Tonight Cooper Hewitt is celebrating the National Design awards by sharing on Detroit design. We liked the idea so much, we stole one of their panelists for a side conversation.

Detroit based designer, Craig Wilkins, PhD, RA, shares his insight.

CV Henriette: Tell us a bit about yourself. 

Craig Wilkins: I’m an author, academic and practicing architect. I teach at the University of Michigan and consult around the country. Most recently with TENxTEN design team for the DIA Plaza Competition.

CVh: How did you get into design? 

CW: I had a facility for drawing and went to a high school that required two years of drafting. Originally, I wanted to be a commercial artist. I wanted to do comic strips. But eventually found my way into architecture through the drafting courses that I was required to take. If I wasn’t required to take them, I probably wouldn’t have been practicing.

CVh: This is a big question—how has design shaped Detroit? 

 Craig Wilkins

Cooper Hewitt

CW: Well, design shapes everything. It shapes an entire city. There always has to be an intention behind design. You don’t just walk out of the house and design. You design for something. You design because you believe in something. You design because you’re hired.

The easiest way to talk about how design has shaped Detroit is by starting with the fact that this is an automotive town and the layout of the city expresses that. There are main roads like Woodward, Gratiot, and Michigan that are designed in such a way that they privilege the automobile to a heightened extent. The design of the city expresses the ethos, the aspirations of the city itself.

CVh: What are your favorite Detroit moments?

CW: The people in this city were resilient enough to go through decades of a lack of resources, no investment—there’s a laundry list of reasons the city fell on hard times for a while. The residents, in general, have this sort of ‘Well, if you won’t do it, we’ll do it ourselves, so get out of our way,’ ethos.

And the design community in the city has picked up on that. There’s a sort of grittiness to the style of design in Detroit, whether it be architecture, graphic design, urban design.

You get a beautiful building that doesn’t talk about its location. It could be anywhere. The sleekness hides the conditions of production. It doesn’t talk about the manner in which it was built. Or even the people who built it. In Detroit, you get an appreciation for the struggle. The struggle to create something beautiful, something memorable. And not wanting to hide that. It is something to be celebrated and embraced and acknowledged.

From people who have lived in the city for decades or who have just come to the city and take over the vacant lot across the street and say ‘I am going to do something with that. I am going to create something. I know it’s going to be hard, and I’m probably not going to get a pat on the back for it, but that’s ok because I want to contribute to the beautification of my environment, and, specifically, to the city as a whole.

CVh: Notes for the future? 

CW: Detroit is now a hot place to be. Outside the city—whether it be developers or planners or artists or architects—people are starting to look at Detroit with kind eyes. Maybe even lecherous eyes, to a certain degree.

I would hope that the future of design in Detroit maintains the sort of grittiness, the embracing of the struggle; that it doesn’t fall into the trap of “We’ve got to be like Paris, New York or Chicago, where everything is nice and pretty and gorgeous and streamlined and buffed clean.”

I would hope that the soul of Detroit, the one that relishes the fight, that relishes the struggle, remains.

You get a lot of people coming into the city now and what they see is the end result. They don’t see the process. So instead of actually seeing work that comes authentically from a recognition of the kind of culture that exists in Detroit, you get folks who just want to replicate the end product. That’s just copying. And when you copy stuff you don’t know where it comes from and eventually, it dies because it has no foundation.

CVh: Final thoughts?

CW: Detroit can be a model for 21st-century green design. We have an abundance of the one thing no other city has, and that is, land. How we use it—sustainable technology, green infrastructure —could both harken back to when Detroit was the world center of production and technology and show the way for other post-industrial city reinvention.



Photo Credit: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum 2017 National Design Awards Gala Held at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City October 19, 2017 Photo: Max Lakner/