Tag Archives: Automotive Design

DETROIT: Glass Art

21 Feb

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The Scarab Club opened it’s doors on Farnsworth in 1928 joining the year-old DIA building in Detroit’s newly formed Cultural Center. The beautiful Arts and Crafts structure was designed by architect and member Lancelot Sukert. Home to an artists club, gallery and studios, artists and art lovers meet here regularly to socialize and talk art. Back in the early 20th century Detroit gave birth to a new art form: automotive design and with it the evolution of automobile advertising art. Many of the original founding members of the Scarab Club were automotive designers, illustrators, graphic artists, photographers, architects and automobile company owners. It’s only fitting that American Dreaming: Corvette, 7 Generations and Beyond is on exhibit in the main gallery.

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The documentary, American Dreaming, about the Detroit artists who designed cars from 1946-1973 is in the process of being completed; the film covers Ford, GM, Chrysler, Packard, Studebaker, Nash and Hudson, this exhibit focuses solely on the Chevrolet Corvette. Introduced in 1953 the Corvette became the iconic American sports car. Here we see original drawings and models created by General Motors designers, the fact that these drawings still exist and are on display for all of us to see is incredible. In the design studios talented men and women put pencil to paper sketching cars straight from their imaginations. Studios were closely guarded, manufacturers considered the drawings company property, artists were not allowed to keep their work, instead most was destroyed. Once the artists figured out what was happening they found a way to sneak their drawings out, it was risky, you could lose your job if caught. They took their chances.

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Just look at the photographs of the framed sketches; side pipes, flames shooting out from dual exhaust pipes, bold colors, sleek designs all expressing the American optimism of the time. Concept cars were futuristic, they could fly through space, drive on elevated super-highways, they were race cars for the ordinary guy. Cars were beautiful, elegant, glamorous, exotic. One of my favorites is the gold Corvette with the #1 by Allen Young, the 1956 by Brock looks like a cousin of the Batmobile; drivers wear helmets, their faces carry the look of speed. We see the Corvette from all angles, some drawings focus on tail lights or the grill, monotone or color they’re all incredibly cool! The plain white paper has yellowed over the years but the designs look as fresh as if they were done yesterday. These rare, vintage drawings still capture our attention. Concept art is finally getting its due and being recognized as fine art.

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We’re grabbing a bite to eat at Bucharest Grill on Piquette Ave. This wildly popular restaurant began as a take-out counter inside The Park Bar. After a parting of ways Bucharest has branched out with 3 Detroit locations. The food is all handmade from original recipes, they serve Romanian dishes, Middle Eastern cuisine and hot dogs. Everything is fresh, fair-priced and delicious! Shawarma is a must, throw in a couple of hot dogs and we’re set.

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We take a seat at the window overlooking Piquette while we wait for our food to be prepared, it doesn’t take long. The chicken shawarma is the best I’ve ever eaten; grilled marinated chicken breast, tomato, lettuce, pickles and to-die-for garlic sauce all wrapped in a pita. The Hamtramck is a kielbasa dog topped with braised red cabbage, bacon and spicy mustard tucked into a sesame seed bun, so good. The Detroiter is knockwurst drenched in coney sauce, grilled onions and cheddar cheese on a sesame seed bun, yum! This place is always packed but they get you in and out quickly. Amazing art and tasty food; not a bad way to spend the day.

SOUTHFIELD: American Dreaming

27 May

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There was once a blissful time in the United States when Americans believed anything was possible. After the Great Depression and two World Wars the country was recovering. The Big Three were back in the business of building cars. The public was in need of personal modes of transportation that would take them to newly developed suburban neighborhoods, shopping malls and trips across the country. Manufacturers grew huge styling departments, hiring artists to capture this new futuristic spirit. It was the “Golden Age” when cars were a thing of beauty, they stirred our imagination, put us in the mind of outer space, science fiction didn’t seem so far-fetched. These talented, mostly unknown, artists took eye appeal to a whole new level that shaped not only the auto industry but every facet of American design.

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We are at Lawrence Tech University in Southfield to view a historic collection of sketches assembled by Robert Edwards called ‘American Dreaming‘ Detroit’s Golden Age of Automotive Design. The exhibition takes us inside the styling studios of the American auto manufacturers from 1946 to 1973. The walls of a small banquet room are covered with framed sketches; created in pencil, pastels, ink and airbrush, their mere existence is incredible. Back then due to fierce competition between companies all drawings were ordered to be destroyed, preventing them from ending up in someone else’s hands. These drawings were smuggled out by the wildcat artists themselves under the threat of termination if they were ever caught. Today the room is crowded with appreciative viewers enjoying the works of Rodell Smith, Don Hood, Bill Brownlie, Allen Young, Del Coates, Carl Renner, George Krispinsky, John ‘Dick” Samsen and many others who names you may not recognize, but their designs you would. 

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We move around the room slowly, sidestepping others, dodging cameras, in effort to get a closer look. The designers were predicting the future and showing us how we would get there. The early sketches are more conservative in nature, traveling forward on the timeline bodies become exaggerated, elongated, surrounding landscapes are futuristic with rocket ships blasting off in the background; cars look like they could join them in space. There are renderings of Corvettes, Barracudas, Toronados and Gremlins, Studebaker, Packard, AMC, DeSoto and so many more. There are studies of interiors, wheel covers, hood scoops and badges. Model cars are displayed in plexiglass cubes, placards give us insight to the artists and their careers. The evolution of the automobile and the country is laid out in front of us, what an incredible ride it is!

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We take a brief walk around campus before going back to the Jeep. LTU was founded as a private university in 1932, classes were held in the former Model T assembly plant in Highland Park before moving to Southfield in 1955. Theory and Practice have always been the schools motto, offering degrees in Engineering, Architecture and Design. You may recognize the names of these former students: A. Alfred Taubman, Steven A Ballmer, Donald W Date, John Z DeLorean. Buildings are a mix of old and new, all modern in design; my favorite is the architecture and design building with its glazed brick, folded plate roof and courtyard. Landscaped gardens and sculpture dot the campus.

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Sticking with the Modern theme of the day, we decide to drive through some of Southfield’s noteworthy neighborhoods. We start in Northland Gardens off 8 Mile Rd, ranch models sprawl with breezeways, car ports and forecourts. Most are brick accented with stone, lots of windows, skylights and large entryways. One of the most unusual sits on Westland Ave, built in 1961 it is long and low, the stepped roof lend an Asian feel to it. Leaded glass windows contain blue circular patterns, the glazed brick cylinder in front is one of a kind.

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Further north we pop into Washington Heights and Cranbrook subdivisions with multiple California Modern ranch style homes. Low sloping roofs, wide eaves, large fireplaces and tall windows are prevalent. Many of the homeowners put forth great effort keeping the homes architecturally correct from the colors of the time period right down to the lighting. The Ravines neighborhood is nestled into a wooded area along the Rouge River; palatial homes are built on sweeping, rolling lots above the waterway. Several homes are completed in the same style as the “Brady Bunch” house. Most of the homes in these subdivisions were built in the 1950’s and 60’s when Southfield was booming.

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We’re having dinner at Sweet Lorraine’s Cafe & Bar on Greenfield Rd, Chef-Proprietor Lorraine Platman has been in the restaurant business since 1982. Know for her “world beat cuisine” she has a reputation for turning out tasty dishes made with interesting combinations through the decades. The dining room is a lively space with colorful murals, attractive lighting, glossy wood tables and booths. We are greeted at our table immediately with menus and glasses of ice water. There’s a lot to read making a decision difficult. The flavors cover the globe, there’s something for everyone from meat-eater to vegan. Kris and I each pick a dish to share.

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While we wait for our dinner, our server brings us each a piece of focaccia bread and a shallow bowl of red sauce for dipping, it’s outstanding. I could have added a glass of red wine to that, had a second portion and been completely satisfied. I’m glad I didn’t, as our entrée’s were delicious. The pear brie quesadilla is stuffed with thin-sliced pear, melted brie, drizzled with a cilantro cream sauce and served with a side of red pepper jelly. Basic ingredients when combined give a variety of flavors and textures. The Veggie Vietnamese “bahn mi” is a crusty roll filled with organic tofu steak, portobello, spicy slaw, sriracha, cucumbers and cilantro, so flavorful, so good! At the end of the day our appetites for art, architecture and delectable food have all been satisfied.