They were on the ground long before Detroit became a fashionable address for artists.

It was 1999 when brothers Israel and Erik Nordin rented their father's steel factory in a bleak part of Detroit, dubbed it the Detroit Design Center, and began creating one-of-a-kind sculptural metal pieces.

Fifteen years later, you see their work everywhere — from hip restaurants and lofts to luxury office buildings. In the process, the Nordin brothers have become one of Detroit's most-respected artistic brands, epitomizing as well as anyone the blend of design finesse and technical know-how that's emblematic of the city's recent comeback.

The pair, who helped co-found the Detroit Design Festival that launched Tuesday, built the 25-foot menorah that goes up every holiday at Detroit's Campus Martius as well as the "D Burst" that falls every New Year's Eve. They designed the sculpture in front of the Whitney restaurant in Midtown and built a 700-gallon, salt water aquarium for the Rock Ventures/Quicken Loans Detroit headquarters, complete with a blown-glass coral reef.

"They have a reputation as artists who design beautiful pieces that really kind of signify what Detroit is," said Jerrid Mooney, co-founder of the Motor City New Year's Eve celebration. "And holy cow, are they committed to Detroit. They've got their heels dug in."

Steve Rosenthal, a principal at Dan Gilbert's Rock Companies who was involved with the aquarium project, admires the brothers' "unique way of interpreting Detroit's industrial vibe in their work."

With the quickening of development in downtown and Midtown, Erik and Israel, 47 and 37 respectively, find themselves swamped. They installed two pieces in the Compuware lobby Tuesday, including one of Israel's signature lightning-bolt "Life Trees." They also are working on a 14-foot-wide neurology donor wall for Henry Ford Hospital that will recreate a neural network out of glass and LED lights.

And the glass-and-metal Detroit Legend award Berry Gordy Jr. got at last week's Detroit Homecoming? Yeah, that was theirs.

As if the brothers weren't juggling enough, they're also launching a pop-up gallery next to Avalon International Breads in Midtown that will hold open houses Friday and Saturday evening, and they are working on a permanent gallery and sculpture garden down the street at Willis and Third, which they say they hope to open for Noel Night.

But as Israel, who can wax philosophical, puts it, "Improvising is part of life, and life is about constant improvement — especially with art."

They both improvise with their art in the cavernous factory-studio they ultimately bought from their dad, now staffed by two pit bulls — one super-friendly, the other super-shy.

Indeed, they both come by their talents honestly. Their mother, Elayne, is a painter, while father Ronald started life as a musician until he found he had six kids to support and started his own steel business.

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But they arrived at their design careers from different starting points. Erik studied music at the University of Michigan, while Israel did glass and ceramics at the College for Creative Studies.

Real-estate developer Dominic J. Moceri called them "yin and yang."

Erik credits Israel as "the builder and engineer. He can visualize and build things that are mind-blowing," while Erik handles most of the client interaction and the business side, skills he learned working for their father while in college.

Erik and Israel aren't the only arty offspring in the family. Their brother Chris and his wife founded and run the Glass Academy in Dearborn.

And despite the fact that they grew up in Sterling Heights, each is besotted with Detroit. They both marvel at the velocity with which things have changed in a once-barren city, now that all sorts of people want to capitalize on what he calls its sexy coolness.

"Years ago my brothers and I had our fingers in everything going on, because there wasn't really that much," Erik said, "but now, we're like, 'What — that's happening? And that, too?' "

Erik credits Detroit's grass-roots spirit and likes the fact that much of the good that's happened in the city in recent years has been powered by individuals, not corporate sponsors. That said, he tips his hat to some of the area's moguls.

"A lot of this stuff wouldn't be happening without Dan Gilbert," Erik said. "What Quicken or Dominic Moceri did in welcoming us and putting our artwork in their spaces was huge. Artists can't survive unless they have people to make things for."

Detroit Design Center Open House

4-9 p.m. Friday & Saturday

444 W. Willis, Suite 113, Detroit


Detroit Design Festival


Where: All over Detroit

Visit for a complete schedule of events.

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