Woodward Throwbacks turns Detroit trash into cash

Lauren Abdel-Razzaq
The Detroit News

Detroit — A year and a half ago, Kyle Dubay and Bo Shepherd were creating unique art pieces from illegally dumped materials and reclaimed wood out of Dubay’s garage in Brush Park. Now, they are selling a line of products for upscale retailer Nordstrom and drawing attention to the city of Detroit in a positive way.

“We were just doing things we would want for ourselves,” said Dubay, 26. “When you do that, it’s always going to be better because you are passionate about it.”

Dubay and Shepherd, co-owners of Woodward Throwbacks, search the city by bike or car, looking for discarded materials they can transform into tables, signs, beer carriers, bottle openers and more. Those are some of the products now featured in 27 Nordstrom stores across the country, from Alaska to Connecticut, including the store at Twelve Oaks in Novi.

Shepherd, 25, is a designer for General Motors and moved to Detroit from New Jersey to attend the College for Creative Studies. Dubay is a graphic designer and previously worked for a company in Saginaw that used reclaimed wood to create shabby-chic designs for homes.

“I loved the idea and process but it wasn’t anything I wanted to put in my house,” he said. “I thought I could do it but in a way that would appeal to a younger crowd.”

They began selling in Eastern Market on Saturdays and the demand for their pieces surprised them. Now they are featured in Pure Detroit, the Detroit Shoppe in Somerset Mall in Troy and two stores in Traverse City and Mackinac Island. They moved out of Dubay’s garage and took over Shepherd’s house in Corktown.

Expanding space, business

After a successful Kickstarter campaign last year in which they raised $12,000, the business partners are poised to move into a nearly 4,000-square-foot workspace in a formerly abandoned building on Michigan Avenue.

Shepherd said the new building will help them expand the business, which is good because there is definitely the demand.

“We get a ton of orders (from everywhere),” she said. “Even when we did our Kickstarter, we had people from Alaska, Switzerland, Germany.”

“Our website gets almost as much traffic from abroad as it does from the U.S.,” added Dubay.

Their designs are as simple as the words “Motor City” screenprinted on a piece of reclaimed wood, or as complicated as a license plate wrapped around a wood piece with a bottle opener attached to it.

They met when both were living in Brush Park. She was volunteering for a neighborhood cleanup with a friend.

“We were raking leaves and he rode up on his bike and asked if we needed some help,” said Shepherd. “It ended up that we were neighbors.”

Currently the pair work from a workshop in Shepherd’s basement, which is filled floor to wall with raw and finished materials. To help meet demand for their screenprinted wood signs, which have been extremely popular, they’ve hired Dubay’s roommate, artist Leah Prickett.

“One of the coolest things is when people will send me pictures or texts where they are at a party and they see one of my (pieces),” said Prickett, who is a graphic designer and a bartender. “The greatest thing ever is getting paid to do what you enjoy.”

Artists and advocates

The Nordstrom order was unlike anything they’d ever experienced.

“It was really stressful on it,” said Shepherd. “We were staying up late packing and packaging everything.”

“There were boxes up to the ceiling,” said Dubay.

In addition to being passionate about their work, they are passionate about the city that allows them to create their work. Traveling through the neighborhoods looking for materials has allowed them to see how the city has changed. It’s also made them advocates.

“Illegal dumping isn’t pretty,” said Shepherd. “It would be great to start a cleanup program. Or, with all the construction going on in the city, there’s so much good material they are taking out and throwing away.”

They say the whole experience has been a learning process.

“It’s good to have that connection to our city every day,” said Dubay.

Added Shepherd, “and it’s good that it’s a part of Detroit that isn’t Midtown, downtown or what is normally featured.”

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Detroit-based Woodward Throwbacks sells art pieces, coasters, bottle openers and signs at Eastern Market, Pure Detroit, the Detroit Shoppe, some Nordstrom stores and online at Products sell for $20-$60.