Power of Detroit's creative, corporate partnerships on display at international design festival

On December 11, 2015, Detroit became the first U.S. city to receive a UNESCO City of Design designation, joining 47 others from 33 countries as new members of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. There are currently seven United States cities that are part of the Creative Cities Network, but Detroit is the only one to receive City of Design status in the US. 

"Applying for the UNESCO designation was one of the long-term goals identified by the Detroit Creative Corridor Center's founding director Matthew Clayson when the initiative launched in 2011," wrote Ellie Schneider, director of advocacy and operations for the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), by email. "DC3 spent several years developing programming and building partnerships locally and within the UNESCO network to make a case for Detroit's membership in the Creative Cities Network."

To receive the designation, applicants must demonstrate a legacy of design in their city, show that there is currently an active design community, and identify potential for design to foster sustainable, equitable development for the city moving forward.

One of the first opportunities to showcase some of the partnerships and collaborations emerging from the City of Design designation is happening right now, in the form of a massive design exhibition traveling from Detroit as part of La Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne 2017—the tenth installment of the international design show, which is running until April 9, in Saint-Étienne, France. The theme of this year's Biennale Internationale Design is, in English, "Working Promise—the mutation of work," and deals with the intersections between design and working process. 

DC3 engaged The Work Department, a women-led social innovation design firm comprised of Detroit-based architects, designers, curators, and other creative professionals, to curate the exhibition for Sainte-Étienne. The result is "Footwork: The Choreography of Collaboration"—a vision of collaborative design and innovation featuring the work of more than 60 individuals, collectives, and corporations, on the topic of evolving work practices.

Visitors to "Footwork"

"The show we're presenting feeds into a global conversation about the way people work and the future of work," says Work Department partner Nina Bianchi.

Though obviously a widely relevant topic in an age of automation, issues of the evolving workplace have particular resonance in ex-industrial cities, such as Detroit and Sainte-Étienne—both of which are leveraging design as a gateway to renewed economic and cultural cohesion in a post-manufacturing era. 

"One of the things that we struggled with as a curatorial team," says Bianchi, "was how do we represent the two extremes of what is happening at a grassroots artistic level in the city, and supporting the larger design-based businesses that wanted to be involved?" 

"Footwork" was put together by an offshoot of The Work Department, called Public Design Trust, which drew together participants from extremely divergent eras, disciplines, and populations within Detroit to create a dynamic picture of a city known as the birthplace of industrialized labor. It was perhaps for this reason that Detroit was paired with Sainte-Ètienne as its "mentor" city—as is the custom for new UNESCO inductees—and it was with their host city in mind that Public Design Trust went about conceiving some of the elements of "Footwork."
Bike display from East Side Riders
For example, Sainte-Étienne was historically a hub for bicycle manufacture, so "Footwork" features two Detroit-style, bike-related collaborations. The first comes from the East Side Riders, a club of custom bike designers, riders, mechanics, and community volunteers led by brothers Mike and "King Wayne" Neeley. Their colorful experiments integrate LED lights for flair and visibility, flashy technology, and loud boomboxes, and their self-assured style is beautifully captured in a portrait series by photographer Corine Vermeulen, which will accompany a set of actual bikes on display in Sainte-Étienne. 

"We thought it would be exciting to feature them," says Bianchi, highlighting bikes as a common interest between the two cities. Elsewhere in the exhibition, a collaboration between Detroit Bikes and legacy Detroit pop company, Faygo, will also be on display. Detroit Faygo Bikes draws together two partners to reimagine Detroit's quality manufacturing and design legacy, and underscores another recurring theme of the exhibition: the possibilities borne of collaborative and creative partnerships.

Another such partnership touched off by "Footwork" is a project that combines the creative forces of the Detroit art collective THING THING with the manufacturing prowess of the global automotive supplier Lear Corporation. Together they created "FOAM-O," a seating area developed out of scrap material from Lear's foam plant.

THING THING operates from the conceptual foundation of repurposing scrap plastics and other materials to create functional or aesthetic objects, essentially reimagining manufacturing on an individuated level. Combining that vision with some of Lear's capacity for production has produced fascinating furniture and demonstrates the potential when micro and macro manufacturers combine their powers. 

"FOAM-O," a seating area developed out of scrap material from Lear's foam plant

"I think this is a really important part of the role of art," says Public Design Trust member Najahyia Chinchilla. "If it wasn't for this exhibit, the collaboration between THING THING and Lear might not have happened." 

The hope is that these collaborations will continue after the Biennale. "The UNESCO designation can become a catalyst for other and ongoing connections," says Chinchilla. 

Of course, no survey of Detroit innovation would be complete without a nod to the city's many layers of musical history. Sound pieces permeate the installation, including a welcoming soundscape by "sound healer" Sterling Toles set against a backdrop of custom entryway wallpaper by multifaceted artist and designer Tiff Massey

Anchoring the far end of the exhibition space is the original stage from the abandoned Blue Bird Inn, which hosted musical greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and acted as a "launchpad for sonic and social rebellion" during the Civil Rights movement in Detroit. Detroit Sound Conservancy rescued the stage from a the desiccated remains of the Blue Bird Inn, and the refurbished stage was christened with a performance by Cornerstone Schools students before making its way to France for the exhibition. Following the run in Sainte-Étienne, the Blue Bird Stage—and the rest of "Footwork," just a portion of which is mentioned here—will return to Detroit. 

"Our goal is to re-install the exhibition and coordinate programming during the Detroit Design Festival in September 2017," wrote Schneider. She also emphasizes that there is boundless potential to continue to use the UNESCO designation as a foundation from which to build more and closer collaborations between city and residents, independent designers and manufacturers, and grassroots and corporate communities. 

"Of course DC3 has our own dreams about what that might look like, but we need more partners to take ownership in the outcome of this work. We are excited to see what vision we can build together."

La Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne 2017 runs until April 9, in Saint-Étienne, France. "Footwork: The Choreography of Collaboration" will return to Detroit following the exhibition.

All photos by Anne Laure Lechat.
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Read more articles by Sarah Rose Sharp.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, photographer, and multimedia artist whose articles have appeared in "Art in America," "Hyperallergic," "Flash Art," "ArtSlant," and others.