In 2015, Detroit earned a "City of Design" designation from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, recognizing the region for its contributions to art and design — a distinction shared with cities around the globe like Mexico City, Saint-Étienne, Helsinki, Istanbul, Budapest, Singapore, and Beijing, among others. For Detroit's design community, it was a validating moment, and helped enforce Detroit's cosmopolitan bonafides; we were the only U.S. city to earn the honors.
But in 2017, the U.S. withdrew its membership from UNESCO. While it's easy to blame everything on the chaotic and capricious Trump administration, the rift actually started under Obama, due to a law which cuts off American funding to any organization that recognizes Palestine. After the U.S. missed several rounds of payments, UNESCO stripped our voting rights. Trump just made it official.
So what does that mean for Detroit's status as a City of Design going forward? Nothing, says Olga Stella, the executive director of Design Core Detroit, the organization through the College for Creative Studies that oversees Detroit's 10-year City of Design status. (The group was formerly known as Detroit Creative Corridor. It rebranded itself last year.)
It helps that the designation came from a multi-pronged effort led by a number of groups and institutions from the beginning.
"What's interesting compared to the other UNESCO cities, is it's like, this grassroots vibe," says Stella, who notes that Design Core Detroit's Singaporean counterpart is a government department with a multimillion-dollar budget. "The only way for us to actually do something is that we have people who really believe in it to do it," she says.
"I've been in Detroit long enough to know like none of this stuff really lasts," she says of various government-led initiatives. "What lasts is this kind of community ethic. And so you need values, you need something that binds people together, because everything changes."
To help foster that community, DCD launched the Detroit Month of Design two years ago. What started as a loose umbrella to unite a number of existent design-related events throughout September has continued to grow and further define its identity. One of the newer ways it's doing this is through the Commerce Design Awards, an idea gleaned from City of Design sister city Montreal, which recognizes local businesses for their design. Stella says this is to address what she calls an "is this for me?" gap.
"Part of the gap is that you hear the word 'design' and you think it's really expensive, like granite countertops or whatever," she says. "These are not necessarily well-heeled people starting these businesses. So these awards that we give show the value of actually hiring someone to do design."
One of last year's winners — the Commons, Islandview's laundromat and coffee house — is a good example of Stella's point. "They didn't win because they had $1 million budget," she says. "They won because they were really smart about how they used what they had. And it's a beautiful experience when you're in there. So we're trying to help people see that for themselves."
While focusing on design may seem superfluous in a region hit as hard by austerity as Detroit, Stella believes it's key to taking things to the next level.
"We've got all these small businesses, and there's a lot of people working, getting them into neighborhoods all across the city," she says. "But they're not going to succeed if the only reason why people are going is out of community support. If it's not a good experience, it's not going to succeed. Design helps create a great customer experience."
This year's jury-selected first round of winners includes the Wasserman Projects art gallery, restaurants like Ochre and Maru, the Meta Physica spa, the Kiesling bar, and the new Détroit is the New Black retail space, among others. Detroiters can cast votes to pick a favorite for the People's Choice Award on designcore.org through Thursday, Sept. 12.
As with last year's Month of Design, this year's event features exhibitions, lectures, studio visits, and parties — in all, more than 55 events. One of the hallmarks is Detroit Design 139, a biennial exhibition created out of a partnership between DCD, Bedrock, and the City of Detroit meant to draw attention to design across the city's entire 139 square miles. Inclusive Futures kicks off with a public opening on Thursday, Sept. 5 across four locations, including 1001 Woodward downtown, Artist Village in Old Redford, and the Fitzgerald and Morningside neighborhoods. The exhibition runs through the month.
Other Month of Design events are meant to celebrate different parts of the city, like a downtown Design Crawl (Thursday, Sept. 12), a North End Block Party (Saturday, Sept. 14), Eastern Market After Dark (Thursday, Sept. 19), and Light Up Livernois (Saturday, Sept. 28). Drawing attention to Detroit's historic Avenue of Fashion is even more important this year, as a construction project has put a squeeze on businesses along Livernois in recent months.
In the meantime, Stella has also been hosting the new Detroit City of Design podcast, where she interviews notable leaders in design, including Tracy Reese, Frida Escobedo, Suchi Reddy, Ralph Gilles, and Zena Howard.
As always, the goal, Stella says, is to help Detroiters see how design is everywhere — not just in art museums. "We do it to help people in the public, and other decision makers," she says. "We want people to see there's a value to design, and people will see that in their own ways."
Detroit Month of Design starts Sept. 1 and runs through the end of the month at various venues throughout metro Detroit. The full schedule and more information is available at detroitmonthofdesign.com.
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