Detroit has a storied design history full of monumental midcentury figures. Now, a new class of avant-garde furniture makers is carrying on the legacy—and evolving it. Isabelle Weiss, founder of local gallery NEXT:SPACE, on why the city will be a driving force in U.S. design again.
In Detroit, the only constraints are those of the imagination.
It may not have the glamorous sheen of L.A., New York’s center of gravity, the sex appeal of Miami, or Chicago’s cosmopolitan buzz, but innovation runs through the Motor City’s steely blood.
Most people associate Detroit with the automotive boom years, then a prolonged decline. But this is the city where the midcentury masters forever changed the way we interact with space and the material world. Charles Eames once said, “Eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” In the 1930s, at a small school in Bloomfield Hills, that formula began to percolate. Eames and his wife Ray were part of that now celebrated class of designers that put Cranbrook Academy of Art on the map as the birthplace of American Modernism. The group of students included Eero Saarinen, Florence Knoll, and Harry Bertoia. Together, they dreamed up a new human-centered design vernacular based on synergetic beliefs, travel experiences abroad, and explorations of process, material, and form. Their contribution is in part what led to Detroit’s designation as a UNESCO City of Design in 2015—the first American metropolis to earn such honors.
Few designers connected innovation and execution better than the Eameses. Primarily working with Herman Miller, they produced whimsically elegant pieces fit for the masses. From perfecting the process of bending plywood, to pioneering the fiberglass Shell chair, the Eameses put a sleek glaze on ergonomics.
Saarinen, too, experimented with new forms to create furniture better suited for the human body. Creating icons such as the Womb chair, the neo-futurist Finnish-American architect wasengrossed by the curves, proportion, and lines of an object.
Knoll’s approach was more holistic. Embracing the Bauhaus ideal of environment, her philosophy was grounded in functionality and simplicity. In fact, she dubbed her designs, such as the iconic Table Desk, “meat and potatoes” so to express their nature as the fill-in pieces she believed no one else was making.
Italian-born artist and industrial designer Harry Bertoia was one of the first in the modern erato experiment with wire furniture. His sculptural chairs felt as though planes in space had been warped to accommodate the human body. Greatly influencing the work of Charles and Ray Eames, Bertoia was key to the success of the Eames Wire Chair, though—a sadly overlooked piece of design history.
Buoying up all these bold ideas and creators was Michigan’s manufacturing prowess. Though most local production served the automotive industry, large-scale furniture fabrication was abundant even before modernism landed. The nearby Herman Miller and Steelcase have both been in business for more than a century and continue to be industry leaders along with the younger Haworth.
Detroit is the consummate retrospective city, always looking to achievements of the past. But a new energy laces its Midwestern air, with an emerging set of talents reawakening a previously dormant design culture. “Detroit’s rich legacy of design not only includes our industrial innovations but also a deep tradition of arts and crafts,” says Ellie Schneider, director, City of Design at Design Core. “Our city is home to many creatives who are using unconventional resources to imagine strange and beautiful new possibilities.”
There is plenty of strange and beautiful to go around these days as the line between design and art grows fainter. Just take a glance at the work of Chris Schanck. The London- and New York–trained artist cultivated an eye for design while studying at Cranbrook, applying his fanciful sensibilities to furniture making. The result is the sci-fi style Alufoil, his first collection, launched in 2016. The colorful, sculpted foam shapes of the chairs, tables, and benches resemble the geological formations of a subterranean cave. Schanck’s creations have found favor with the likes of architect Peter Marino, who has ornamented Dior showrooms with them.
Schanck is just one of the many local designers pushing the boundaries. Elizabeth Leah Born and Mario Francois Isenmann of the Pontiac-based Zuckerhosen are taking an approach somewhat the inverse of Schanck’s grandiose techniques. Incorporating gold leaf into functional sculpture such as the ‘Agnes’ Plant Library, an irregularly shaped shelving unit, Born and Isenmann strip the precious metal of its luxury status, harnessing its purely functional purpose of reflecting light to create material contrast. “Without the creative force of the artist/designer, great furniture design would never have touched upon mass production, and Michigan’s design legacy would have never taken shape. That is where we fit in—experimenting to discover new ways of imagining and making things” Isenmann says.
They are joined by contemporaries such as Jack Craig, whose primal style is exhibited by the melted bronze exoskeletons that don his decor objects; Thing Thing, a studio that turns post-consumer plastic into what looks like confetti-speckled mirrors; Paula Schubatis, a textile artist known for her painterly handwoven rugs; and Nicholas Tilma, a converter of found materials like concrete and PVC into lighting sculptures; and Colin Tury, a graduate of the College for Creative Studies and maker of fine art furniture sculptures that look as if they’ve been filtered through a funhouse mirror. (One, “Found Chairs,” appears to be two dining seats melting into each other.)
The weight of history is omnipresent here, like gravity. Yet it is universally embraced by the new guard as they write the next chapter in Detroit’s design story, forging what they hope will be something that stands on its own. “We looked to the Eameses more than anyone. We draw a ton of inspiration from how they thought about serviceability and that has become a key part of the Floyd product DNA,” says Kyle Hoff, co-founder of Floyd. The sustainable furniture company has earned high marks for its pared-down aesthetic, streamlined configuration, and quality materials. Its signature platform bed can be assembled—and disassembled—without any tools. “We’ve lived through these pain points ourselves, moving every year from city to city, not having furniture we cared about, and tossing things we couldn’t take apart.”
Drew Arrison and Alex Rosenhaus moved from New York in 2009, bringing their studio, Alex Drew & No One, with them. They were surprised to discover the accessibility of the resources needed for their precisely crafted pieces, such as Etagere No.1, a geometric bookshelf inspired by the constellation of stars known as the Winter Triangle. “New York’s power is in its buzz, not space, and we really needed space. Moving to Detroit freed us in a way that New York, or anywhere else for that matter, couldn’t,” says Arrison, noting the incredible community of designers and the extra elbow room to expand their practice. “Michigan’s design legacy is always ominously floating in the back of the minds of all the designers working here,” he adds. “It’s fascinating to watch in real time as the younger generation embraces and pushes back on its modernist legacy through their own work.”
The style may be different, but the avant-garde is flourishing again in Detroit. Like Schanck and Zuckerhosen, fellow Cranbrook alumni Nina Cho and Ara Thorose sit on the cutting edge. The architectural pieces of Cho, a Sight Unseen regular, play with marble, glass, and Korean ideas of emptiness and negative space. Thorose’s Soft Cylinders Collection is notable for its neotenic, noodle-esque shapes that stand out for their singularity. Not surprisingly, he credits his adopted home as an important element in the creation of his work. “The environment of this city is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. It’s a city amid a rebirth. In so many ways it’s been the perfect place to birth something.”