Late last month, an upscale accessories boutique designed by the Rockwell Group opened on a fashionable Tribeca street in downtown Manhattan. Shinola, as it’s called, sells its own brand of wristwatches, leather goods, and custom bicycles, and to celebrate the shop’s opening, the Detroit-based company took out a full-page ad in The New York Times that declared: “To those who’ve written off Detroit, we give you the Birdy.” The Birdy is the name of one of its watches, and if it seems ironic that the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history turned out to be a well-timed hook to market expensive timepieces, the Shinola story actually strikes a promising note in the complex and uncertain saga of where Detroit is heading.
The choice of Detroit for the new company’s headquarters—Shinola’s trademark is “Where American Is Made”—was calculated. The business is the brainchild of a Dallas-based venture capital firm, and when executives visited Detroit in 2011 in search of potential sites, they found an entire vacant floor in the Argonaut Building, an 11-story landmark by Albert Kahn completed in 1930 that is now home to the College for Creative Studies. The company bought the Shinola trademark from the now-defunct shoe polish company—for the irreverent humor in the expression “you-don’t-know-sh*t from Shinola”—and set up shop in the Argonaut, where 75 employees, hired and trained locally, now meticulously assemble each watch and bike.
The Argonaut originally housed the research laboratories of General Motors, an incubator of innovation that helped transform Detroit into a 20th century manufacturing powerhouse and the fourth largest city in the U.S. before World War II. The wider impact of the area’s industrial history on design is explored in a fine exhibition at the Cranbrook Art Museum in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America (through October 13), curated by Monica Ponce de Leon, dean of the architecture and urban planning program at the University of Michigan, and Greg Saldaña. The show argues that Detroit industry’s breakthroughs in standardized components and mass production fueled the ideas of a generation of modernist architects and designers—Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, Ralph Rapson, among others. “We saw the past,” says Heath Carr, CEO of Shinola, about the company’s decision to come to Detroit, “And we found a very artistic, creative energy here today.”