Blog: Joe Posch

Joe Posch spent his childhood peering down on Detroit from his father’s and grandfather’s offices in the Kales Building on Grand Circus Park.  After graduating from Boston College and stints in Washington, DC and Ann Arbor, he’s returned to downtown Detroit with his modern design store, Mezzanine.

 

A firm proponent of "the little guy," he believes that individuals following their small business dreams and smaller-scale independent development will be the critical factors in the tasteful revitalization of Detroit.

 

Posch is also former president and current board member of the Founders Junior Council of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a former Fash Bash chair, and sits on the Advisory Board for Detroit Synergy.

Joe will be writing about how design can save Detroit.


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Photograph by
Dave Krieger


And if you'd like to read more about Joe and his store, Mezzanine, check out Model D's profile here. Or check out this video on Model D TV.


Joe Posch - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5

What If 

The fifth post seems to be a good time to discuss a big hypothetical future for Detroit, so I’m going to write about something I’ve actually spent a bit of time imagining over the past few years. What if Detroit had a bona fide design district? 

A design district encompasses many things. It houses design-related businesses, it promotes forward-thinking real estate development, it embraces independent retailers, and it becomes a hub for creative thinkers, whether in the design field, the arts, development, law or anything else. It is different from an artist district in the sense that it would be far more commercial. It is different from a cultural district in the sense that it is not intended to be reliant on non-profit or civic entities as the focal point. The best local analogy I can come up with is Tech Town, north of Wayne State University. Or maybe the Eastern Market area.  Those are the same kind of mixed-use vision with a specific mission. 

West Fort Street, from the Lodge to the Ambassador Bridge, provides a tantalizingly blank canvas as a central artery for a district like this. There are still quite a few old warehouses and other buildings scattered around the area, providing a link to the area’s industrial past and begging for creative re-use (well, the ones that aren’t currently housing actual businesses). But there are acres of empty space and parking lots perfect for development. And lovely proximity to the riverfront. 

In my ideal world, development there would be a mix of big and small scale.  There would not be blocks and blocks of townhouses that look identical to one another, nor would there be uninspiring Royal Oak-style loftominiums.   

Instead, smaller developers build smaller projects that incorporate good modern design and have unique identities. A small row of modern townhouses, each with a different architect, for example. Or a low-rise apartment building that strives to make a statement.   

Bigger developers use this area to create a signature building, maybe bringing in a bigger-name architect. Or they do a warehouse rehab that reflects a different approach to live/work – like apartments with showroom space below them, or offices you can drive your car into, or ... well, it’s not my job to think of every possibility! 

There would be a broad array of businesses inhabiting this area. Modestly I propose that a modern design store such as mine might be a nice ground floor anchor tenant. But there should be a variety of retail: housewares at all different prices, florists who “get it” and clothing boutiques for men and women. The emphasis is on creative, independent stores and cool restaurants. 

As for the office population, it would be a great area for architecture firms, furniture showrooms, designer ateliers, creative agencies, interior design studios, and any number of businesses that employ and cater to creative people. Maybe one of the automotive companies would set up a design think tank in the area.  Products designed in Detroit could be manufactured in the area. Lawyers and professionals who service this clientele would move in. And the people who just want to be around cool stuff would be there. 

Ultimately there is a thriving, architecturally interesting, diverse, economically viable district in the city that is nothing like anyplace else in the region.  

But of course, attaining even a sliver of this dream relies on the things I’ve talked about this week: imagining a different way of doing business, embracing the influences that make us uniquely Detroit, patronizing and encouraging independent businesses that are willing to push the envelope, and gaining the population that will thrive in this kind of environment. 

Can this happen? I don’t know, but I see promising signs. Appreciation for our modern heritage is on the upswing, as is an interest in urban living, and Detroit is burnishing its image as a real city with lots of great things to offer. But I see things that diminish that hope a little bit, like uninspiring new architecture, needlessly empty storefronts and a drive to copy the suburbs in some desperate bid for validation. 

Individuals are the only ones who will really drive Detroit in the right direction.  I’ve made my choice, and I’m doing my very small part to make this the kind of city I never want to leave. Be sure you do your part too!


Post No. 4

Move to Detroit. 

I’m a little burned out from writing about serious "design will save Detroit" stuff (although I’m serious about that). What I want to do today is make a serious entreaty to design-oriented individuals like you (or your cooler friends): MOVE TO DETROIT. 

I was always the kind of person who spent a lot of time in Detroit, even while living in Ann Arbor. Having engagements here three nights a week was not uncommon. Therefore, it came as a complete surprise to find out how different actually residing in Detroit was. 

Having a home base really makes a difference. Suddenly, you are out and about in the morning or afternoon, shopping, visiting friends and neighbors – not just meeting people for dinner or drinks. Suddenly, all the quality of life issues everyone warned you about seem insignificant as you really get to know the ins and outs of Detroit and notice the smaller details. Suddenly, you discover that Detroit is more vibrant and alive than you ever dreamed. 

From a design perspective, there is much to love and much to hate in the city, but what is really spectacular is that there is simply so much. There are buildings from some of the most notable modern and postmodern architects of the 20th century: Mies van der Rohe, Minoru Yamasaki, Frank Lloyd Wright, Phillip Johnson and Michael Graves. There are amazing public spaces for art which include work by modernist masters such as Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder. There are, of course, our museums, with MOCAD being a great addition to the landscape. 

Lafayette Park is getting a lot more press, and deservedly so, because it is quite simply the most amazing modern district in the United States.   

While the architecture is thoroughly modern, there is an incredibly humanizing element to living in Lafayette Park. I wake up each day to the pealing bells of churches in the Eastern Market area and the sunrise glowing pinkish-orange off of Windsor Tower. I sit at home working with my window open and hear schoolchildren playing at recess. I gaze out my window over a sea of green with the cityscape rising up beyond it, and I walk home from work through that green, an experience that can leave you dumbstruck on a late spring evening when the trees are flowering and fragrant. 

Moving my business to Detroit has been equally inspiring, and not simply because I love the space my store inhabits. My relatively unique position as a drop-in center for design buffs enables me to meet many amazing people. It has been really life-affirming to meet so many in the area who are educated about design, cosmopolitan, and genuinely interesting. It’s also great to hear the stories of people who have moved to Detroit from other cities, many of whom considered living downtown their only option. And frankly, it’s cool to meet so many people who are doing really cool things, either with their careers or with outside pursuits. 

I do worry a bit about the suburbanization of downtown, and architecturally dismal projects like the Crosswinds development metastasizing along Woodward don’t do much to allay those concerns. We need to show developers and city leadership that there is an elevated expectation, aesthetic demands that are not being met, and get them to see that excellence in design will be embraced by the population. That is why we need design types to move into the city center now, before it’s too late. 

This is truly a magical time, pregnant with possibility. If you crave authenticity and want to be inspired by your surroundings and the people you meet, move to Detroit.


Post No. 3

The Little Guy 

Think about your favorite restaurant experience ever. I’m guessing it was not a national corporate chain restaurant. It very possibly wasn’t even a local chain, but rather an independent, one-of-a-kind place that impressed you not only with its food but also with its personality. 

Independent restaurants, retailers and other businesses are the soul of a neighborhood. They distinguish it from other areas. They tell us what the values and lifestyles of the residents are.  And because they are local from top to bottom, they – through their owners – become part of the fabric of community life. The businesses we love are the ones we feel that we all own. 

This is why I nearly have an aneurysm every time someone tells me how much they wish something like a Gap would open on Woodward. 

I’m not saying a Gap wouldn’t be handy downtown. And I’m not saying Woodward doesn’t need a good dose of retail. But I am saying this:  how come, in our wildest retail fantasies, we dream of an Old Navy in the middle of downtown’s prime real estate?  

When we talk about renewed interest in living and recreating downtown, a big part of the appeal is attractions that exist no place else – architecture, sporting venues, cultural institutions, and the businesses that exist only there. So why is there this push to copy what already exists elsewhere … everywhere? It seems to me that a surefire way to kill the unique appeal of downtown Detroit is to replicate Fairlane Mall there.  

Detroit needs to embrace independent retail as an important way to wake up our downtown streets. City officials could develop incentives for the development of dozens of small businesses with just a fraction of the tax breaks they use to lure larger employers downtown. Property owners could adjust their ground floor rates so that decent retail space is attainable to quality small businesses, instead of leaving entire city blocks of ground floor space empty. And customers can make a choice to find the independent businesses that provide good quality and service instead of always choosing the chain. It’s easy to do when you pay attention to it. 

From a design perspective, independent business owners are much more likely to push the envelope and take chances to make their venture stand out. 

  • It’s not just being able to find the (spectacular) design merchandise at stores like Mezzanine or Bureau of Urban Living in the city center that makes these places stand out, it’s also the fact that both stores provide a well-designed, compelling retail experience. 
  • Driving down Cass Avenue, the large blue and orange sign for Canine to Five dog day care catches your eye every time, which shows that something as simple as good graphic design can let you know there is a business that gets it.
  • There’s no arguing that the food at Slows Bar-B-Q in Corktown or Eve the Restaurant in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown (two very different personal favorites) is amazing, but the atmosphere at each restaurant conveys the personality of the owners and the philosophy that quality extends beyond the kitchen.

Even in real estate development, the little guy has the design edge. There are some very attractive, if not entirely architecturally significant, new residential buildings in the works here in the city. But for members of the creative class (I can’t believe I just used that expression), projects like the Detroit Candy Company loft development near Eastern Market or the Grand Boulevard Garden Lofts on the city’s near east side are going to have particular cachet, all because of the attention paid to good design. 

As a final note to all the current or future “little guys” out there, a grass-roots group called “Open City” has formed in an effort to connect entrepreneurs interested in opening a business in Detroit. The mission of this group is to share information and ideas, network with like-minded folks and encourage each other to open more small businesses in town. If you are in any stage of considering a business in Detroit, I highly recommend checking this out, if only so you can see the kind of great support that exists among small business owners in town. The next meeting of the group is Tuesday, October 16 at 6:30pm at Cliff Bells, 2030 Park Avenue.


Post No. 2

Going Dutch

Before proceeding further I should clarify that I am not an expert on all things design. I went to school to study education, not industrial design, architecture, or art. I came late to the design game, motivated solely by a passion, and learned through a lot of reading, a lot of research, and asking a lot of questions. As a design store owner, my specialized knowledge is obviously linked to product design, spotting trends and creating a compelling retail experience. 

Now that, hopefully, I’ve lowered your expectations, I can say that you learn a lot over ten years simply by paying attention. I’ve seen how people respond to good design on an individual basis as well as on a larger scale. And I have seen the transformative nature of design: as an antidote to the ugliness of blight, as an incentive to development, as the impetus for economic growth and as a tool for an image makeover.  

A good place to look for an example of this is the Netherlands. Fifteen years ago there was no “Dutch design” phenomenon, as there is now. The Netherlands were known more for Amsterdam’s Red Light district, a tolerance for recreational drugs, tulips and Gouda. In 1993 a group of young designers created an exhibition of their products in Amsterdam and took it to the International Furniture Fair in Milan. In stark contrast to the slick Italian design that was the standard at the time, the Dutch group’s work created a sensation with its quirkiness, repurposing of materials, hand-crafted look and sense of humor.  

The group that created that exhibition, Droog Design, changed the way people thought about design, and helped change the way people think about the Netherlands. Since that time the designers involved have grown to become major players in the global design world. More significantly, Amsterdam has become known as fertile ground for contemporary design, both as an export and as an element of the Dutch culture. This applies to product design, obviously, but also to new architecture and the renewal of urban industrial areas such as Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands (or Oostelijk Havengebied, if you want to Google that). 

Two weeks ago I went to a lecture in Ann Arbor by Gils Bakker, a co-founder and director of Droog Design. In talking about what made Droog unique and successful, Bakker said one component is that they pay attention to where they come from. Living in "an artificial place" (with a good portion of the country below sea level), a frugal nature and a sense of humor are all factors that created this unique aesthetic. 

Detroit is, much like the Netherlands, a unique place with strong values and influences. This has manifested itself over and over in our music scene, and there is no reason we cannot encourage this same kind of output from our local design community. Traits such as independence, working hard and playing hard, grittiness and determination combined with influences such as industry, racial and cultural diversity and the juxtaposition of high end and low end all inform a singular phenomenon that is - and could become known as - "Detroit design."

It takes an audience, though. A market. A product designer or artist can ultimately only afford to produce what will sell. An architect or interior designer can only push as far as his or her client will allow. An urban planner can only implement what leadership will embrace. It is our job as a populace to expand our comfort zone a little bit and to expect more


Post No. 1

Think Different. 

That’s a familiar, if grammatically questionable, tagline, brought to us by Apple, the company that reminded the world that good design can help set you apart from the rest of the pack. Apple takes advantage of that fact everywhere they can: product design, packaging, retail space, advertising. Everything is executed to stand apart and be truly different, designed that way from the ground up. 

Around here, we have a little bit of a problem thinking differently. 

We’ve lived through generations of suburban sprawl and seem to be having a harder time fighting that outward-bound inertia than other US cities. The generic same-ness that sprawl enables - and encourages - has become a part of our way of life. New construction housing developments consist of Model A, Model B, or Model A all constructed in a similar faux neo-traditional "style." New commercial construction leans toward strip malls and generic glass boxes. All of those beautifully designed Apple stores are in malls and the Urban Outfitters is in the suburbs. Everywhere you look you see the same fake tan, low-slung jeans and tawny lowlights. I’m talking about you too, fellas. 

I’ll be honest; I don’t think much will happen to change this for SE Michigan as a whole. Sorry Auburn Hills. But the City of Detroit (among select other spots in the region) has an opportunity to become something really exceptional, a place unlike anyplace else in looks, lifestyle and culture, simply by thinking differently. 

The Detroit region has an amazingly rich design heritage. Great architecture was a Detroit tradition, from the skyscrapers of the 1920’s to the mid-century gems by Mies van der Rohe and Minoru Yamasaki. Cranbrook is a legendary institution world-wide and essentially the birthplace of mid-century modern furniture design.  The automotive industry is one of the largest employers of industrial designers. 

It is somewhat troubling, then, that quality of design is not really part of the conversation here. Why not? Well, lack of education for starters. A difficult development environment. A shortage of visionary leadership, both corporate and civic. A population and media that embrace a nostalgic notion of what Detroit should be instead of a future vision. A culture that rewards reaching for the lowest star. 

The loss of our educated population to other big cities combined with the unsurpassed (in my lifetime) interest in living and working in downtown Detroit proves that people are looking for a different kind of experience. As we move forward, Detroit can capitalize on its incredible existing assets, but it also has the potential to create something different from every other major American city.   

The opportunity is there, but is the will? Design needs to be a "Top 5" discussion point instead of a "Top 20" if Detroit is going to become anything other than a slightly more architecturally interesting version of the suburbs. In this week of blogging, I’m going to take a look at how I think design can save Detroit.

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