Saturday, February 12, 2011

Imported From Detroit

As someone born and raised in Michigan, the poetically tragic history of Detroit has always been to me a fascinating and painful topic. Detroit was once the "arsenal of democracy" and the third largest city in America. Today, it plays host to rampant crime, struggling industry, and boasts less than half of the population it had in 1950. Half.

In any case, this is why the Chrysler ad that aired during the Superbowl is worthy of comment. Rather than attempting to portray Detroit as a quintessential American city or trying to stoke consumer allegiance by emphasizing the patriotism of buying domestic cars, Chrysler does exactly the opposite - it emphasizes Detroit's hardships and disconnect from the rest of America as the very flames that allow it to forge excellence in art and industry. The advertisement is littered with phrases like "the hottest fires make the hardest steel" and "we're from America, but this isn't New York City." Detroit's rough edges and its intimidating mystery are no longer drawbacks - they are in fact its main selling points. 

Perhaps I find this topic interesting because design and marketing are concerned with the portrayal of an image. What is Detroit's form? How will it be cast in the next century? Will it make a difference if people respect Detroit for what it is - a tough town that is finding a non-standard way to make it - rather than expecting it to be a safe, all-American "Renaissance" center as developers had imagined?

Personally, I'm conflicted about the answers to these questions. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Exhibit A: Motion

This is my son Ellis on the swing at Branford college. There's not a whole lot to say about it except to point out that unself-consciousness is often the first step in eleg-ance, whether in dance, design, or even in social interaction.

This swing has been a fixture of the Branford courtyard at Yale for at least a hundred years, and countless families have cute photos of their children on the swing stretching back as far as the 1920s. I've seen twin photographs on coffee tables of someone on the swing as a child and as an undergraduate.

But the salient feature of most of these portraits has been their formality. Girls sit chastely on the swing, boys pose gravely with one hand on their pocket. And into this arc of history of which he is totally ignorant, Ellis strides boldly and gives us this.

I suppose it's safe to say that the swing is best when its form follows its function.