After Dan's stroke, Jennifer Gilbert focuses on family, creative pursuits

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

A thin red string wraps its way around Jennifer Gilbert's wrist, a custom from Kabbalah, a type of Jewish mysticism, worn to ward off misfortune.

Touching the string lightly with her fingers, Gilbert, the wife of billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert, says she's worn these strings only twice in her life. The first was when her son, Nick, had brain surgery. The second was when her husband suffered a stroke in late May.

"The entire family has these," says Gilbert, speaking in the lower level offices of the commercial design firm, Pophouse, she helped found in the former Dime Building in downtown Detroit. "It was a way to connect all of us."

Jennifer Gilbert stands in the offices of Pophouse, the commercial interior design firm she founded in downtown Detroit. After a difficult summer for her family, Gilbert is moving forward.

Connection is important these days as Gilbert and her family move forward from Dan's stroke, which hospitalized him for several days before he went to an in-patient rehab facility this summer in Chicago. Gilbert says her 57-year-old husband, now home, "is improving every day" though he still isn't back at work.

"With stroke recovery, it's a marathon, it's not a sprint," she said. "But every day he's working hard, and every day we're seeing improvements. He's encouraged. And he's up for the challenge."

Her husband's health crisis forced her to step back from her role at  Pophouse (previously known as dPop). She says the summer was "definitely challenging," but it was nice to have her children home, especially the three who were away at college, so they could be there to support their dad.

The Gilberts, who live in Franklin, have five kids, four of whom have graduated from high school. Their youngest is 13. 

"They were able to come home and support him, and me, and each other," said Gilbert. 

Speaking to The Detroit News in a rare interview last week, Gilbert, 51, reflected on her husband's recovery, her evolving design firm and why Detroit is so attractive to what she calls "creatives." Even though her husband isn't back at work, "he’s definitely involved," she said. "He’s aware of everything that’s going on. We anticipate what we know he’d want to make decisions on."

Dan and Jennifer Gilbert met when she designed an office for him. They have five children together.

She said as a mom of five, she's always had to multitask, but after her husband's stroke she's multi-tasking in a different way. 

"As you go through life, you re-prioritize with what's happened," she said. "... . His recovery and our family and making sure our kids were good was the biggest priority."

But with her husband's health more stable, Gilbert is stepping back into her role at Pophouse, taking on the official title of creative director, as the firm expands its mission -- designing not just workplaces, but other commercial spaces. The firm has done the interior design for a large portion of her husband's Bedrock properties.

Gilbert said it makes sense why so many creative people are drawn to the city. 

"Designers are part of creatives and artists are part of creatives," said Gilbert. "We're all attracted to a blank canvas, about taking something, and evolving it and solving problems. I think Detroit is just a natural place" to attract creative people.

And Gilbert knows about the power of creativity. She’s the chair of the board of governors for the Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum. She’s also brought the work of artists from around the country into her husband’s properties, from the 17-foot sculptures at Campus Martius Park by the Brooklyn artist KAWS to a custom-made paper sculpture inside the former Detroit News building by Detroit artist Leon Dickey.

Susan Ewing, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, says Gilbert has been an “incredible thinking partner” during Ewing’s tenure at the school, which started in 2018. 

“We have a shared vision of embracing new technology and entrepreneurship while staying true to Cranbrook’s roots, which is experimental design, craft and making with the hand,” said Ewing in an email.

Given her Cranbrook role, Gilbert says she tries to make sure her own firm’s designers and creative leaders are being to exposed to new art, exhibits and lectures. That exposure is important, she says. 

“They’re finding inspiration in everyday life,” said Gilbert. “That’s just the people that they are. But I think it helps to just let them know there are other things out there. And the more you can be exposed to and the more experiences you can have, the more things you can see, it’s good for everybody – but especially a creative.”

A design career

Design has always played a critical role in Gilbert's life.

Growing up in Huntington Woods, she remembers designing elaborate houses with a friend, houses so outside the box that they could never be built in real life.

"My friend down the street and I use to spend hours creating these insane fantasy houses," she said. "There were pits and pools and waterfalls."

But as a student at Michigan State University, it was actually architectural engineering she planned to pursue. She wanted to transfer from MSU to the University of Michigan, but she took one interior design class in East Lansing and she was hooked. She graduated in 1990.

"I took an interior design class my freshman year and fell in love with it," she said. "The rest is history."

Design also is how she met her husband.

"I ended up designing his office," she said.

After marrying and having children, she stepped back from her career for more than a decade and a half. But when her youngest was in preschool, she "started to dip my toe back into it."

The Madison Building in Detroit was the first building Jennifer, left, designed her husband. She worked with Rosetti, the Detroit-based architectural firm. The Madison housed offices for her Doodle Home startup among many others.

She founded a startup called Doodle Home, a business-to-business software platform that specialized  in home and interior design. Seeing her husband's firms and how they operated, Gilbert realized how "antiquated" interior design was.

"Looking at Dan and everything he was doing with the mortgage company -- that was when he was bringing it all online, looking at it from that lens and saying, 'How can we simplify the design process through integration and technology?'" said Gilbert. 

In 2015, Doodle Home was acquired by Dering Hall, an online portal giving designers, architects and consumers access to high-end home furnishings and services. The same year, Gilbert also started Amber Engine, a Detroit-based home furnishings services and solutions technology company.

Design with a purpose

But it’s at Pophouse that Gilbert has really helped play a role in reshaping workplace design. When the firm launched in 2013, Gilbert had been working with the Quicken Loans' facilities department, which shaped the look of the company's downtown offices. Afterward, they decided to create a design studio to work with other clients who liked the aesthetic of Quicken's offices. 

Six years later, the firm has completed 2,311 projects for the Rock Family of companies, which includes Quicken Loans and Bedrock. Now, as it branches out into hospitality and retail design, Gilbert says it's about creating “thoughtfully assembled places.” That’s a slogan on Pophouse’s website.

“Designing for a purpose is really why we get out of bed in the morning and why we love what we do,” she said. “We’re just more purposeful and intentional in the projects that we do. They have to be more holistic and have an opportunity for us to transform the space. We believe that transformational spaces can impact people’s lives.”

Jennifer Gilbert, wife of Dan Gilbert, is pictured at Pophouse in front of the Relic Wall created by artist Scott Hocking and Clinton Snider on Thursday, September 26, 2019.

Jennifer Janus, Pophouse’s president, says there isn’t anyone better to spearhead the firm’s future than Gilbert.

“Jennifer knows that purposeful design goes beyond selecting the right furniture and finishes. It is how the space functions for the user that is the most important,” Janus said in an email. “With the mission of positively impacting people through design, Jennifer encourages the design team to develop and implement strong design narratives that drive the execution of every aspect of a project.”

Outside of her design work and Cranbrook, Gilbert and her husband have also made finding a cure for Neurofibromatosis Type 1 (NF1) a top priority. NF1 is a genetic disorder that causes tumors to grow on nerve pathways anywhere in the body. It affects 3 million people worldwide, including the Gilberts’ son, Nick, .

The couple founded the Gilbert Family Foundation, a nonprofit that has donated millions to funding research and finding a cure for NF1.

As Gilbert looks to the future – juggling her husband’s recovery, her kids, nonprofit work and her career – she sees a Detroit that will continue to change and draw creative people. 

“I think that’s just going to keep continuing,” she said. “We’re only scratching the surface. It’s like a creative’s playground.”