An interview with architect Christian Unverzagt of M1/DTW, who uses Detroit's history and resources to create better designs.

Based in Detroit, M1/DTW is a small architecture firm with a focus on the production of culture through design. The firm does a wide range of smaller scale projects for office and retail clients but also creates print and identity work for an impressive list of cultural and academic institutions around the United States.

The firm was awarded i.D. Magazine’s Annual Design Review and also received a ‘50 Books’ award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) for one of the best designed books in 2004

We caught up with M1/DTW's founder, Christian Unverzagt (whom you may recognize from his appearances in our Detroit Rising series) via email to discuss how he approaches his work and why he's doing it in Detroit:

Can you talk about the balance of being a graphic designer and an architect at the same time? Does one assist your thinking for the other?

I tend to not pay attention to those distinctions. At some point in my education I was required to elect a course of study and I found myself enrolled in architecture school, which certainly shaped the way I approach projects. I spent my formative teenage years designing backyard skateboard ramps, along with the flyers to promote and raise money so I could eventually build them. It was only recently that I looked back at that work and said, "hey, I've been doing design/build and graphic design all along." Way before I was asked to place it inside disciplinary silos.

I approach projects and think about how they're assembled, and the knowledge necessary to do so. Sometimes it's about being deliberately naive, and other times it's about locating expertise. I think most of the studio's work is tied together with an awareness of material, their relationship to light, and how they are made. I think some of our books are quite spatial, and have a deliberate tactile quality, while some of built works our quite graphic and deal with visuality.

Book design, Diller + Scofidio’s Eyebeam Museum of New Media. Image courtesy M1/DTW

You've been doing designs for books on important architects since 1995. How did you end up in the book business?

My first book commission was a small pamphlet for a lecture given by Daniel Libeskind at the University of Michigan. The book was designed and sent to press in two weeks and was back in our hands two weeks after that. After spending two years doing speculative studio projects in school there was tremendous satisfaction in having a project completed in my hands. Many of the books are about architects and are commissioned by arts and architecture institutions (Cranbrook, UM Museum of Art, University of Kentucky College of Design (UK/CoD), University at Buffalo, The Albright-Knox Museum). For us they are a chance to spend some time focusing on the work of other architects and designers that we respect, and we get to 'spread the word' so to speak. At this point, we've designed 40 books.

Describe your office space and the building it's is in.  What drew you to it? 

Our office is a single, open plan studio space with three tables: a tabletop on top of our flat file archives divides the space. To one side is the largest table, measures 5' x 11', and is where we all do our work. It sits up to 4 of us (and sometimes five if we crowd around). Mirroring the studio is a conference table where we meet with clients and organize special projects. The space measures roughly 20' x 40' and has a window running along the entire north-west facing side. It has consistent light during the day and the sun shines in at the end of the day telling us it's time to leave.

The building is a recently renovated 100 year-old building on the Detroit Riverfront, called the Elevator Building. The Detroit Elevator Company was here for many years but moved out to the suburbs when casinos were planned for the area. The plan fell through and the building lay dormant for over a decade. It was then planned as condos, but when the economy turned the developer put in office/studio space. The area is in a former light industrial area that is slowly becoming a recreational space. The former railway line is now a below grade bike path called the Dequindre Cut, and it allows me to bike the mile from my home without crossing any major streets.

We were drawn to the character of the building. Our space has exposed steel trusses assembled with rivets and a tall wood ceiling, and the original tilting windows. Everything else is new, so it's an inspiring combination of new and old finishes.

Interior of letterpress studio, Signal-Return. Image courtesy M1/DTW

What are your favorite kinds of projects?

I particularly enjoy projects where we are asked to design something we have absolutely no experience designing, because we're able to bring a unique perspective to the project with no preconceived notions. Followed closely by projects we've already designed, since you can learn a lot by doing something a second time. I also prefer projects that allow people to hone their own craft, whether it's a recording or photography studio, a hair salon, or a pharmacy.

Why practice architecture and design in Detroit?

Detroit is a place full of people that know how to make things, which allows us to have remarkable access to techniques, tools, and knowledge about material production. The idea of Detroit being a 'blank canvas' is total rubbish. Here we're able to draw upon a rich history and work within constraints.

Mills Pharmacy + Apothecary. Image courtesy M1/DTW

What do you want users to feel in the spaces you create for them? What do you want Detroiters to feel when they walk or drive by your projects?

It's best if they don't notice our work, and are able to seamlessly go about whatever they are doing. If they then pause and take notice, that, "hey—someone thought about this" you know, made it a certain way, and thought about how it could shape an experience without being too direct. I like it when our work sneaks up on you.

About the Author

Mark Byrnes
Mark Byrnes

Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design, history, and photography.

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