Growing up in Motown, Andrew Fisher always heard the same old song. “I’m a third generation Detroiter, and my grandfather described the city as the Paris of the Midwest,” says the founder of the design retail group Arkitektura. “Detroit was a powerhouse of industrial design with incredible enthusiasm for the next big thing and world-class museums and architecture.”
When Fisher was a child, however, the city was torn apart by racial strife and the beginning of a serious decline for the auto industry. “We lived in hope that someday the city was going to come back,” he recalls. Fisher’s connection to the soul of Detroit—innovation and craftsmanship—first found expression in furniture design. Living in Grosse Pointe Farms, with close proximity to downtown, he roamed and famed Detroit Institute of Arts and was fascinated by Mies van der Rohe’s legendary Lafayette Park 1960s apartment complex, which this year was designated a National Historical Landmark District.
After earning a design degree at Northern Michigan University Fisher became, at 22, the woodworking instructor at the prestigious Cranbrook High School in the affluent Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. He earned a master’s degree in furniture design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where Charles Eames, Florence Knoll, and Eero Saarinen once roamed the campus. Shortly before graduation, he met Ron Saarinen Swanson, the nephew of Eero, who had amassed an impressive collection of design and decorative arts. “His wife wanted all that stuff out of their house,” Fisher says with a laugh. “So I opened a showroom.”
For the past 30 years, the Arkitektura flagship in Birmingham, Michigan, has championed the classic 20th-century aesthetic forged at Cranbrook and introduced new European designers to the U.S. In 1997, Fisher relocated to San Francisco, where he now owns another Arkitektura showroom, as well as stores for B&B Italia, Cassina, Poltrona Frau, and Cappellini and Kartell. As much an educator as a retailer, Fisher also curates Arkitektura Assembly, a program of lectures, exhibitions, and online content.
He is buoyed—and sometimes bummed—that in recent years Detroit has become something of a curiosity, drawing renegade investors (Quicken Loan’s Dan Gilbert, Shinola’s Tom Kartsotis), transplanted New Yorkers, and photographers shooting the city’s urban decay. “I suppose it has a bit of that East Berlin thing going on: the edginess, the huge bizarre sprawl with little pockets of enterprise, the forgotten tid-bits of history, and an economy where you can affordably have an underground lifestyle,” Fisher says.
Detroit, he contends, has always been a pioneering frontier, one that has given birth to the modern automobile, the futuristic sound of Detroit Techno music, and the edgy-but-elegant rock ‘n’ roll fashion of native son John Varvatos. It’s a proletarian town with a subversive streak. Fisher, in fact, began his woodworking career in a suitably counter-cultural fashion making amplifiers for his high school rock band, and Arkitektura was instrumental in taking down the consortium of trade-only U.S. showrooms that controlled the distribution and sale of European design. Now, after years of recession, his Detroit store has rebounded. “There are cranes downtown and people on the street, new restaurants, and a new energy,” says Fisher, who as a local business owner and board member of Cranbrook, visits often. “I hear from a lot of people that it reminds them of Soho and Chelsea 30 years ago. There’s this potential that the art world could launch the renaissance of Detroit, and I’m really curious to see what happens.”