Urbanism from outer space

From a distance, the new aquarium inside Quicken Loans’ year-and-a-half-old downtown headquarters on the 10th floor of the Compuware Building is pretty nondescript. But get closer to the 10 foot wide, 550 gallon tank and you’ll notice something surprising: the burst of coral inside, all 22 distinct species, is made of blown glass.

Saltwater fish dart among the variously colored forms, which range from squat tubes to tiny squiggles and long, elegant stalks that bend as if in a current. Out of the tops of some emerge small glass anemones. Artists Erik and Israel Nordin, who together form the Detroit Design Center, took care to model their coral after existing species, and the result is a mimesis that’s both beautiful and fascinating.

"We had a technical interest in making it real," Israel said when I met the two brothers at their Southwest studio a few weeks ago. They were especially excited to tell the story of a fish that paused in front of the coral and changed color, mimicking with remarkable precision the two distinct colors of the glass behind it. "It was amazing," Erik enthused, "But also a reminder that nature always does it better."

Watch it come alive in living color in this video, accompanied by music that, appropriately, sounds like it came from outer space (editor's note: or is it inner space? Love it either way).

When I arrived at the studio to learn about some of their recent work, I felt sure I had the wrong place. If you’ve seen any of the Detroit Design Center’s one-of-a-kind pieces (and if you spend any time out and about in metro Detroit, you probably have), you may understand my reaction.

The various and plentiful forms that DDC creates, whether sculptures, furniture, bike racks, bookshelves, desks, tables, signage, railings, or light fixtures (I could go on, but I have to stop somewhere), are united by a characteristic elegance. Made mostly, but not exclusively, of metal, wood, and blown glass, they’re often refined and polished in a way that the hulking and vacant-looking industrial building before me most certainly was not.

It’s a neat trick, though. Erik and Israel both want to spread their version of a Detroit aesthetic around the region, and that begins with the gritty industrial materials and processes that are characteristically Detroit, but ends in objects that are often graceful, smooth, and personal. (There are especially prominent strands of Deco, Nouveau, and modern in the DNA of the work itself, though their style is by no means limited to those particular traditions.)

That process of refinement begins in the striking but unlovely onetime coal depot turned fabricating studio on Michigan Avenue that the Nordins have worked out of since 1999. It includes a jaw-droppingly cavernous 10,000 square foot bay, but also more human-scaled rooms filled with tools and maquettes, into which Erik and Israel warmly welcome their visitors and clients.  

The brothers spend a great deal of time talking with their clients, almost all of whom end up visiting the studio at some point. (It’s the relationships they build, to hear the Nordins tell it, that’s the best part of their job).

The Detroit Design Center creates unique pieces for homes, restaurants, parks, nightclubs, and business and corporate offices throughout the metro region (and lately, into the exurbs as well). You may have seen their work at places like Mosaic and 24 Grille downtown, The 1300 in Lafayette Park, Mario’s in Midtown, the Vernor Chiropractic Clinic in Southwest, Ronin in Royal Oak, and very recently, What Crepe in Birmingham.

The level of client involvement and input in the work varies based on each client’s preference, but every piece starts with a conversation, a getting-to-know-you that points the way forward based on individual needs, interests, and tastes.

Erik and Israel have been having a great deal of these design conversations in recent months, though it’s clear from talking to them and searching out their work around the city that they’re nothing if not characteristically prolific. For Quicken, in addition to the aquarium (which PR manager Carolyn Artman described as the highlight of recent office tours) they’ve also constructed several sculptural walls. Four of those walls abut Quicken’s in-house basketball court, a half-sized replica of the Dan Gilbert-owned Cleveland Cavaliers’ court that overlooks Campus Martius.

The walls are composed of oxidized steel circles in three different sizes, the smallest and most numerous of which are all adorned with hand-cast colored glass. Their colors are drawn from the court and surrounding office space, and the playful impression of bouncing balls fits right into the sense of play-at-work that Quicken is noted for cultivating.

But the rusted steel and gelatinous imprecision of the hand-colored glass are a stark contrast to the glossy white office walls, with their Mondrian-inspired squares of color, and the modern glass coffee tables, gleaming light fixtures, and Eames chairs that furnish the space. Lest you forget what city you’re in, the Nordins’ walls are an eye-catching injection of industrial realness.

Elsewhere in the city, they’ve recently worked with The Villages of Detroit to create new signage, bike racks, and a sculpture for West Village. Brian Hurtienne, Executive Director of the Villages, noted how the curving bike racks subtly mirror the arches in the nearby Belle Isle Bridge, a depiction of which is also included in the Villages’ logo.

The signs, meanwhile, like the circles in the Quicken walls, have been oxidized, and the resulting rust lends them visual history, playfully subverting the fact that they’re, well, new. They’re classic and elegant, and work in concert with the bike racks and sculpture to help define a distinct new neighborhood aesthetic.

Speaking of signage, the DDC also just finished work for another of Dan Gilbert’s downtown initiatives, the Madison Building at 1555 Broadway. The interior of the new tech incubator is marked by three new signs ("Live," "Work," and "Play") designed after vintage theatre marquee lettering, a nod to the Madison Theatre that was once surrounded by the building.  

The Nordin brothers are also responsible for creating a new studio desk for WDET, made of a striking combination of carbon and stainless steel as well as mahogany and cast glass. And in addition to their design work, they’re currently looking for a location in Midtown for a furniture store, where they’ll be able to connect with a whole new walk-in clientele. (Like I said, they’ve been busy.)
It’s hard work, transforming the rough materials of the city’s industrial heritage into unique art objects that proliferate a contemporary Detroit aesthetic throughout the region. But it’s also good and important work, work that reclaims the artistic centrality of the urban in a part of the world where "urban" became a dirty word. And it’s clear that there’s nothing in the world that the brothers would rather be doing.

Matthew Piper authors the monthly Green City Diaries.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni

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Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at matthewjpiper.com.