Designed in Detroit: Former engineers, natives flock to area

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
  • Furniture designers flock to Detroit
  • They're drawn by cheap rent, abundant space, reclaimed materials
  • Many are locals or former engineers

Michigan native Kyle Huntoon was finishing up woodworking school in Rockport, Maine, in early 2013 when he met an older woman at a gallery who asked what he was doing in Maine. Huntoon, a civil engineer turned aspiring furniture designer, told her he was finishing school and then planned to move to Detroit.

"She said 'Oh, Detroit,' " says Huntoon, who grew up in Jackson and is a fourth-generation woodworker.

Huntoon was indignant but unfazed — yes, he was moving to Detroit and he was going to start his business there, making handcrafted furniture out of walnut and pine.

Busy these days making mid-century inspired tables, bars and wine bottle holders, "a lot of times I wish there were two or three of me," says Huntoon, who lives in Corktown.

Huntoon, who owns Hunt & Noyer Woodworks in Detroit, is part of a growing number of furniture designers setting up shop in the Detroit area. Drawn by cheap rent, abundant space, reclaimed materials or other factors, many are coming to the region to develop and hone their artistic vision and get their businesses off the ground.

But starting a business of any kind — especially a furniture or home decor line — isn't easy. Many designers still have day jobs. Huntoon still works several days a week as a civil engineer.

Designers travel regularly to trade shows to build their brand and make connections. Income can be unsteady.

Huntoon says it takes drive.

"People that make it see the opportunity," he says. But "you're really selling yourself and you have to go for it."

Cheap rent drew Brooklyn-ites Alex Rosenhaus and Drew Arrison, whose business Alex Drew & No One makes geometric-looking, sculptural tables and mirrors. They like to describe their business as "Brooklyn-born/Detroit-based."

"Where else can you get a great amount of space for not too much money?" says Rosenhaus, a Farmington Hills native who graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a degree in furniture design.

Today, working out of their Hazel Park design studio, Alex Drew & No One continues to grow and expand. They were finalists in Martha Stewart's American Made contest last fall. And they just got back from New York where they showed some of their work at the Architectural Digest Home Show, meeting interior designers and architects.

"We debuted last year (at the Architectural Digest show) and it felt 20 times better this year," says Rosenhaus, 31.

In a region dense with engineers, it's not surprising that many designers, like Huntoon, are either former engineers or engineering students who left engineering behind to follow their true passion.

Huntoon was working as an engineer in Bellingham, Washington, and quickly realized it wasn't fulfilling. After being approached to make a table for a show on the DIY Network, Huntoon decided to leave Washington, go to woodworking school and eventually set up shop in Detroit.

Inspired by designer Sam Maloof, Huntoon's line of classic yet modern tables, bars, and wine bottle holders have clean lines and little embellishment. He uses traditional joinery techniques.

"As an engineer, I believe that each of my pieces should be as functional and durable as it is beautiful," says Huntoon.

Wallpaper and more

Andi Kubacki also was a mechanical engineer, working in Bay City, before he switched gears to start the Detroit Wallpaper Company, co-founded with Josh Young. Located on Livernois in Ferndale, the company offers a broad range of patterns and colors. Nearly every pattern can be customized with a color palette of nearly 160 colors.

"Our patterns are a little bit cleaner, bolder and more graphic," says Kubacki. "They draw from pop culture. We really are trying to treat wallpaper like a new art form. We don't just think of it as covering a wall. We like to think of it as an art installation."

Later this month, Kubacki says they'll debut a line of Heidelberg Project-inspired wallpaper patterns at the Spring Market in High Point, North Carolina. They'll also introduce a collection of patterned wood floor tiles produced in conjunction with Mirth Studio. And they're working on a line of textiles.

"We're trying to diversify," says Kubacki.

Kubacki describes the flux of designers coming to Detroit as a "burgeoning creative class" — designers, artists, makers of all kinds. "There's a lot of makers in general," he says.

Nicole Hobson also was on a path toward an engineering career when she decided to do something more creative. Today, she has her own business, Ciseal (which means "layer" in Gaelic), and makes chairs, magazine racks and iPad stands out of bent plywood.

"I was studying product design at the College for Creative Studies when I took a class in bent plywood furniture, and I was smitten," says Hobson.

Rosenhaus believes one reason designers are setting up shop in Detroit is because they're being priced out of New York.

"This was a huge topic of conversation while we were in New York at the Architectural Digest Show; everyone wants to know what it's like (in Detroit) and if they can really buy a house for $1," says Rosenhaus.

Reclaimed materials

Another draw for some designers is the city's vast resources of reclaimed materials.

LeadHead Glass, co-owned by Derek Smiertka and Chad Ackley and based in Ferndale, makes terrariums out of reclaimed wood and glass from deconstructed homes in Detroit. Modeled after 19th century Wardian cases, each piece "is as unique as the glass and wood it comes from," says LeadHead Glass, also a Martha Stewart American Made finalist, on its website.

The End Grain Wood Woodworking Co., based in Livonia, meanwhile, has been making tables, coat racks, picture frames and custom pieces from reclaimed wood from old Detroit houses since owners Sam Constantine and Chris Behm won a Detroit ReNailed competition in 2012. Their business has grown exponentially since then and they're making everything from custom-made bed frames to kitchen counters. Detroit's Atwater Brewery recently contacted them about making a line of beer taps.

With their 400-square-foot garage studio bursting at the seams, they hope to move soon to a new 1,600-square-foot workshop. Behm says he has some table saws he's had to store elsewhere because they simply don't have room in their current space.

Constantine and Behm have seen firsthand the influx of new designers over the last three years, especially those using reclaimed materials. Everyone has their own spin on it, says Constantine.

"We're a community of makers who are doing something with this wood," Behm says.

(313) 223-4686

Detroit furniture makers & designers

Alex Drew & No One :; (248) 390-0346

Ciseal :

Detroit Wallpaper Co.:; 530 Livernois, Ferndale; (877) 544-1054

Eclecticasa :; (248) 631-6805

The End Grain Woodworking Co.:; (248) 420-3228 or (734) 525-5271

Hunt & Noyer Woodworks :; 860 W. Baltimore, Detroit (call ahead before visiting studio); (517) 914-6259

LeadHead Glass :

Workshop:; 3011 W. Grand Boulevard, #105, Detroit; (313) 318-9029