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Design Evolution

The basic tenet of Darwinian evolution is: adapt or die. With today's expanding global market and its ever-shifting demands, the mantra for business survival could easily be: innovate or vanish.
Bryce and Kerry Moore of Context Furniture, a design firm in Royal Oak, see it as an opportunity.

"Everyone talks about Detroit lagging behind but I don't think it's the case. We're far ahead of other manufacturing centers because what's happening here will eventually happen everywhere else, and when it does they'll look to how we reinvented the manufacturing model."

Celebrating its third anniversary, Context already has made a name for itself. Back in June, Newsweek corralled a dozen groundbreaking designs from around the globe and ranked the couple's Truss Collection of furniture as on par with Apple's glass-cube store in New York and Minneapolis' cutting-edge architecture.
The husband-wife design team believes that adversity breed strength and because of Michigan's recent hardships it'll emerge leaner, meaner and smarter. "We're on the forefront of mass customization and design because we have to be," says Kerry, "Southeast Michigan is an exciting place to be right now because we're establishing the model for how to do business better."

Good genes

It's all about ideas. And any discussion of ideas leads us to education.

Throw a rock in the air and it's bound to hit one of many universities and colleges that call southeast Michigan home. Institutions like Wayne State University, Lawrence Tech, Oakland University and Eastern Michigan University turn out some of the best and brightest this region has to offer.

The 800-pound gorilla is, of course, Ann Arbor's University of Michigan, which boasts nearly 40,000 students and awards more than 50 doctoral degrees in 15 disciplines. U-M's School Of Art & Design and School of Information are indispensable contributors to Michigan's rising creative technology class.

In Detroit, the College for Creative Studies has become a respected producer of designers, artists and artisans. With 1,200 students working in 11 studio majors, CCS understands Detroit's unique need for employees who can combine craftsmanship with technology. The school has one of the world's most recognized programs in industrial and transportation design.

Bill Ludwig, Chief Creative Officer at Warren-based ad agency Campbell-Ewald, sees the college as an essential resource for Detroit's emerging creative class. "The world of advertising and marketing is all about creating content and developing brand advocates. That can involve anything from architecture to interactive online tools. We recruit heavily from CCS for our creative talent pool and have even started to eye Cranbrook as a potential resource."

Just 10 miles away, in Bloomfield Hills, The Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum is the only institution in the country dedicated solely to graduate education in the visual arts, architecture, and design. Its 150 graduate students work toward MFA's in everything from photography to furniture to fashion.


Management guru Peter F. Drucker once said, "Business has only two functions – marketing and innovation." Campbell-Ewald, the country's sixth-largest ad agency, understands this better than most.

Making its name with automotive advertising, it is one of many southeast Michigan agencies to reinvent itself for the global and virtual marketplace. C-E understands that a diverse portfolio and steady eye on the ever-shifting technology horizon is necessary to thrive. With nearly 1200 local employees, it sees its commitment to Detroit 's artistic and innovative community as necessary for its own growth and prosperity.

"Bringing creative content into the various media streams is no longer linear, consumers can encounter and interact with brands in different places and at different speeds. The most powerful way to communicate in the future is to create brand advocates. That 's what iPod is all about, creating brand zealots."

Jud Branam, managing director of Hass MS&L in Ann Arbor, agrees. A unique hybrid of marketing/ad agency and public relations firm, Hass specializes in online strategies, Web development and marketing campaigns.

The company sees computer technology and the rise of grassroots Internet communities as an intrinsic part of the PR playing field. "Technology has erased traditional geographic boundaries. The future of PR and marketing is establishing a digital conversation with your consumer. It's really a golden age for this kind of work. The global marketplace allows us to choose our location out of preference rather than need."

Part of the immense MS&L network, the firm is one of 10 North American offices (with two in SE Michigan). The Troy office tackles traditional PR and marketing. Ann Arbor's office of 25 (with plans to grow) is exclusively oriented toward tech applications.

Branam sees Ann Arbor as a technical hub that's only growing in notoriety. "You might think of Silicon Valley or New York City and Boston as the places where things happen but in the digital environment, Ann Arbor has developed a buzz as an up and coming center of activity."

Combining traits

Whether it 's big regional ad agencies or small design artisans like Context, there is an unprecedented embrace of combining creative impulses with cutting edge technology and techniques. From the customized body panels of Ferndale 's Detroit Bros. motorcycles to the revolutionary studio space used by Epiphany Glass in Pontiac, southeast Michigan is entering an exciting period of innovation.

One of the best examples of this mindset is Motawi Tileworks in Ann Arbor. Founded by brother-sister team Karim and Nawal Motawi in 1992, the company has grown from a two-car garage studio to a 13,000-square-foot studio with 25 employees and $2 million in annual sales. Specializing in hand-made art tile, the company won first place in the Detroit Home Design Awards for Best Interior Use of Stone/Tile/ Concrete. Karim was also named one of Crain's Detroit Business "40 under 40."

Motawi incorporates lean manufacturing practices based on systems created by Toyota and sees the process as a crucial component of their success.

 "In a small art business you aren't competing on price, you 're competing on quality of service and uniqueness," Karim says. "Whatever you make has to be special. We feel that we are the business contrarians, ie. If everybody is going one way, we'll go the other."

The Motawis also see the industrial artisan community – particularly glass and ceramic – thriving because of strong art institutions like CCS, Cranbrook and Pewabic Pottery. "These institutions help to build an awareness of fine crafts from the Arts and Crafts period, and also help train the next generation."

Next generation: Fashion, film and gaming

When you ask clothing and bag designer Molly Mast what excites her about the local artistic and clothing design community she answers,  "Things are wide open here. I'd probably be struggling to get noticed if I were on the West Coast or something. Here I have as much work as I want and great access to resources."

Along with Henrietta Fahrenheit, a fashion and gift designer in Ypsilanti, the two helped form the Michigan Design Militia. A collective that started as business support group, it has grown to include a small greeting card company, several clothing designers and several other artisans with an entrepreneurial bent. Twice a year the Militia holds the Shadow Art Fair in Ypsilanti's Depot Town, putting the spotlight on independent fashion, art, music and housewares.

The Michigan fashion design industry is, contrary to expectations, is starting to make waves. Pure Detroit has made a name with its Detroit City apparel. Its most ambitious project was to create a fashion design lab, earning its director, Sarah Lutz a place on Crain's Detroit Business "20 In Their 20s." Though recently closed, the effects can still be felt as companies like Lutz's Wound Menswear, Detroit Retro Rags, and D.S. Bullock's designs gain greater notoriety. These unlikely successes have given rise to the newly minted Detroit Fashion Incubator, an organization dedicated to developing local fashion entrepreneurs

This grassroots organizing of talent has spilled over into the world of digital filmmaking and computer game development. Take Ed Gardiner and Jamie Sanderman, the creators and producers of InZero, a post-apocalyptic science fiction series hoping to find a home on the Sci-Fi Channel. Shot completely in Detroit with local actors, writers and crew episodes have been screening at Royal Oak's Main Art since May. It's an ambitious and unwieldy enterprise that has brought together the talents of nearly 150 Hollywood hopefuls.

"We see Detroit as the ultimate studio back lot. You just can't beat its urban landscape for location shooting. That's why we want to sell the series to cable but keep the production local. We have all the talent, resources and locations we need here. That's the beauty of current video technology, content can be created for Hollywood anywhere."

Equally bullish about southeast Michigan's future is Kristin Hatcher, Director of Marketing for Stardock in Plymouth. A company that specializes in custom operating systems and video games like Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (the top-rated PC game of 2006), Stardock employs 40 people locally and has big plans for the future.

"There are a lot of highly talented software developers who don't want to move to California and become available to small companies like ours. This keeps our turnover relatively low – which is critical for any high tech company. As a result, our talent pool tends to actually be significantly higher than major studios (allowing) us to produce AAA games at a much lower price which lets us do things other companies (can't, like) post-release game updates."

Hatcher sees the computer gaming industry growing at an ever-faster rate and technology freeing designers to create content wherever they choose. Certainly other game design outfits like Urban Electronics Game Development in Ann Arbor, Matt Toschlog former head of Outrage Entertainment (Descent I-III), Variant Interactive, and Image Space Incorporated (known for their Formula and Nascar racing games) see the tech corridor that runs from Detroit to Ann Arbor as the perfect environment for growth.

"More and more these days people are spending time in front of their computers," Hatcher adds, "which means there are a lot more ways for companies to sell their games. It's just a matter of focusing on the right channel for the right game."

Be it cars, fashion, furniture, advertising, film or video games, southeast Michigan has the innovation talent to lead the region into the new economy.

Bryce Moore of Context sums up the region’s accelerated evolution,  "From my perspective, we 're coming out of the non-recession that never really happened. The whole local environment is changing. Projects are picking up, cool places like Royal Oak are changing the way people think about their community. There 's a lot of talent and creativity here and in 10 years this part of Michigan is going to be unrecognizable."

Jeff Meyers is managing editor of Metro Mode.

Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved

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