Design Acts: Nick Tobier and the City of Detroit

I've always tried to stay connected to Nick Tobier's various activities and projects over the years,
but lately it's been hard – public lectures, videos,
panel talks, performances – the listings keep
coming in like an out of control ticker tape at the
New York Stock Exchange.

More and more, the news I hear from Nick seems to be set in Detroit.

Now, in the latest update, he told me he was teaching a class for A&D and engineering students called Design for Social Change.

Small Cascade for a Large City, a performance in a public wading pool during the Wade Festival in Toronto during the summer of 2006. “A humble wading pool and its care takers turn their tasks and tools to synchronized movements creating a human fountain and the possibility that everyday tasks can be quite extra-ordinary.”

This one stumped me a little. I've never thought of Nick as a designer per se, (although, admittedly, no single word seems to describe his work either.) It may be more accurate to say that he creates happenings – where ordinary situations are interrupted in a thoroughly unanticipated way, often with a flagrant act of...well, friendliness. He has choreographed a musical number in a public pool in Toronto, built a folding picnic table for street food eaters in Manhattan, set up a rent-a-dog service in Paris. He has put on magic shows, made short video performances involving furniture, dressed up as a chicken for a local food festival....

So public instigator, yes — but designer?

Turns out Nick has an education as a designer (a landscape architect in particular), but years ago abandoned the professional practice to become a different kind of designer.

“Private practice had so many limitations imposed by the client. I started to work the way I do — building things I think of as micro-architecture, from a Hot Chocolate Tent to a bridge to cross puddles, without the constraints of a client, but still working from the challenges of a given context.”

A mobile hot chocolate tent offers an oasis of warmth in the cold northeastern winter of Albany, NY.

Indeed, part of the disconnect I was experiencing (which Nick was quick to point out) had to do with the word “design” and its connotations. Don't designer folk make things like apple ipods – sleek, clever, refined products that are highly desirable and well...expensive?

Nick quotes Dr. Paul Polak at International Development Enterprises to explain:

“The majority of the world's designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world's customers.”

“I'm not interested in design in that way,” Nick says. “I'm not interested in creating more goods. I don't have a problem with that, if that's what you love to do, but I'm interested in the inequality between the 90% and the 10% and how we might address that.”

While living in New York City, Nick noticed that lunch-goers routinely balanced lunches from vending carts in the crook of their arms as they walked, with nowhere to eat them. This portable table was constructed for the eaters - napkins and table cloth provided.

The quote from Dr. Polak comes from an exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt called Design for the Other 90%, which captures the spirit of the design course that Nick taught during the Fall 2010 semester. The class, Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship: Design for Change, captured an ever-growing trend in design (now being termed "social design") that appeals to an ever-expanding population of students who want their work to have an impact more lasting than an uptick on the Dow Jones.

Nick adds, "I don't really like the term social design though. It stinks of do-gooderness or volunteerism or "civic duty"."

But, in Design for Change, which Nick co-taught with Moses Lee of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering, the students worked on a series of projects to improve the lives of the 90% — from creating a viable solution to the national problem of unhealthy school lunches, to working with a low income community in Ann Arbor to assess community problems and develop products and services to address those needs. Sounds like do-gooder work to me. And, what's so wrong with "doing good" anyway?

Student projects created in Design for Change classes. Click to view full size and read project details.

In talking further with Nick, it became clear that
he'd had a shift of consciousness of sorts that was
affecting the way he approached and spoke about his
work these days.

It was a shift that could be traced back to Detroit and an involvement with the city that has been growing more and more intense since the summer of 2008.

As part of the Global Intercultural Experience Program for Undergraduates that year, Nick organized a month-long project at the Earthworks Urban Farm on Detroit's east side, where he and 11 students lived and built an outdoor classroom for the farm and neighboring community.

Nick had worked on a couple of projects in Detroit before, (see mobile bus stop below), but this time, working and living in the heart of the city for an extended time, he encountered black radicals who looked on the student's actions with suspicion. Malik Yakini, one of the few black people widely known for his association with urban farming in the city, wrote to him, "it's not my job to make white people from the suburbs feel good about themselves or comfortable in Detroit."

Students work on the Earthworks Urban Farm. Click to view full size.

Nick decided to engage with Malik directly. "His statement really made sense to me and I wanted to respond. We began a sustained conversation about this issue. For Mailk, who grew up in Detroit, growing food was a political and practical act in response to white owned stores leaving the city," Nick said. "So when U of M students come wanting to help rebuild the city, it stinks to him of paternalism. But I really feel compelled to work in Detroit, so I asked him to teach me how to make real sense here instead of pretend sense."

One of Nick's first Detroit projects in Detroit was a mobile bus-stop, deployed at various bus stops around the city. This seat for two provided rest and shelter, and encouraged conversations and interactions.

Nick traces his attraction to Detroit back to his childhood. Having grown up as the lone white kid in a then black and Puerto Rican neighborhood on the upper west side of New York City, he felt immediately at home in Detroit. Visiting the city was an invitation to explore an unprocessed part of his conscience and childhood. As one of the few white kids in the neighborhood, he often felt alone and vulnerable. Being in Detroit reminded him again of being the only white kid, but now he was grown up, successful, and more confident about his place in the world. He knew that this success was largely because of his privilege, and the color of his skin.

After that summer, Nick made a different kind of commitment to the city — one that has only become stronger over the years. A year later, he helped start F.O.O.D. (Field Of Our Dreams) – a food service that distributes fresh produce on street corners and in housing projects on Detroit's East side.

F.O.O.D. (Field Of Our Dreams). Click to view full size.

To keep F.O.O.D. up, Nick drove to the city every Thursday at 2am to meet his friends and business partners Warren Thomas, Keith Love and Greg Bostic at Detroit's Eastern Market, where they would pick up the produce and drive it to customers along the route. “People would always ask ‘What's the white guy doing here?’ I would try to explain as simply as I could but I definitely stood out.”

Meanwhile, his colleagues here at A&D would say, “ that sounds great - and what are you doing for your art? ”

Nick ponders, “I've served hot chocolate from an embroidered and upholstered cart, built a portable picnic table for New Yorkers, and so on... so F.O.O.D. is, in some ways, connected to projects like these, but it's also different. It's true that I've been asking a lot of questions about these practices that I do, about the blurring of art and everyday life, and about the role of an artist in society.”

Images of contributors to the ART Work/Detroit exhibition. Click to view full size.

Most recently, Nick collaborated with Aaron Timlin at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID) on an exhibit called ART Work/Detroit that asked how artists and creative work can have an impact on the city. For the exhibit, Nick maintained a blog about the exhibit and the varied intersections of politics and art. Seeking to actively deal with the thorny issues surfacing as young white artists stream into the city and become the center of the media's attention on Detroit's renewal, Nick also organized Art, Race and the Image of the City, a panel discussion with Detroit activists, artists and educators.

Tobier as signal man.

In addition to instigating this dialogue, Nick has other Detroit projects in the works, projects that once again blur the boundaries between art, social activism and politics. Inspired by politician/artists such as former Bogotá Mayor, Antanas Mockus and Mayor of Tirana, Albania, Edi Rama, Nick's goal is to bring a little performance and even a little humor into what is usually a serious political conversation. For example, Detroit has been promising to build a light rail system down Woodward for ages now. On occasion, Nick shows up on the future Woodward corridor dressed up as a signal man along the proposed route, waiting patiently for the train and passengers to come. “Most often,” he says, “my presence prompts questions — what are you doing, is there a train coming — and it is the conversations, about the utility of rail travel, what happens to the rest of the city that will not be along the rail line, will there be jobs, etc, that I hope will eventually turn into action and re-imagination around the public spaces here.”

It's an ongoing journey, Nick admits, to question what he's doing as an artist, as a designer, as a white person committed to rebuilding Detroit. But he is compelled to work here.

“When I thought last year about going on sabbatical, I could have gone anywhere in the world — but I thought first of going to Detroit. I can't think of a more interesting place in the world. If we have privilege, which we do, we need to extend it and not waste it. If I can teach that to students, I would consider that my biggest accomplishment.”

In this semester's Social Venture Creation, an extension of the Design for Change course, students will work on funding and actualizing their design ideas for under resourced communities like Bryant, with Nick also offering a parallel opportunity for high school students at Cesar Chavez Academy in Southwest Detroit. Nick hopes that these new students will commit to focusing their creative thinking where it is needed most and experience what it’s like for their work to have an impact beyond the classroom and the University.

In the meantime, he will continue to do the same.



I love the work that you are doing and have many great photographs of downtown Detroit. I am a professional black and white and color fine arts photographer specializing in unusual compositions and wonder is you could point me in a direction of where I might market these photographs. They range is sizes of 16 x 20 to 24 x 36. Please visit my website. More will be added soon at Would love your feedback! Leona

Posted by Leona Webb on March 08, 2011





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