Handmade At Shinola

If Detroit is going to survive, it’s going to take more than the efforts of advertising shops: It’s going to require a lot of people rolling up their sleeves and making things. Luckily, the town is full of builders and artisans--some homegrown, others drawn to the city for its cheap rents and generous business incentives--who are doing their best to refurbish America’s biggest fixer-upper.

"They’re all tinkerers. They love the process of getting their hands dirty and making things. It’s embedded in the DNA here," says Matthew Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center, an advisory board that helps foster the creation of new products in the city. "When you look at the high market stuff that’s coming out of San Francisco, Manhattan, or Milan, Detroit is finding an alternative to that with products that are much more honest, much more humble, much more focused on the materials. It’s a Midwestern practicality."

Clayson’s office is on the first floor of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, a 760,000-square-foot building that once housed General Motors’ legendary design studio where Harley Earl and his team created the first Corvette. The building was vacated by GM in 1996, and after a $160 million renovation, it’s now part of the College for Creative Studies, and the place where 1,400 students are learning transportation, product, graphic, and interior design. Examples of their concept drawings and prototypes line the halls as Clayson walks a visitor around the enormous building that houses 11 floors dedicated to education and entrepreneurship. Clayson is talking about drawing creative people to Detroit despite the city’s well-documented problems. "Yeah, I might have to deal with my car being broken into," he says, noting his own car had been broken into three times last year. "But at the same time, no one’s gonna to give me any shit for what I’m doing. No one’s gonna come here and criticize my work or tell me I should be doing something different. There’s that freedom of creation."

One of the companies enjoying that freedom is Shinola, which has started creating handmade bicycles, watches, and other lifestyle accessories in a small factory in the Taubman Center. "We wanted to manufacture in the United States," explains Shinola’s COO, Heath Carr. "Detroit, just from the automotive industry, was in the top of everybody’s list. There’s this whole design/art revival energy going on there that we thought we’d like to be a part of."

Across town from Taubman is Ponyride, a workspace where smaller scale companies like Context Furniture and Detroit Denim can prototype and manufacture their creations, whatever they may be. Created by Slow’s BarBQ cofounder Philip Cooley, Ponyride is a professional take on the makers’ spaces popping up in Detroit and other cities where hobbyists go to hack, build, and design whatever they want using shared tools, knowledge, and support.

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