Detroit’s Month of Design Explores What Matters Today

On now through September 30, the Design Core Detroit festival of events, exhibitions and talks presents design investigations into global, and local, contemporary concerns.

Elizabeth Fazzare

Works from "Discard Detroit" exhibition by Mike Han, Synecdoche Design and Ryan Southen.

Detroit is a city constantly innovating. From the legacy of the automobile industry to the continuing pool of talents concentrated each academic year at its educational institutions like the Cranbrook Art Academy and College for Creative Studies, creativity in the Motor City is in high supply, and high demand—it’s what makes it the United States’ only UNESCO City of Design. Nowhere is this more visible to the outside eye than at the annual Month of Design, presented by Design Core Detroit.

The month-long celebration, which runs through September 30, highlights some of the best up-and-coming talents that hail from around the globe but particularly locally, in the large range of artistic industries in which Detroiters excel. Now in its eleventh year, the city-wide festival is back with a mix of events, exhibitions and talks, in-person indoor, outdoor and virtual. Through media that span from furniture to fashion and everywhere in between, Detroit designers are pondering some of the world’s most pressing issues in their work, especially those truths brought to even more clarity during the pandemic including the nation’s lack of affordable housing, a desire to mitigate climate change and inclusive design for all.

Designer Bilge Nur Saltik of Form&Seek.

For example, artist Mike Han, architecture firm Synecdoche Design and photographer Ryan Southen are collaboratively exploring the idea of reuse with a particular Midwestern twist. As the region could be argued to be the birthplace of midcentury modern design, the multidisciplinary trio gives those pieces that have been more than a bit well-loved an opportunity at a second life, rather than a one-way ticket to landfill. Instead, furniture by design greats like Marcel Breuer have been reimagined as works of contemporary art and are presented in “Discard Detroit,” an exhibition of what might have formerly been considered waste, now gems that can become family heirlooms for future generations. Other events on a sustainable theme include a show and talk on biophilia by materials and textile designer Sanchari Mahapatra as well as the inaugural “Treeposium,” a symposium—organized by Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and College for Creative Studies—of Detroit creatives that will explore the relationships between African American material culture and history, the city’s own trees and a refusal of the culture of disposable objects.

Meanwhile, participants are also exploring the urban environment, particularly as it relates to the human right to housing and safe public spaces. At Citizen Robotics, local student designers present “Setting the Table for 3d Printed Affordable Housing,” an exploration of 3D-printed concrete, which can be used as a material to construct modular homes quickly. Local designer Bilge Nur Saltik’s studio Form&Seek has designed a new modular outdoor furniture collection that is adjustable for a variety of user abilities and needs and the Neighborhood Association, Korey Batey of Detroit Ain’t Violent It’s Safe and University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Paul Draus are showcasing proposals for community activations of Detroit’s unused alleys.

A Rosa Parks sculpture by Artis Lane.

These works go hand-in-hand with projects like the one that local nonagenarian artist Artis Lane has created: an exhibition of portraits of civil rights figure Rosa Parks that also explores Lane’s design process, inspiration and 94-year life’s experiences, which inform the work she makes. Titled “Steps Toward Justice,” the show is an examination of the intersection between art and social justice and a celebration of a Detroit artist whose bust of Parks was also chosen to decorate President Biden’s Oval Office.

As the pandemic forces the world to awaken to a crop of collective contemporary concerns previously swept under the rug, Detroit designers are well ahead of the race, questioning root causes and proposing solutions through their thoughtful work. This year’s Design Core Detroit Month of Design is perhaps one of its most important, not only for its showcase of the city’s incredible talents, but for the presentation of those ideas on a (virtual) global stage.

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