In 2015, Detroit earned a coveted designation as a "City of Design" from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization — making it the first such city in the United States to get the distinction, and joining 22 other cities around the world.
It's a well-deserved title. Detroit has a long history of design — from the robust industrial and automotive design industry to artistic institutions like the College for Creative Studies and Cranbrook Academy of Art. The thing is, even those working in Detroit's various design sectors might not see the bigger whole. The goal with the UNESCO designation was to change that.
"'Design' is a really fluid concept, so it ranges from the super-corporate to the super-grassroots," says Ellie Schneider of the Detroit Creative Corridor, or DC3. Though it was DC3 that bid on the City of Design designation, Schneider stresses that Detroit earned it due to these separate design sectors that already existed.
"From the very onset, our work was about trying to support people who were working in the design field to also create a platform where people could come and see that design comes in all shapes and sizes," she says. "It's not just cars here. It's everything."
In recent years, Detroit's artistic and design legacies have been celebrated through a variety of events. There's DC3's annual Detroit Design Festival, which falls in September. Also this month is the third annual Murals in the Market street art festival, and, returning after a brief hiatus, the Dlectricity festival of lights.
But this year, all of these events will be formally united for the first time, with September serving as the Month of Art and Design.
"Everybody's realizing that we all have the same initiative, which is community engagement, to enhance the lives of metro Detroiters, and changing our neighborhoods for the better," says Murals in the Market organizer Jesse Cory. "We're not competing — we're collaborating."
It all culminates with three events in the next two weeks. Murals in the Market takes off Sept. 21 through 28 throughout the Eastern Market district, featuring more than 50 artists from Detroit and beyond breathing new life into the district (and, new this year, at six community market locations throughout the city) with large scale murals.
Meanwhile, on Sept. 22 and 23, Dlectricity returns to Midtown for the first time since 2014 (the event, originally launched in 2012 as a biennial, was further delayed due to QLine construction). The festival of lights will feature a smaller, more walkable footprint this year, featuring light-up installations, projections, and other illuminated works of art along Woodward and John R, between the DIA and MOCAD. (The popular Light Bike Parade will also return. Organizers advise registering on the Dlectricity website, as light kits are limited.)
DC3's Detroit Design Festival falls from Sept. 26 through 30, which brings a variety of artist programming, open-houses, and other happenings throughout the city, including an event called Eastern Market After Dark. And new this year is Detroit Design 139, an exhibition space located near Campus Martius Park that features 38 design projects from throughout the city, on view through Sept. 30.
It all goes to show that awareness and appreciate of art and design in Detroit is hitting a critical mass. "A few years ago, we would have been worried that there wasn't necessarily a big enough of an audience to maintain that momentum throughout the month," says Schneider. "I think that design has just in general become more prevailing. We're not the only organization kind of pushing this agenda anymore."
Going forward, Schneider says that what the Month of Art and Design could look like remains open-ended. The goal would be to unite information on the various events together through one hub. But beyond that, she says it's still evolving.
"We've been inspired by some of the initiatives we've seen in other UNESCO cities, but it's really been focused on making sure that what we pursue here is relevant to and important to the community that we work with and represent," she says. "I would say that the designation has allowed everyone in Detroit to recognize that on a global scene, we all benefit from having a shared message and collaborating and presenting ourselves as a united community."
Cory says he can envision other tangential events cropping up, which could help make the city a tourist destination during September. "There's a density," he says. "Things will start to happen organically around this month that these organizations aren't even a part of." It could also dovetail with other events, like the Crain's Detroit Homecoming event, which invites Detroit expats back to the city to share success stories and encourage reinvestment.
"We're going to see a really interesting cross-pollination of attendees," he says.
At the very least, the UNESCO designation and the Month of Art and Design events are certain to help solidify Detroit's standing as a city of design.
"It almost further pushed us into being an UNESCO city by becoming one," Cory says. "A culture of art and design has been the lifeblood of this city for ... hundreds of years, really. This is just the current iteration of it. Now we're celebrating it."
Detroit Design Festival runs from Tuesday, Sept. 26 through Saturday, Sept. 30; Full schedule is available at detroitdesignfestival.com. Murals in the Market runs from Thursday, Sept. 21 through Thursday, Sept. 28; Full schedule is available at muralsinthemarket.com. Dlectricity runs from Friday, Sept. 22 through Saturday, Sept. 23; Full schedule is available at dlectricity.com. Detroit Design 139 runs through Saturday, Sept. 30 at 1001 Woodward Ave.; More information is available at detroitdesign139.com.