Making a Difference: Neil Zemba
Neil Zemba (second from right) with Nike designer and mentor Wilson W. Smith III (center) and DCH students

Senior Neil Zemba wants to change the world, one shoe at a time.

Story by Frank Provenzano; reprinted with permission from Montage.

Standing in his crowded art studio, Neil Zemba explains the intricate details of his collaborative venture to design a must-have stylish sandal from recycled material. He runs his long fingers over the rubber-sole work-in-progress, which looks as if it could be worn on the hippest beaches from Tahiti to Malibu to the Hamptons.

“This is only a prototype,” he says. “We have a ways to go before it’s complete. Now, we have to create the manufacturing process.”

Mastering the relationship between creative design and practical marketplace realities is what Zemba refers to as the “push/pull challenge” of today’s designer.

“We live in a world where every product has to have a ‘design appeal,’ and it has to be cost-effective,” says the senior from Saline, who will graduate in May from the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.

Detroit Treads sandal

In late fall, Zemba’s collaboration with Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, known as Detroit Treads, is expected to yield a “saleable sandal” made by those who seek shelter and assistance at the Detroit-based agency. The sandal is currently undergoing “test marketing.” (Translation: The sandals are on the feet of Zemba’s friends.)

The project is in line with Zemba’s view that fashionable design can be responsible and make a positive difference. He learned first-hand the impact of design on a person and community from participating in Professor Nick Tobier’s class, Design for Change, where he, along with other students, taught the fundamentals of design at Detroit Community High, a charter school.

Zemba teaches a "Design Your Sneaker" workshop at Detroit Community Schools Brightmoor

Zemba and A&D senior Daniel Gold have taught a footwear design class at the school. He says the class is a way to encourage students to learn about art, and inspire them to see possibilities beyond their community.

“Everyone needs a mentor,” says Zemba, who points to the influence of mentors Tobier and professors Bill Lovejoy, John Marshall and Marianetta Porter during his undergraduate years. Collectively, he credits them with shaping his “design with a conscience” sensibility, and seeing connections among disciplines.

Zemba with Nike designer and mentor Wilson W. Smith III after winning the Future Sole competition

Since winning the Nike-sponsored “Future Sole” national competition as a sophomore, Zemba’s future has been on a high-trajectory career path. His eclectic, thought-provoking designs have attracted attention of preeminent shoe innovators such as Nike’s legendary Wilson W. Smith III.

After graduation, however, rather than seek a stable job with an established shoe designer, Zemba plans to follow in his father’s unconventional footsteps.

“My father’s my biggest role model,” he said, noting his dad’s can-do entrepreneurial zeal. From success owning a sub shop to his current business as a liaison between medical device companies and the FDA, the elder Zemba, said his son, is the embodiment of living life according to your dream.

“It starts with a dreamer, but it doesn’t stop with a dream,” said Zemba. “I have a pretty good role model who taught me how to get things done, how to make ideas a reality.”



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