walking the walk.
Kiana Wenzell of Design Core Detroit owes a lot to strolling through the motor city’s streets.
“My story begins in North Rosedale Park, which is almost as far west as you can go in Detroit. It’s a great neighborhood. Winding tree-lined streets. Beautiful homes. When I would take walks with my family, I’d always admire those beautiful houses — each with their own personality —and wonder what they looked like inside. That’s where I got my start. That planted the seed for my career in design.”
She fondly recalls the Detroit of her youth through Rosedale-colored glasses.
“It was just a really great place to live in the eighties and nineties in Detroit. I grew up in the city believing that Detroit was beautiful. Nobody told me that it was in the midst of a crack epidemic. As a child, I couldn’t see that. All that I knew was that it was beautiful and diverse in that time in Rosedale. I had black neighbors, white neighbors and some Asian neighbors. So while Detroit was very segregated during that time, I didn’t really see it because of the neighborhood I grew up in. And that kind of always stayed with me until I got older and went to Cass Tech, which was in the Cass Corridor.”
Seeing the difference in the Cass Corridor really began to put things in perspective for her at the time.
“It was not the Detroit that it is today. You could really see the contrast in design going from one neighborhood to the other end. I took the bus, which is a great way to see the city. In a car you go fast and miss things. But in high school I used to take the Grand River Bus all the way downtown. It was a forty-some minute ride. I would start out in Rosedale, which was very nice. And then, as I’m riding down Grand River, I’m seeing all aspects of the city and seeing how it changes depending on where you are. And then I would arrive at school.”
“This excellent, awesome school. I had a wonderful teacher there, Mrs. Baker — I was studying architecture and she was the first person to give me a walking tour of downtown Detroit in the 90s. She was very forward thinking. She lived downtown. She had her own building. She was teaching at Cass Tech. She said, ‘come on, let’s do this, so we put on our coats and we went walking. She pointed out all these buildings, then she took us inside the building that she owns. At the time, I didn’t realize how special that was. But she encouraged us to see that real Detroit beauty. The same beauty I was getting from my parents and the Rosedale community.”
The experience inspired her to study interior design at Eastern Michigan University, eventually leading to a master’s in communications at Lawrence Tech. It’s a degree that strikes many people as out of sorts, given her lifelong passion for design.
“It’s something that stands out for people. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘there’s no shortage of ideas in the world.’ Everyone has an idea, but if you can’t sell or communicate your idea, then it’s just that — an idea. You have to get people believing to make it happen, so design is essentially sales and advocacy. It’s all about working with your client, listening to them, finding out their needs and putting something together that communicates to them. So I knew that if I wanted to be a better designer and really make a career out of this, I had to be able to sell my ideas. Essentially, taking the big idea and translating that into a simple language that everyone can understand. It’s a great marriage, the visual side and communication side.”
This unique skill set has served Kiana well in her position as a Project Manager with Design Core Detroit. Founded in 2010 as a partnership between the College of Creative Studies — one of the top art and design schools in the world — and Business Leaders for Michigan, an organization dedicated to establishing Detroit as a global center of design.
By connecting businesses with Detroit designers, providing business development for those designers and promoting the city’s considerable design chops, Design Core is at once shining light on local talent and bolstering the marketplace for design work in the city. All these endeavors then culminate in the Detroit Design Month event.
“It started in 2011 as a five-day celebration of independent design in Detroit known as the Detroit Design Festival, and it’s evolved into a whole month of independent happenings, hands on workshops, open studios, competitions and an architectural celebration. In 2018, we had 45,000 attendees.”
The recognition of Design Core’s considerable efforts have put Detroit in the global spotlight.
“In 2015, Detroit was designated the first American City of Design by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There are only 31 cities of design in the world, and we are the only in the United States. Additionally, in 2019 we’re hosting a UNESCO convening in Detroit. So, we’re bringing an international audience to Detroit, creating that marketplace to further establish ourselves as that global center of design.”
Like everything in Kiana’s life, she didn’t stumble into her life’s work by accident.
“I had moved downtown in 2005, before things started happening. I wanted to be in a central area. Being a designer, that was important for me. So I was here working, doing my thing, and I heard about this Detroit Design Festival and knew I needed to be a part of it.”
She learned that they were looking for event ‘happenings’ to list in their program guide and, drawing on her experiences discovering the city on foot throughout her life, Kiana had an epiphany.
“As an Interior designer it was hard to think of a happening, because I couldn’t just take a bunch of people into someone’s home. But I was living in Lafayette Park at the time, the Pavillion, which is a historic landmark. The largest collection of Mies van der Rohe homes in the United States. So I decided to curate a walking tour of Lafayette Park and they accepted it.”
“It was great because it made me a design expert on a subject. And it got into the real history of Detroit. The history of Black Bottom, which was here before Lafayette Park. The whole story of how people got moved to make room for it. My first tour sold out and I ended up doing it three years in a row.”
The tour helped Kiana build her relationship with Design Core. Which led to managing the ‘Drinks by Design’ event, and ultimately a full-time position with the organization in 2016. With her sidewalk-level view and direct connection to the design community, Kiana is seeing a difference in the city she loves.
“The most significant change I’ve seen is that Detroit creatives are more visible. The city has always been a creative hub — it’s in our DNA — but a lot of it was more underground. You couldn’t see anybody, but they were there, working hard behind closed doors. Now we’re giving them a public platform where they can be seen by the masses… We’re making the invisible visible.”