Detroit Tech and Design: The Rebirth of Motor City

By: Claire Bullen

April 9, 2015

Detroit Tech and Design: The Rebirth of Motor City

Motown. Motor City. But there’s another nickname that suits Detroit‘s character best of all, these days: Renaissance City. Certainly, the past 50 years haven’t always been kind to this once-mighty industrial capital. But while Detroit’s fortunes have risen and fallen, thanks to a startling new surge in Detroit tech, in the arts, in design and in independent business, the city is now poised at the start of a brilliant period of regeneration. Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to the new Detroit.

Detroit Tech

Michigan’s biggest city has been closely associated with the spirit of innovation for more than a century, and no one person was more influential in shaping its dedication to invention than Henry Ford. The unveiling of his iconic Model T in 1908 was the first major step in cementing Detroit’s status as a capital of progress, and other automotive leaders soon followed Ford’s move. By the 1950s, Detroit was a flourishing boomtown, a symbol of American technological ingenuity and a cultural capital full of Art Deco theatres, sweeping avenues, and grandiose architecture.

Detroit Tech and Design | TechTown
Communal creative spaces at TechTown © TechTown

Now, that same spirit of technological innovation is helping to foster Detroit’s phoenix-like rebirth. The city’s proliferation of available office spaces and low overhead costs has created welcoming turf for a new generation of start-ups and entrepreneurs. According to recent statistics, Detroit is growing at a faster pace than Silicon Valley – and is currently home to some of the country’s most-watched start-ups.

Nowhere encompasses that spirit better than TechTown: a business accelerator and hub of innovation, it’s at the heart of the Detroit tech start-up boom. Situated in New Center, it has served 1,026 companies and contributed more than 1,000 jobs to the local economy since 2007. Not to mention that the very history of Detroit-brand innovation infuses its on-trend, open-plan office: located within a renovated Albert Kahn building that once housed Chevrolet offices, the Corvette was designed on its third floor.

Detroit Tech and Design | TechTown
The Fueling Station at TechTown © TechTown

The Madison Block is another big player in Detroit’s technological upswing. While its campus is home to tech world heavyweights like Twitter and Uber, dozens of smaller, homegrown companies also call the collection of downtown buildings home. In addition to the offices and start-up incubators, a technology-training institute is also based here, to help ensure the tide of Detroit innovation only continues to grow.

Detroit Art and Design

But it isn’t just the Detroit tech scene that’s reflecting a new vibrancy. Since the Motown era, Detroit has been recognisable the world over for its rich culture and artistic legacy. Motown may be a vestige of the past these days, but that same creative spirit has manifested of late as a dedication to all things art and design. For instance: consider that Detroit will soon be home to the world’s tallest mural; on the First National Building, street artists How & Nosm have been commissioned to create a piece of public art measuring a whopping 354 feet tall.

Detroit Tech and Design | Nick Cave
Nick-Cave, Here Hear © James Prinz Photography. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Then there’s the Detroit Design Festival. Returning for its fifth year running in September, the five-day event sets its sights on independent Detroit-made design. A celebration of the city’s burgeoning creative community, the festival will feature over 500 makers, 30 events, and is set to welcome more than 25,000 visitors; on the schedule will be gallery walks, artist residencies, shops, and more.

And, in another upcoming artistic highpoint, performance artist and sculptor Nick Cave will be bringing his performance, Here Hear, to Motor City from April onwards. Cave, a native of the Detroit suburbs, will pose in one of his distinctive “˜soundsuits’ in locations around the city; the work will also comprise a number of live performances held in different venues across town. Sponsored by the Cranbrook Museum, the project is only further evidence of the city’s artistic vitality.

Detroit Tech and Design | Shinola
Shinola Detroit © Shinola

Detroit Fashion and Style

And, alongside design, Detroit’s burgeoning fashion scene is another shot in the arm for the city – though its industrial history underlies many of the up-and-coming brands. By far the biggest success to have come out of Detroit in recent years, the luxury watchmaker Shinola has a brand story that’s inextricable from the city’s past. An American heritage brand founded in the early 20th century (and which became extinct in the 1960s), Shinola once manufactured products like shoe polish but now makes Swiss-quality watches with a distinctly local identity (just take a look at the prominent “Detroit” emblazoned on the timeface) – and with the aim to give Detroit’s floundering industrial enterprises new direction.

Detroit Tech and Design | Detroit Denim
Detroit-made jeans from Detroit Denim © Detroit Denim

The city’s fashion scene has also been characterized by the rise in a number of new, independent labels that cater to a decidedly hip clientele. Detroit Denim Co., founded by Eric Yelsman, is one such brand; it uses strictly American-made materials to craft its in-demand jeans. Some others worth noting are the Detroit Bicycle Company – the bespoke bike maker’s shiny, copper Trumbull Street bike is as much a fashion accessory as it is a mode of transportation – and Wallace Detroit Guitars, a company which upcycles reclaimed wood from Detroit and fashions it into beautiful, handcrafted instruments.

Detroit Tech and Design | Detroit Bicycle Company
The Trumbull Street bike from the Detroit Bicycle Company © Dong Park

And then there’s Fordite: a product that makes Detroit’s history new again. Also known as Detroit agate, Fordite is the name given to the “˜stones’ that form from years of accumulated paint layers that was a manufacturing by-product. These build-ups feature spectacular layers of vibrant colours, and are hard enough to be cut and polished like gemstones. Only a finite amount exists in the world, given that the painting techniques that created Fordite are no longer in use – so now’s the time to pick up your pair of cufflinks, necklace, or other offbeat pieces of jewellery.

Detroit Tech and Design | Fordite
Fordite cufflinks © Urban Relic Design

So, Detroit’s revival is unabashedly worth celebrating – though it’s important to note that, in this case, all that’s old is new again”¦and that the city’s incredible history is at the heart of its astounding new renaissance.

Header image: Greektown © Heather Read Photography

Virgin Atlantic operates daily flights to Detroit – isn’t it time you discovered the renaissance city?

Have you experienced the new Detroit? What are your favourite Detroit tech, design and fashion companies? Let us know in the comments section below.

Written by Claire Bullen


Claire Bullen

Claire is a born globetrotter: before relocating to London, she spent time in New York, Paris, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Francisco. When she's not in pursuit of the next exciting meal, she can be found haunting indie bookstores and sketching outdoors. Follow Claire @ClaireMBullen

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