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The city of design: With a storied history and a reclaimed future, Detroit is a one-of-a-kind destination for those looking to be inspired by innovation, creativity, and progress.

Restaurant dining room with mint green tablecloths vintage chairs and art deco mural

Ash—Bar dining room. Photographed by Victor Stonem.

Defining Detroit—with its rich history, vibrant cultural legacy, and one-of-a-kind character—is nearly impossible. There is a complexity to the city that makes it unlike any other. Built by hardworking visionaries, Detroit’s foundation was laid by those with a determination to do things better than they were done before.

The late chef, author, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain once said of Detroit, “It’s where nearly everything American and great came from. The things the whole world wanted were made here.” That’s certainly true when it comes to cars and music, two of Detroit’s best-known exports. Henry Ford completed his first car in 1896, and 17 years later, the first mass-produced Ford Motor Company car rolled off a Highland Park assembly line. In the early 1960s, Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records, ushering in 12 No. 1 Billboard hit singles and influencing a generation of music. This sense of originality and optimism swept the city for decades, touching every industry, from food to finance.

Of Detroit, “It’s where nearly everything American and great came from. The things the whole world wanted were made here.” —Anthony Bourdain

In the realm of art and design, Detroit is—and always has been—a heavy hitter. Some of the giants of midcentury modern design—think Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia—created their most iconic furnishings just outside the city limits at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and various performing arts genres (the electronic dance movement, for example) originated in the Motor City. New Jersey native Bo Shepherd, co-founder of Throwbacks Home—a design lover’s shopping paradise in downtown’s Capitol Park district that offers original furniture and décor crafted in Detroit with reclaimed and recycled materials—agrees.

Detroit design bar mixologist making drink at vintage art deco bar with clock
vintage art deco detroit design restaurant with mint green table cloth, mural

The recently opened Ash—Bar, located on the second floor of downtown Detroit’s Siren Hotel, was designed to evoke the essence of Detroit during its glory days. The restaurant, helmed by Chef Scott Martinelli, features a painted mural with stylized industrial scenes that play perfectly against rich wood veneer details and pale mint-green surfaces inspired by the color of many factory machines of a certain era. Photographed by Victor Stonem.

“When I moved to Detroit [in 2008], I didn’t know how much the city would impact my life as a designer and artist,” she says. “It has a gravitational pull that is indescribable. Once the richest city in the world, it was also a leading force in design and innovation. Its identity inspires those who live here to always think outside the box; [it] encourages [artists and artisans] to push the boundaries [of their] crafts.” Shepherd and her partner and co-founder, Kyle Dubay, are releasing a limited-edition collection of products crafted from materials salvaged from the historic Michigan Central Station. “It just underwent an incredible restoration since being abandoned in the 1980s, so it’s exciting to create pieces from this culturally rich location and bring them into people’s homes,” Shepherd says. 

The newly opened Le Suprême is a 210-seat Parisian-inspired brasserie celebrating Detroit’s rich French history. Located within the historic Book Tower, the grand eatery offers French cuisine more than 300 world-class wines and champagnes, a curated cocktail menu, and baked goods from the adjoining patisserie and boulangerie. Photographed by Matthew Williams.

A robust creative community makes Detroit a bucket-list must for design-curious travelers. From gastronomic delights and restored historic hotels to can’t-miss galleries, original exhibitions, and architectural standouts new and old, there are inspiring attractions across every neighborhood. History buffs will want to check in to the suites at ROOST Detroit, an apartment-style hotel in the newly remodeled Book Tower, which was originally designed by architect Louis Kamper in the early 1900s. Culinary enthusiasts should plan to have a meal—or two—at one of the city’s newly opened eateries: Le Suprême, BARDA (a James Beard Foundation award nominee), Ash—Bar, or Alpino. Designed to impress, each restaurant has a distinct personality crafted to reflect the spirit of its cuisine. 

The work of artists Tiffany Alfonseca (top) and Mónica Hernández (above) will be on view at the Library Street Collective this fall. The exhibition, Found in Translation, features figurative paintings that engage the artists’ Dominican heritage while exploring questions of identity and race. Photographs courtesy Library Street Collective.

Through November 8, 2023, Library Street Collective (LSC), a contemporary art gallery near the heart of downtown, will be showcasing the original works of artists Tiffany Alfonseca and Mónica Hernández, who use their respective mediums to explore their Dominican roots. Known for shaking up the city’s design scene since it opened in 2012, the gallery has become recognized for progressive exhibitions like the first solo show for Los Angeles–based textile artist Gary Tyler—a powerful presentation that paid homage to the artist, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 41 years. Initiatives like Public Matter, the gallery’s ongoing, revolving exhibition installed just outside the building in the adjacent Belt alley, are among the ways in which LSC activates public spaces in an eye-catching and accessible manner. The gallery has plans to expand its footprint with a soon-to-open arts campus in Detroit’s East Village that will include a Tony Hawk–designed skate park, a historic-church-turned-gallery, sculpture gardens, and more. Also deserving of a visit is LSC’s sister gallery, Louis Buhl & Co., which holds traditional exhibitions and offers limited-edition prints, books, décor, and more for those seeking creative inspiration. 

architectural dome skylight stained glass ceiling Detroit design
interior design of condo white walls island with bar seating upholstered rust swivel chair modular sofa floor lamp built in bar red bedroom

Located in the recently renovated Book Tower, the 117-room ROOST Detroit (originally designed by architect Louis Kamper in the early 1900s) is the city’s first high-design extended-stay concept hotel. Photographed by Matthew Williams.

For architecture aficionados, Detroit offers abundant destinations. World-renowned architect Minoru Yamasaki (who designed New York City’s original World Trade Center) created more than 13 buildings in and around the city. There is also work by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who designed the modernist housing development Lafayette Park, where 186 co-op townhouse units, three apartment towers, 13 acres of green space, and an elementary school beautifully coexist. 

Innovative new players, including architecture firms Iannuzzi Studio and Midwest Common, continue to push the boundaries of design within the city. In 2015, such efforts resulted in Detroit being designated a City of Design by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—a first for a city in the United States. 

Achieving such a high honor wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Design Core Detroit (DCD), a design-focused organization that applied for the UNESCO designation. Founded in 2010 and housed at the College for Creative Studies, DCD is an economic development nonprofit dedicated to growing Detroit’s design-driven businesses and making the city a global resource for creative talent. Additionally, DCD has “developed a curriculum for teaching inclusive design principles, conducted hundreds of business coaching sessions, written and published three educational design guides, and connected hundreds of designers to business opportunities through our programs,” says Kiana Wenzel, the organization’s co-executive director. 

“I am influenced by the artistic ethic of my Korean heritage. That ethic has led me to a reductive aesthetic, in which I merge Eastern philosophy with experimental form.” —Nina Cho, Designer

Nina Cho Detroit designer Korean woman with bent metal coffee table

Born in San Francisco and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Nina Cho—now a resident of Detroit— studied woodworking and furniture design at Hongik University before earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 3D design at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Cho was named one of Dwell’s 13 Extraordinary Women in Design and Architecture in 2019 and received WantedDesign’s sixth-annual American Design Honors award. Her work is a celebration of her identity and background. Photographs courtesy Nina Cho.

In September, DCD hosts the annual Detroit Month of Design festival, which showcases standout work from local designers, makers, and artists—including Mike Han, Citizen Robotics, Argonaut Studio, Spool and Dye Works, Elizabeth Salonen of Mottoform, and ceramist Claire Thibodeau—as it celebrates the city’s reputation as a national and international design capital. 

On September 26, 2023, mobility innovation company Newlab will open the doors of its new Corktown office, Newlab @ Michigan Central, to host an immersive event highlighting the concept of inclusive design for mobility. Located in Michigan Central—the city’s new, 30-acre walkable hub designed to explore ideas addressing urban transportation—Newlab’s outpost is housed in an abandoned book depository designed for Detroit Public Schools by internationally acclaimed, local industrial architect Albert Kahn and built in 1936. The reimagined space reflects Newlab’s mission to nurture mobility-focused startups and Detroit’s place in the design community. Situated next to the historic Michigan Central Station, it encompasses 274,000 square feet and features custom contemporary art, a stunning central atrium, coworking lounges, and a 200-seat event space. Brooklyn-based design firm Civilian, which imagined the building’s interiors, outfitted the collaborative workspace with a mix of furniture from Michigan’s own MillerKnoll

Newlab, located in Michigan Central, is designed to explore ideas addressing urban transportation. The interiors were reimagined by Civilian, which outfitted the collaborative workspace with a mix of furniture from Michigan’s own MillerKnoll. Photographed by Brian Ferry.

Since its opening, the three-story building has become an inspiring place for the 25-plus start-ups it houses, including local company JustAir, which provides cities with air-pollution-monitoring solutions.

“There is a unique aesthetic at Newlab [Detroit], which is very different from any other start-up hub I’ve seen,” says Rich Fahle, head of partnerships at Newlab. “It feels very Detroit in every way. If you look at the design of our building—the layout and the incredible architecture—it’s the combination of elements that makes something really special, and that speaks to the essence of what’s unique about Detroit: It’s music, art, design, creative engineering, and science all wrapped up into one. You throw that on top of the aesthetic of the Detroit landscape and the people who live here, and you have something you just can’t replicate anywhere else in the world.” 


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