G-Sync: The State of Design in West Michigan (Part 2)

West Michigan Design Week has begun and Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen continues his look at what good design can do for a region in the second part of his two-part series on West Michigan design.

In  the second of a two-part series on local design, today I'm highlighting local design talent whose brands are hitting the big-time.

One of those is local high-end department store AK Rikk's. According to General Manager Jim Murray, their store has long understood the value of not just talking about your brand while on the road but being able to back it up by delivering on the promise.  

No other local person has been able to open the eyes and ears of so many of fashion's big brands around the world as Murray.

When AK Rikk's opened their very chic and modern department store in 2012 after more than a decade at their old location, our area's ability to attract attention increased – not only due to increased PR savvy, but also because the store stood as a beacon for the power of good design, luring others in the region to take a peek. Instead of just opening a new store that would wow our local audience with lush interiors by Jeffrey Roberts and lavish video walls by Conduit Studio, Jim and his design team set out to win the hearts of those who adore good fashion.

Now that the new store has racked up a couple of years specializing in everything from fashion trunk shows to impressive contemporary art exhibits like Nick Cave's Soundsuits and the best of modern furniture and gifts, it might be easy to think the buzz has toned down -- but far from it. In fact, it is not uncommon for Murray to bump into a customer on any given weekend who has traveled from places as far away as Chicago or Detroit in the store.

"I am always caught off guard when someone says they are here visiting from Detroit or another city," says Murray. "I seem to always ask after, 'So what brings you to Grand Rapids?' to which they almost always say, 'To visit your store, of course.'" Murray laughs at this "duh" moment as he looks around the spacious store on the SE side of Grand Rapids.

Murray's commitment to honoring our design legacy is seen by his ability to step up to the plate and take a risk. He's also built a sure-footed bridge with world designers, enabling merchandise to materialize in the store. He's creating a new vision of our region, where emerging local brands now share space with revered international looks.

In a few weeks, AK Rikk's will unveil a new element: a Pantone Pop-Up shop with its hyper-exclusive line of clothing will be arriving here in Grand Rapids. Its arrival to our shelves began when Murray was last in New York and had the opportunity to speak with the brand's manager for this new fashion line.  

You may have seen the Pantone mugs, key chains, or t-shirts elsewhere, but this fresh fashion line is a flagship product for the brand known for bringing exact and bold color to all areas of design. Pantone's agents were so impressed by Murray's pitch that they agreed to send him the new collection, which until now had only been available in two stores in the U.S. (both of these were in NY; one was Barney's).

"We are very excited to have been selected to showcase this new Pantone Universe clothing line featuring the color of the year, Radiant Orchid," says Murray, referring to the brand's innovative and fresh take on the color purple. "Once Pantone heard our design story and vision, which included our region's commitment to design over the years and how we are engaging a new generation of creative thinkers and fashion students within our store, it closed the deal."

Murray's long-standing commitment to our region's design legacy is clearly not rooted in a nostalgia-filled past. It is rooted in the belief that what we are able to create here now has the ability to ignite a new revolution for our region based on the principles of good design. So, if people come to visit as a result and buy a suit or a great pair of shoes, well, that is a bonus.  

However, not everything is perfect here in River City. Murray's smile disappears when he thinks about something that often bothers him.

"Too often I hear students say that as soon as they get their degree they are leaving to live in Chicago or New York. But I think the 'I have to get out of here to be creative' argument is very shortsighted," says Murray. "I really want them to think about what they have at their disposal. Here is a student with four years of college and getting connected not just to their professors, but also to a host of world-class designers in our region who are making strides in their field. Why would you walk away from such incredible access?"

If those students who still believe that it cannot happen here need anything more to ensure Murray's not just talk, as I was writing this piece, AK Rikk's just received word that they would be named by the international fashion publication MR Magazine as one of the 10 Most Influential Stores in Menswear. The award will be handed out at the Four Seasons on July 21 in New York.

Another individual in the modern design movement of West Michigan is John O'Neill, Principal and Creative Director of Conduit, whose design studio is about to release something very unique from the computer screen to the realm of the physical.  

The firm's soon-to-be-released 90-page book hung on the wall at his offices where I recently visited, and it offers a broader historical view of the West Michigan design aesthetic and legacy.

Yet instead of employing some well-worn formula of assembling an agency's legacy in chronological order, utilizing photography collected over the years, Conduit has decided to revisit each item up for consideration in this book and treat these works to a fresh photo shoot, thus recording the samples with today's technology to ensure their preservation, color depth, and sharp details of modern design.

In the book, O'Neill erases the constraints of the over-used timeline, moving us rapidly through works that take on an air of timelessness as the viewer can see the relationship of works to each other. Ergo, readers get to witness interior designer Kathryn Chaplow's brand identity seated next to the creation of the multi-layered, brand-new event Runway for Charity, which is placed seamlessly next to a global posture study created for local furniture maker Steelcase. 

The history of our area's design is well documented on the web and via files of ephemera produced over the years, but by delivering a book format, even if it is just from one or two firms of our area, we can begin to assemble the physical documents that will aid historians who may eventually study West Michigan style. (In 2010, another Grand Rapids' firm, People Design, released their book Brand Identity Essentials: 100 Principles for Designing Logos and Building Brands.)

When I asked O'Neill if he thought he could identify the design aesthetic of our region, he simply said, "Oh, I think like most of us in the field of design, we are too close to the work to make such pronouncements."

So, while O'Neill may not be able to answer the question I'm asking even as he is about to release this new book, it will be answered through the material we continue to produce as a region. It reveals itself on all levels since, after all, design is everywhere around our lives. 

Lest you think that our design aesthetic is simply for the highbrow of our society, the Grand Raggidy Roller Girls, already known in the area for their annual calendars as well as their well-crafted events, are about to release a series of collectable trading cards in the grand tradition of the baseball version.

But unlike our boys on the green, these girls are looking to harness the power of design to help raise the funds needed to cover their cost for recruitment, training and the travel associated with taking our local roller "brand" on the road to other cities.

"I still believe that being aware of the design history of Grand Rapids provides this underlying idea that we have to continue to do good work, push the limits and make ourselves known," says Raterink, whose new startup firm, MANUFACTURED: was featured in part one, "We owe it to our city and its future. To that end, design continues to change so we continue to knock down the walls between disciplines and bring all creatives together around the table."

And while I do sign off each week with a simple phrase, The Future Needs All of Us, for this design aesthetic to become clearer, we are going to have to become a place that encourages good design in all that we do. For this to work, we must ensure the pay is there (and in a generous way) to reward those who choose to invest their time and talent in creating a reputation that could once again bring a golden era of design to West Michigan.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

If last week was about four startup events in the city, then this week's offerings are about the classics and the massive collaboration of artists needed to bring them to life. –Visit G-Sync Events: Let’s Do This!

Editor's Note: Design is a huge part of West Michigan's legacy, present and future. The last few editorials have showcased a few of the area's projects. It is by no means an exhuastive look but simply a glance. For those wishing to visit Conduit to secure a copy of their new book, it will be released on May 15. On May 17 the Grand Raggidy Roller Girls collectable trading cards will be available at their game at the Rivertown Sports Center in Grandville, MI.
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