-based manufacturers and designers launch new products, and that's what I want to see happen next year. I want to see this be that vehicle for launching a new line of clothing, a new line of accessories, a new interior, a new line of furniture. It needs to be a place where the national and international design community can see what's next, what's up and coming.

One of our current theses is that Detroit is changing the face of design. Design, historically, has been a white-male-driven industry, and when you look at a lot of designers featured in the Detroit Design Festival, they're neither white nor male. That's really changing aesthetics, that's really changing perspective as to how design interacts with a global audience of consumers. Let's begin to celebrate that. Let's celebrate the diversity in our design industries and provide something different than the other design festivals.

MT: When you say that you want to see more design coming out of Detroit, do you envision the manufacturing coming out of Detroit as well?

Clayson: Yes, because that's the competitive advantage that we have. This is one of the few regions in the world where you can design a product, engineer it, mass-produce it, and mass market it. Design, mass market — that's all part of Design Festival, so let's celebrate that. Carhartt will be doing a show upstairs as a part of the design festival, "125 Years of Carhartt." That's the type of fashion that's located in southeast Michigan and Detroit: it's not high fashion, it's not "let's go and be the next Donna Karan of New York." It's functional, beautiful working gear. That's the type of stuff we see — the type of opportunity and new product launches.

Then, when you look at Ohio — and some people kind of laughed at me when I said this — Columbus, Ohio's kind of a major hub. Limited brands — Victoria's Secret, Abercrombie — that's four hours away from Detroit. You look at advertising agencies saying, "Why should I locate my advertising agency in Detroit and expand here?" You can service almost any major brand within a half-day's ride. Macy's is even headquartered in Ohio. Isn't that a weird old thing? Federated Department Stores is in Cincinnati.

MT: What do we need to work on?

Clayson: We need to work on articulating the connection between design and manufacturing here and why that matters. I think Shinola has shown us, or Detroit Bikes, or McClure's Pickles even, they've showed us how you can do that in non-auto-related industries. I find it amazing whether you talk about [Detroit Bikes entrepreneur] Zak Pashak and building a bike from scratch — design, manufacturing, to market in a year. Or, you talk about Shinola building a watch in a year — design, manufacturing, to market. There are very few regions where you can design, prototype, engineer, build, market a product in a tight time frame.

Southeast Michigan's home to the highest concentration and quantity of industrial designers in the country — six times more than the next region. I'm like, "I can't believe no one's ever talked about this before! This is badass!" — and it was right before Design Festival. We need to begin celebrating this! This is something no other region has.

MT: If there's one thing that you want the layman to think about or be cognizant or learn from this festival, what do you think that would be?

Clayson: Design makes the city cool, to boil it down to base terms. It makes the city cool and fun. We gotta celebrate what's here to keep what's here. One thing Detroit has going for it right now is it has a strong sense of identity, a strong sense of place. It serves the city well. We need to celebrate that to keep that going, because the last thing we want to be is a watered-down version of City X or City Y elsewhere that, on paper, looks better, but when you go there it's like, "OK, we're walking down Any Street, USA." — mt