Lost in Space

If you encounter an arrogant designer, walk the other way, please. There’s no point in wasting time with someone who shows his or her portfolio like it’s a PowerPoint presentation. On the other hand, if you meet one who flips page by page through his work like it was "Baby’s First Book," relax and take a load off. Good design done by good people, well, it ain’t easy to come by.

Christian Unverzagt is on the constant lookout for good design. As principal of M1/DTW, Unverzagt and his small staff have been tackling graphics, interior design and architecture projects that suit the firm’s own form and function as much as it does their clients'. A multi-disciplinary outfit that pushes pixels, drafts blueprints and even assembles unique pieces of furniture, M1/DTW’s designed-without-looking-designed touch can be seen locally in the two 6 Salon locations, Ferndale's famed 54 Sound Studio — used by Eminem and other local and national musical artists — and in various identity systems and book projects around the country, including the rebranding of Richard Florida’s Creative Class group. It’s this consideration they pay to all areas of design that keeps the firm stumbling upon diverse projects and people. In fact, when you consider its enormous body work after just seven years on the scene—from books to buildings and beyond—you quickly get the idea that M1/DTW just plain gets it when it comes to understanding space.

Space matters

With companion office/work spaces in the Russell Industrial Complex, M1/DTW is also a companion pair of companies. M1 is the conceptual arm (named after the corridor) concentrating on graphic/web/interior design and architecture; DTW serves as the assembly arm (yes, named after the airport code) building out spaces, and even furniture. It’s a dichotomous work style that keeps Unverzagt far from feeling routine. "Some days it’s paper. Some days it’s plywood," he says, sitting as comfortably at a dusty workroom table as he does in front of a laptop. "I'm in the business where space matters. Here, it’s not just a space for work. But a place where a lot of ideas come about. Here, we can escape from things, check into the studio then check back into the world. It's the most important tool I think we have."

In fact, that space at Russell is more than just a solitary work studio where M1 and DTW can do their thing. "It’s energy by osmosis here," Unverzagt says. The complex is full of independent printers, woodworkers, glass shops, even fashion designers and artists who are also doing their thing. "Moving into the Russell Industrial Complex is one of the worst things I've ever done," he says with a sly laugh. "I might be here for good."

But his path to Russell wasn’t exactly linear. After getting his B.S. in Architecture at the Taubman school at U of M he "got away for awhile," and interned at an architecture firm in San Francisco. Stuck in the malaise of corporate office life, he started to feel something was missing. He craved the environment where people were out there making stuff. At a friends urging, he returned to Ann Arbor and got a job with an architect. After the first day, he wasn’t vibing with that firm's way of taking on just any kind of project. So he quit and started working at a restaurant. "I think it was the best decision I ever made because it opened up other avenues I couldn’t have anticipated," he says.

He started working on independent architecture projects with friends and former professors. He got his M.Arch. from Southern California Institute of Architecture or SCI-Arc, an institution known for its cross-disciplinary approach to architecture and design, that also happened to be in a converted industrial space in Santa Monica. After graduating, he was offered a teaching gig back at U of M—which he thought would be temporary—so he left his beloved books in LA. "And there they stayed for the next five years," he says.

Something about Detroit

Even though M1/DTW is indeed a design firm operating on the national and even global stage, Unverzagt’s passion often drifts to the subject of this city.  
"There’s something about Detroit," he says. "The economies allow us to spend more time on projects that we would usually have to just churn out or patch up…it’s enabled us to work in a slightly different way."

To Unverzagt that means not having to worry about taking on projects just to cover the office rent. It also means taking on projects that are a bit out of the ordinary. M1/DTW helped their client, Conjoin Design, pitch the United Bar project, a seriously-crazy-yet-totally-genius idea to put a small, upscale bar in the 1,600-sq.ft. pedestrian bridge connecting the 16th floors of the Guardian Building and the Yamasaki-designed MichCon Building (aka, the Gas Building). While the project has run into a few snags and teeters on the edge of extinction, Unverzagt still believes it’s a small investment that could produce great returns. "It's an amazing way to experience the city and those two buildings," he says. "It's just the type of creative re-use that could really set Detroit apart."

David Shock, one half of Conjoin, says "bringing Christian to the bridge was one of the best things I've ever seen. He was near giddy, he really got what a great concept this could be." Shock goes on to praise the quality of Unverzagt’s work and his ability to create a total experience. "From entering the building, to taking the elevator, to seeing the first glimpses of the skyline, you can see that narrative in most of his work."

Unverzagt and his firm are not only creating their own stories out of unique spaces, they’re teaming up with the types of unique individuals, like Conjoin, Salon 6 and a slew of others, who are out there attempting to go it alone in a sea of larger fish.  

The DIY ethic
Unverzagt appreciates that spirit in the independent entrepreneur. Being one himself, he understands how difficult it can be to go it alone without the safety net of a corporate backer or a steady paycheck. But as far back as he can remember, he’s always subscribed to the DIY mentality of just doing it himself.

A self-professed skateboarder, he talks about the days of designing and building his own skate ramps with friends. He was even designing the promotions that went along with his projects before he ever set foot in school. Which is probably how he so fearlessly jumped into the entrepreneurial world in 1999 without a business plan or mega loan. "We had a job so we did a job. Then we got another job," he says. "It was that early work that really set a tone."

Unverzagt also set a cheeky tone and gained some notoriety in design circles for his t-shirt "Architecture Sucks." It's available in limited editions at Archinect.
And although he’s hesitant to offer up clichéd advice to others about how to build their own shop, he does think it’s important to take on good work from the start. "You shouldn’t do a bunch of crappy work in the hopes that one day you’re gonna do some good work. You just have to try to do the best work you can right off of the bat," he says, remembering the early days of the firm. That philosophy helped M1/DTW have six jobs in its back pocket before ever officially opening up shop.

And that’s not only a testament to not giving up. It is about not being afraid to hold out for the work that fits your firm’s philosophy. Too many firms kow-tow to the client without learning the fine art of collaboration. And that’s really what's at the heart of Unverzagt’s message, too. Well that, and a little five-letter word: s p a c e.

Jennifer Andrews is a Detroit-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Model D.


Christian Unverzagt at work

Christian Unverzagt

The work space at Russell Industrial Center

Design work for Sensitile Terrazzo

Book Design, "Everyday Urbanism"

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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