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Design 99: Bringing the Neighbor Back to the Hood

Posted March 27, 2012 in Classes & Presentations

Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert are the founders of Design 99, a Detroit-based art and design group. Working with other artists, they create new models of contemporary art and architectural practice. 

Gina holds Master of Architecture degrees from Cranbrook Academy of Art and Tulane University, and has worked for architecture firms in New Orleans, New York and Detroit. Mitch works as an artist and independent curator. He earned his BFA in Painting from the College for Creative Studies and an MFA in Painting from Washington State University. He was the co-curator for the Detroit section of the Shrinking Cities Project, Berlin, and formerly the acting curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Their work has been featured in the New York Times, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, CNN, 20/20, NPR, and Der Spiegel, I.D and Dwell magazines, among others.

Initially occupying a retail strip mall storefront in Hamtramck, Design 99 stood alongside a dollar store and nail salon. A combination art gallery and workplace for their interior design business, shoppers soon made a stop at the “store” part of their shopping expeditions. In a unique twist, Cope and Reichert offered over-the-counter design consultations and $99 house call specials. One of their best customers was an artist who owned several rental properties that he wanted to make stand apart from other properties on the market.

Making properties stand apart soon became a non-profit mission of Design 99. Mitch and Gina live in a neighborhood that is (or was) in decline. Abandoned and burned-out houses stand next to occupied homes. Alleyways and vacant lots are cluttered with garbage and rubbish. Working in a four-block radius, Design 99 sees the neighborhood and the homes as their canvas, and the litter as their materials.

Since 2008 the team has been developing the Power House (above) as a test site for ideas, and a point of conversation for the neighborhood. A formerly vacant property, the Power House now functions as a design laboratory, an installation space and guest house for visiting artists. Painted in colorful stripes, with illuminated windows that bathe the yard with color, the Power House earned its name, as it generates its own electricity. But Power House has another power: It began a neighborhood revival.

An abandoned garage was cleaned up, and its doors replaced with colorful stained glass. Neighbors gathered in a vacant lot to share their stories and BBQ. The lot will soon become the “Talking Fence,” an illuminated destination where people can gather and reconnect. 

Other projects, such as “The Heartland Machine” (above), “Razzle Dazzle” and their unique “Sculptural Security Systems” soon attracted the attention of other artists, and Juxtapoz magazine, which led to “Corine and Femke’s Free Photo Studio” where residents could have portrait photographs taken, and Ben Wolf’s Dormer House. Jon Brumit and Richard Coleman created “The Sound House,” converting an abandoned property into a sound studio, and Graem Whyte is working to convert another house into a squash court. Other participating artists include Monica Canalio, and Swoon

Gina and Mitch believe that art in the community is more than painting a mural on a wall. Art can actually become the community, and the public should be able to see artists and engage with them as they work. In the words of activist Grace Lee Boggs, they are working to, “bring the neighbor back to the hood.”

~ Pamela Patton

Photos by Matthew Gubancik


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