Kyle Bartell and Charles Molnar are the two guys behind the Sit on It Detroit benches. They teamed up two and a half years ago after meeting at Wayne State University and since then, they've placed 24 benches at bus stops around the city.
"We're both really interested in place-making activities in Detroit," says Bartell. "Whether it's fixing up parks or putting benches at bus stops. Detroit is a great opportunity to take on projects like that. It brings communities together and creates civic engagement."
So that's how Sit On It Detroit got started, with one bench and one bus stop. (And for Happy Days fans who think of "sit on it" as an insult, Bartell and Molnar say it has nothing to do with the show.) It took another year before the whole idea really got off the ground, though. A year and a half ago, the ball finally started rolling. Bartell and Molnar were loaned a space in a Hamtramck warehouse, where they started storing wood and getting to work.
Business has been good since then. They've done tables and chandeliers for the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, as well as TechTown's Toast of the Town. Some of their benches are even at the Heidelberg Project, where Tyree Guyton hopes people will use them to sit down and stay awhile rather than just walking through and leaving.
They've been commissioned for some private projects as well and recently moved to a bigger space on West Lafayette in Detroit. There, they've held art installations and even an installment of Drinks by Design there, all the while creating furniture out of old wood.
Bartell says they get that wood from deconstructed or abandoned homes. Sometimes business are renovating and they'll do a bulk pick-up, taking materials that would otherwise be tossed out. Some materials come from donations and others are scraps from Reclaim Detroit. Recently they salvaged some wood from an old outdoor market in Detroit.
"Essentially, we're also removing a lot of blight," says Bartell. "Wood has a lot of value. We consider ourselves a green company, and we hold that in high regard."
The two work with mostly donated tools and have a learn-as-they go philosophy. Working from the knowledge Molnar obtained in his middle-school shop class, they've grown through the experience of building rather than taking classes. And though the two want their focus to stay on providing a place to sit for public transit users, their list of commissioned work continues to grow.
"Our main goal is to provide benches to bus stops," says Bartell, but you may have spotted their work inside Thomas Magee's in Eastern Market. They repurposed wood from the interior of the over 100-year-old bar to make the new-but-old tables that line its walls. They also recently crafted countertops for Ghost Cycle in Rochester and a tabletop for Rubbed. They made picnic tables and benches for Woodhaven schools recently as well. They also crafted bar rails for Brew Detroit's new tasting room that's set to open in a couple of weeks.
"We're always open to trying new things and building our portfolio," says Bartell.
As for the benches, they're available for purchase. One bench will run you $350, which isn't cheap. But for every bench that's purchased, they'll put another at a bus stop in Detroit. Think of them as the Tom's of Detroit bus stop benches.
Now in their second generation, the benches have had a few makeovers and redesigns. Overall, their original construction has proved incredibly sturdy, however. Bartell says they only had to bring two benches back to the shop after the Polar Vortex, which is really saying something.
"Charlie designed these benches to be easy and quick to put together, but also very sturdy," says Bartell.
Now, all the benches also include bookshelves, or what Bartell calls "a library." All the books are donated through personal contributions or book drives or from libraries and universities. The "libraries" are replenished every so often, which is something that Bartell says they're happy to do. In fact, they want people to take the books. Under the benches you'll find anything from a dictionary to a Harry Potter novel and just about everything in between.
"We want people to have somewhere to sit and a book to read," says Bartell. "But we're also tackling systemic issues. It's important that people have somewhere to sit while they're waiting for the bus. These benches provide somewhere to sit, but they're also making that experience enjoyable."