How life is better in West Michigan for those designing our world

Sarah Crookston is the chief creative officer for Grand Rapids-based Uncle Goose Toys. The company known for its Classic ABC Blocks as well as its innovative art and design products —  sells its wooden toys and gifts worldwide.

Crookston, a Kalamazoo native, came to Grand Rapids to attend Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD). For the first time in her life, she found herself surrounded by like-minded individuals.

“I'm not a traditionally academic person,” Crookston says. “I learn better visually. So going to art school was the first time that I was around people that thought the same way that I did or learned the same way that I did.”

At KCAD, Crookston found where she belonged. But now that her design work at Uncle Goose graces homes, schools, museums and galleries all over the world, what makes her stay in West Michigan?

“There is a thriving design community here,” she says. “And who doesn't want to work for someone that gets them or that will give them the space to do what they do best, right? That's what Uncle Goose has been. You want to be around people that get you. You want to work for people that get you. And you want to be around people that are going to help you grow,” she says.

Crookston also points to the larger West Michigan community.

“Grand Rapids has been able to attract people because it is a little bit eclectic,” Crookston says. “You've got beautiful spaces like Frederik Meijer Gardens. And some of the music scene here is pretty thriving.”

Frederik Meijer Gardens features a sculpture park, art museum and botanical garden. A major cultural attraction, it also hosts its well-known summer concert series. Crookston says she also enjoys going to some of the smaller area venues to see national acts.

“You know, it's a big enough city where people will come, but it's a small enough city where there [are] little venues for people that aren't quite as popular to still come and play,” she says. “So it’s kind of cool from that standpoint.”

And Crookston also dips in and out of West Michigan for work. In February, she’ll be showing her latest designs at Shoppe Object on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Then, she's off to Florida for vacation.

Cultivating your creative vision is “super easy”

Mimi Ray puts the finishing touches on the wardrobe for a Magazine Shoot.
Mimi Ray, a stylist and production designer, finds living in West Michigan easy and affordable. Ray had been living in New York City. She travels throughout the world for work, researching fashion markets in Hong Kong, Japan, Paris and Rome.

But now, Ray works from Grand Rapids. So what brings her here?

Ray earned her BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago with an emphasis in fashion design. She had lived in West Michigan during high school.

During summers, she found herself returning to visit friends in Michigan. While pondering her next challenge, a local cinematographer told her she would be a great stylist and production designer.

“And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I would love that!’” says Ray. “So, when I came, I started just putting together work. The community was very welcoming. And I started working right away with global clients.”

Ray found plenty of opportunities. West Michigan boasts a wealth of iconic furniture design companies — Haworth, Steelcase and Herman Miller for starters. The area is also rich with global brands such as Amway and Wolverine.

“What I do is work with the props, the wardrobe, the placement, the colors, the materials — each project is different. Maybe we might work on a showroom space, like for NeoCon and create the environment that lives around the product,” she says.

Production design is also a highly collaborative effort. This means that Ray needs to have access to great talent.

“That's one of the things I love about being here. I work with really amazing photographers and filmmakers and videographers and corporate creatives.”

Because travel is still important for cultivating her design vision, living in Grand Rapids has made traveling easy.

“We have a great airport. You can just get through the airport and walk right through and go to a major market like New York or California. Super easy. And you know, you could hop on a train and go to Chicago, or just get in your car and you're there in three hours. So we really have accessibility with our infrastructure.”

Ray confesses to a yearning that went unfulfilled in New York: Gardening.

“I just wanted to plant stuff!” she says with a laugh. “You have such a good quality of life here. And now I have my garden that I dreamed of. I have a wonderful garden and I love to play in my yard. It's really fulfilling to have your own little plot of land. You're scratching the earth and it just brings you into more connection and balance.”

'A great place to live, a great place to work'

David Allan enjoys the Michigan outdoors.
David Allan, director of design at Stryker Instruments, also finds a connection with nature in West Michigan. Originally from Scotland, though he came to Michigan from Germany, Allan has lived and worked in West Michigan for 18 years. For the past seven, he’s been with Stryker, a leading medical technology company based in Kalamazoo.

“There [are] probably more designers in Michigan than any other population,” he says. “It’s just a fantastic area. You’re right by the lakes. The woodlands. The seasons — there's beautiful summers and wintry winters. It's a great place to live in, a great place to work.”

Allan says designers can find an abundance of professional opportunities in West Michigan.

“In Kalamazoo, there's a lot,” he says. “Everything from head to toe — outdoor furniture to consumer products. You have a wealth of companies, which of course just brings all the supporting companies around it.”

The resurgence of art and design initiatives from Western Michigan University encourages Allan. The Richmond Center for Visual Arts showcases exhibits from both new and internationally known artists.

And while both art and natural beauty are important, Allan points out that design is about more than how things look. Design is no longer “the hot sketch and the cool visuals,” he says.

Design is meaningful work. Allan is inspired by using design as a tool that finds the intersection between technology and healthcare. His challenge is to drive beneficial client experiences both strategically and safely.

“Who doesn’t want to be surrounded by beautiful things?” says Allan. “But it can’t be at the cost of doing the right thing: Building sustainable solutions and delivering meaningful user experiences for people. Our job is to make life easier. Our job is to make the world a better place.”

Since West Michigan designers work hard, Allan says they can play hard, too.

“You get to enjoy the outdoors, recharge, rejuvenate, and get back to nature a little bit,” Allan says. “A lot of us appreciate that. A lot of people come here for the kayaking or the cycling, hiking, and fishing.”

A thriving design community, easy access to travel and arts, and a wealth of professional opportunities — all that, and an eclectic vibe. It’s little wonder top designers have come to call West Michigan home.

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a new story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.

Laura Bergells is an executive business communications coach from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Connect with her at LinkedIn.

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