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An important auto show event you didn’t know about

Larry Printz
Tribune News Service
Spectators watch professional car designers and design students compete for a $2,500 grand prize at “The Fight Club of Design.” It was held Jan. 15 at Saint Andrews Hall in Detroit.

Detroit — Earlier this month, more than 24 hours after the last press conference was held at the Detroit auto show in Cobo Center, an underground event was taking place not far away at Saint Andrews Hall.

Industry car designers and design students gathered for “The Fight Club of Design.”

It was the Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment, and you’ve never experienced anything like it.

Near the entrance, a long table flanked by chairs anchored the center of the main hall. It was here where 16 contestants, a mix of design students and professionals, competed during three rounds. Each round had a theme, and each designer had 30 minutes to render their concept of the theme. (This year’s themes included vehicles with a special emphasis on tires, ones that emphasized lighting, and concepts using BASF’s new color, Aurora Gold.) At the end of each round, the work was judged by four industry designers, who then eliminated half of the artists during each of the first two rounds. At the end of the night, one designer walked away with $2,500. Not bad for a couple hours work.

Overseeing this year’s competition was chief judge Helen Emsley, executive director of design, Buick and GMC; Jeff Hammoud, vice president of design, Rivian; Ryan Nagode, chief designer, truck, commercial and performance interiors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles; and Adam Rabinowitz, chief design-exteriors/Toyota, Calty Design Research, Inc.

The event has been held elsewhere, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, but the final round is always held in Detroit.

Yet this is no walk in the park. In reality, it’s Motor City magic marker mayhem.

On stage, Terry Ayrault, Chief Creative Officer of the JRT Agency/CG Detroit announced each round with all the bravura of a wrestling announcer as DJ Emily Thornhill pumped out the jams. To ensure a bit more chaos, Satori Circus, a creepy clown dressed in evening clothes, shrilly shouted stream-of-consciousness drivel while doing his best to distract contestants by walking across the tables where the designers were drawing, or asking them stupid questions. In the midst of all this din were a couple hundred spectators, most of whom were downing adult beverages.

It was astounding that designers can create any good work at all.

“I think they deserve a medal with all this, honestly,” said chief judge Helen Emsley.

The event started in 2012 when Brook Banham opened a design studio in Detroit. Wanting people to know that his design studio was open, Banham hosted a cocktail party and invited people over to sketch. He called it the Sketchbattle. The following year, Frank Schwartz, who runs Advanced Automotive Consulting Services in Detroit, met Brook and helped him reformulate the event, which uses Banham’s middle name, Middlecott. It wasn’t his first go-round with industry fundraising. In 2006, Schwartz had started an event where car designers raced go-carts to help cancer charities.

“We want to bring design out in the open. It happens behind closed doors and in secret,” said Schwartz. “There’s a career path there for kids who are artistically talented that they don’t know about because it’s such a secret. We want to showcase that. We look at designers as being talent — like athletes.”

“If you go to the College for Creative Studies, they don’t have a football team. But they sure should have a sketching team. Right? And their sketching team should be fighting the University of Cincinnati’s art school sketching team and Cleveland’s sketching team, so we reformulated the event to be like a boxing match.”

“He’s not a designer, but he really respects what we do,” said Ralph Gilles, head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, talking about Schwartz. “He’s always found ways to network us together. What’s interesting is that while we’re fierce competitors normally, but when we’re around him our guard comes down and we just want to get together and do something cool.”

Gilles became involved with the event a few years ago through his wife, Doris. She became involved with the show as a way to raise funds for her charity, “Project Beautiful Inside and Out” that helps families rebuild their lives.

“We are now in four domestic violence shelters and bring in brunch for the women and their families, we bring in gift bags with things like perfume, chocolates, and gift cards,” said Doris.

“We also collect all of these need list items for the shelters... . And then we give each of the shelters $1,500 for a project of their choice.”

The involvement of Ralph and Doris Gilles has helped validate the event, which attracted the attention of many industry designers and students. But in the end, the Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment is an insanely fun fundraiser that also publicizes a solitary profession, one that’s tucked away behind corporate doors.

“I love to see where it is today. It’s starting to become a fun thing,” said Ralph Gilles.

“It’s wonderful that we’re all here to root for each other.”