Blog: Joe Posch

Joe Posch is a native Detroiter and the owner of Mezzanine, a modern design store in downtown Detroit. A firm proponent of "the little guy," Joe believes that smaller-scale independent development will be a critical factor in Detroit's tasteful revitalization. He'll be writing about how design can save the city.

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