Auto design 'fight club' showcases tomorrow's talent

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

While the international media were ogling the car designs of today, Brook Middlecott Banham was thinking about the automotive designers of the future.

Tuesday night Banham and his design partner Frank Schwartz gathered design students and young professionals to duke it out at the third annual Middlecott Sketch Battle Experiment held in conjunction with the North American International Auto Show.

If you've ever envied the car execs and journalists who get to attend auto show after parties during the week before the show opens to the public, here's your chance to join in the festivities. Anyone can attend the sketch battle. The modest five dollar cover supports the Suavé Art Foundation.

This "Fight Club of Design" as Banham calls it brought 13 young designers to compete for the attention of automaker executives lured to the Tangent Gallery in Detroit. The "underground" after-party followed the auto show's EyesOn Design awards recognizing the designers of today.

The gallery is in a New Center cluster of former factories and warehouses. "It's very Detroit-y," said Banham. "The foreigners love that. They all want to see some gritty Detroit real stuff."

Fight Club rules

Tuesday night the 13 young designers lined both sides of a very long table faced with large sheets of sketch paper. In round one they had 20 minutes to draw a sedan for the year 2025 knowing they'd be judged on three criteria: sketch quality, design quality and brand characteristic, meaning their creation should build on an existing car model. Sketchers hung their drawings on the wall and judges narrowed the field to six.

They drew under tough conditions. The crowd pressed up to the backs of their chairs, snapping photos with their phones. The deejay pumped the room full of driving beats and Detroit performance artist Satori Circus did everything a clown with a bullhorn can do to distract them. Illustrator John Martin, dressed as Vordak the Incomprehensible, the futuristic antler-helmeted comic book supervillain he created, joined in the fun.

In round two they drew pickup trucks. And then only three designers went on to the final round: sports cars. Darby Barber, 20, of Rochester and a CCS senior was the only female competitor. In the end, she was the last one standing and went home clutching the abstract "M" trophy. Banham reminded the crowd several times that, appropriately, the trophy doubles as a pencil holder.

Randy Hjelm, left, of College for Creative Studies, was one of three finalists in the Middlecott Sketch Battle Experiment. Just behind him is Darby Barber — the only woman in the battle — who won the trophy after three rounds of sketching.

Drawing for jobs

Schwartz pointed out how difficult it is for young designers to land a job in the transportation industry. "There are probably fewer automotive designers in the world than there are professional football players," he said. "If you look at it that way, it's probably more difficult to be an automotive designer than pretty much most other career paths."

So the Sketch Battle is a great way for student designers to show industry professionals that they can produce creative designs, under pressure.

This year the judges were Robert Walker, chief interior designer for Jeep; Camilo Pardo, Motor City Masters winner and designer of the second generation Ford GT; Dan Darancou, vice president of design at CH Auto (China); and Alikhan Kulijanov, lead designer for Buick.

Sketch Battle origins

Born in Texas but raised in England, Banham worked in shoe design in Italy (Fila) and Germany (Puma) but car design was his passion. "Anything with gasoline, wheels, tires, that's what I love to design," he said.

He moved to Detroit from San Francisco with his wife Judith Banham to get his M.A. in transportation design from the College for Creative Studies in 2010. Seeing that the design field was burgeoning in Detroit, they decided to stay and started their own design firm, Middlecott Design, in 2012.

Banham, 41, admits he started the sketch battle to get attention for the firm. But "It really is a true experiment," he said. After three editions, "It's starting to take on a life of its own and we don't really know where it's going." But he hopes it's heading toward his dream of an international olympics of design that will reinforce Detroit's image as "the new epicenter of design in the U.S."

And maybe it's on its way. The Middlecott Sketch Battle was recently named one of 25 Detroit finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge grant competition.