Clare Brennan at Detroit Design Festival 2017

Curator and lecturer Clare Brennan recently visited the Detroit Design Festival on behalf of UNESCO City of Design Dundee. Here are her thoughts and what she got up to during her time there:

“The little I knew of Detroit was limited to some knowledge of the car manufacturing industry, a big love for the Motown music movement, and of course the fact that it is also a member of the Creative Cities network as a UNESCO City of Design.

Flying the flag for Dundee, I landed in Detroit with little awareness or preconception of what to expect and left with a huge love for the people, an admiration for the creative community and a headful of inspiration from all the conversations, exhibitions and events that formed the Detroit Design Festival 2017.

I arrived at the hotel on a humid evening, slung my bags in my room and was immediately off to my first festival event, Sound and Objectivity – a warehouse based gathering with talks from sound designers, scholars and DJ’s discussing the design of spaces, buildings and objects, and the impact this has on our experience of sound and music. It was a totally fascinating series of talks which brought attention to something which is often overlooked in the design of buildings and public spaces, but which has a huge effect on our everyday experiences of places.

Over the course of the week myself, and my new-found posse of UNESCO colleagues from Saint Etienne (France) and Nagoya (Japan) were toured around the City by our incredibly generous host and tour guide extraordinaire Ellie Schnieder from Detroit’s DC3. DC3 look after Detroit’s UNESCO City of Design designation and work to strengthen Detroit’s creative economy, supporting and connecting people.


We visited the incredible Fisher building, an iconic skyscraper known as ‘Detroit’s largest art object’, where a development company called Platform are renovating and renting out affordable artists’ spaces – recognising the economic and social value of having a community of creatives to revive and regenerate buildings and spaces. As a post-industrial City in a period of recovery from the economic collapse of the early 2000’s (and a greater, more complex history of industry, politics and society), this is incredibly encouraging to see.

And it’s not a solitary story – abandoned warehouses, factories and buildings across the city are being populated by entrepreneurial designers and artists who are turning these spaces in to creative hubs where new creative work is being made, communities are forming and areas are being transformed through creativity and collaboration.

From Thing Thing (a design studio who exhibited at this year’s Dundee Design Festival), to the Talking Dolls experimental studio , to OmniCorp a maker/hacker space, creatives are clubbing together, getting clued up on terms and policy’s surrounding property leasing/buying, and elbowing through the red-tape to make cool, beautiful and crucial things happen. It’s no easy task, and many have to maintain ‘day’ jobs to keep it all going and continue to battle shaky ground with landlords and local authority, but the determination and passion is incredibly evident and inspiring.

Every event of the festival transformed city spaces and non-traditional gallery spaces in to a buzzing hive of celebration. Eastern Market after Dark was bustling with live music, DJ’s, design stalls, open studios, performers, bars and food trucks, stretching over a HUGE area that would be impossible to take in in one night.

Light-up Livernois was the same, an expanse of road that is animated with late night independent retailers, a community fashion show, live bands and playful public installations to interact with.

Every event is super social, with a vibe of ‘go big or go home’ and everyone is welcome to the party. There’s a very warm convivial atmosphere with so many fascinating characters that are interesting, but also interested. They’ll strike up a conversation and listen intently before bouncing back a brilliant retort or question.


Detroit wears its Heart and its Art on its sleeve. Events are out in the open air or in public spaces where it feels like everyone and anyone is welcome. Everywhere you look there are bold glorious murals and large scale gorgeous graffiti artworks wrapping surfaces of buildings, old and new. It’s a total feast for the eyes.

And Detroiters are fiercely proud of their city, they know what their challenges and struggles are but they also shout about all the really wonderful, cool cultural things that are happening in every corner. Adorned with ‘DETROIT’ emblazoned caps, t-shirts and jumpers, so many people are great ambassadors for their City – perhaps we in Dundee could raise our branded gear game. Hmmm… where did I put my ‘Dundee Saved My Life’ t-shirt?”



Clare Brennan is a Curator and Lecturer in Visual Arts Practice at Abertay University