Ten studios leading Detroit's design scene in 2024

To kick off our North American Design 2024 series, which highlights independent furniture and object designers in North America, we showcase 10 studios creating unique objects in Detroit, Michigan.

The first piece in our weekly series, which will draw attention to design studios in and around metropoles on the continent, focuses on the “lively and very creative design culture” of Detroit, where studios are making furniture made from the ruins of buildings and 3D-printed objects that draw on Turkish craft techniques.

Michigan has always been a hub for design, with powerhouses of furniture production such as Herman Miller located in the western part of the state. Detroit’s automotive history, and before that ship-making and stove production, is also a continuing influence.

While the large furniture manufacturers of Grand Rapids have continued to produce goods, Detroit’s industrial culture has changed as the city experienced economic downturns in the later 20th century.

“A lively and very creative design culture”

Although Detroit is known for its automobile production, and its carmakers continue to fuel high levels of research and development, the city has a strong handcrafted tradition.

At the same time the automobile was making Detroit one of the most important cities in the world, the arts and crafts scene supported handcrafted production,” Cranbrook Art Museum director Andrew Satake Blauvelt told Dezeen.

“That’s how you get a place like Cranbrook. Both methods coexist here, both historically and contemporaneously. Detroit seems more ‘both-and’ rather than ‘either-or'”, he continued.

“Today, there is a lively and very creative design culture in Detroit. It seems to be fed more by an artisanal approach to making – limited editions, much of it made by hand.”

A UNESCO City of Design

In 2015, Detroit was named a UNESCO City of Design – the first in the United States to be given the distinction, alongside other places for production such as Asahikawa, Japan and Turin, Italy.

Coming on the heels of Detroit’s fall into bankruptcy, Satake Blauvelt said that distinction was not a sign of a revival, but more a sign of resiliency for the post-industrial city.

“Art, culture, and design did not disappear from the city and magically reappear,” he said.

“They were sustained, nurtured, and cultivated by the individuals and communities, majority Black like the city itself; those who chose to remain, to care for the city when it seemed like outside forces were conspiring to condemn it.”

Read on for 10 design studios working in the Motor City.

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Evan Fay

Trained at schools in Michigan and with studios in the Netherlands, Evan Fay founded his studio in 2023 after eight years of working on his craft. From vases to sofas, his pieces are typically made using metals such as steel and brass. Many of his seating designs feature thin metal tubes wrapped abstractly in foam-filled plastic.

He said that “rational design reasoning” isn’t top of mind, but he seeks to create striking forms that function well in interiors.

“I prefer analogue methods over digital and archaic over modern technologies,” he told Dezeen. “I like to work with materials proven and familiar to furniture like metal and upholstery and intuitively transform them using my body in a way that is expressive and original.”

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Woodward Throwbacks

Founded by Bo Shepherd, who previously worked as an automotive designer for GM and has been designing furniture for the past 10 years, Woodward Throwbacks works with local contractors and builders to source materials for small-batch collections, creating pieces from bulletproof glass and plastic liquor store signs.

“The main problem we are trying to solve is the idea of waste,” Shepherd told Dezeen.”We try to design with materials that everyone else discards.”

“It’s our biggest challenge and reward to create something beautiful with something that was unwanted.”

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Nicholas Tilma Studio

Trained at the University of Michigan and Cranbrook Academy, Nicholas Tilma got his start working for Detroit-based direct-to-consumer brand Floyd Home, before founding his studio in 2023. Tilma handmakes many of his projects, using a wide range of materials from wood to concrete and epoxy clay, and also teaches at a local architecture school.

His designs have a speculative aspect, aimed at envisioning a different kind of future, and he is open about his production process in order to spread the knowledge of “how to make things”.

“In a world of ever-present unimaginative design and a societal fear of doomsday scenarios, I seek to create otherworldly objects that can help us imagine different possible futures, futures that are rich with imagination and can offer a romanticization of dystopian aesthetics,” he told Dezeen.

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Aleiya Olu 

Aleiya Olu has been a force in Detroit’s creative community for years, operating a publicity and marketing firm and running a magazine store in the city. In 2020, she decided to enter the world of design as a maker and released a series of chairs and tables made with wood and upholstery.

She uses black tea, vinegar, and steel wool to achieve an ebonized effect on American cherry wood.

“The wood is rich and has a lot of depth,” Olu told Dezeen. “I wanted to show what wood could do, so I worked closely with fabricators to create a smooth, watery, fluid material from something commonly thought to have hard edges and corners.”

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Scott Klinker Design

Scott Klinker has been designing for thirty years, working for world-renowned brands such as Knoll and IDEO, and currently runs the graduate program at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he has worked as a mentor to countless designers.

In 2001, he founded his studio and has been crafting functional and sculptural pieces under that moniker and for larger brands.

“Many of my peers describe themselves as ‘human-centered problem solvers’, but I want to do more than that,” he told Dezeen. “I want my designs to inspire the imagination. In some of my projects I’ve done this through abstract forms that are open to interpretation.”

“In the right context, I prefer forms that read as a question rather than a definitive answer.”

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Form&Seek Studio

Form&Seek Studio is operated by Turkish designer Bilge Nur Saltık, who founded the studio in 2013, and shortly afterwards moved to Detroit to carry out the work. The studio draws on the skills and techniques of craftspeople in Turkey to create decidedly modern forms and has recently moved into work using 3D printing.

“I intend to incorporate culture with contemporary design,” she told Dezeen.

“Pairing the old with the new, I work with traditional craftspeople, tapping into their age-old techniques and knowledge – and introducing them to new materials and fabrication processes. This intersection produces unexpected results and design products.”

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Chris Schanck

After attending Cranbrook Academy, Chris Schanck founded his eponymous studio in 2011, working in Detroit and drawing materials and inspiration from the industrial local. His pieces sometimes incorporate discarded objects that he and his team coat with resins and composites in his studio.

Schanck told Dezeen that recently he has been called to step away from the “market demands” that have “poisoned” his creativity, and says he plans to start creating public seating and buckets.

“I appreciate a good bucket and think I could contribute something,” he told Dezeen.

“It’s not just about disengaging from the superficiality of the art world,” he added. “It’s a desire to reconnect with the core of what it is I love to do most, bring form to thoughts.”

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Thing Thing

Thing Thing is a Detroit-based project made up of three designers – Rachel Mulder, Eiji Jimbo and Simon Anton – who create objects from plastics gathered from industrial and consumer sources throughout the city. Each of the studio’s projects involves different methods of recycling and recasting plastic, from rotational molding to casting and extrusion.

“The problem we are engaged with is the widespread proliferation of plastic waste, though it would be too grandiose to suggest we are trying to ‘solve it’ rather than to creatively find opportunities for discovery, growth and criticality within this context,” Thing Thing co-founder Anton told Dezeen.

“While working with waste plastic over the last ten years, critical conversations keep evolving as we understand more and comprehend the complexity of the problem. In this way, the practice evolves.”

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Ayako Aratani

Japanese designer Ayako Aratani studied at Cranbrook Academy and has been creating sculptural furniture pieces in Detroit for the last eight years. Her work includes explorations in metal, wood and fabrics, and many are modelled on natural forms to create warm atmospheres in domestic spaces.

“I find it meaningful to use handcraft skills to transform raw materials into functional objects, and creating my work from scratch is crucial,” she told Dezeen.

“Detroit is a maker town with various kinds of suppliers and fabrication companies and I outsource some processes, such as laser cutting and powder coating.”

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Donut Shop 

Ian Klipa and Jake Saphier met in Ann Arbor and then moved to Detroit, where they worked in automotive industries and fabrication shops before founding Donut Shop in 2017. Focusing on wood and metal, the studio has carried out small-scale design projects and large-scale build-outs of interiors.

The pair told Dezeen that their work focuses on an aversion to “throwaway culture” and focuses heavily on assembly and disassembly as well as the use of “common materials”.

“I think our work is also a kind of personal protest, a kind of Luddite-esque response to a world we see as increasingly automated and artificial,” Klipa told Dezeen. “Creating a career for ourselves where we could be creative and make things seemed like a no-brainer.”

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Illustration by Alex Mellon

North American Design 2024

This article is part of Dezeen’s North American Design 2024 series selecting independent furniture and product design studios from cities across Canada, Mexico and the United States.

The first edition of this series is created in partnership with Universal Design Studio and Map Project Office, award-winning design studios based in London and now in New York. Their expansion into the US is part of The New Standard, a collective formed with Made Thought.

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