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Downtown Detroit's New Decor is An Atrocious Attention Whore

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Meet a Curbed Detroit contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she brings us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.

Coco Chanel once said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one accessory.” As a guideline for good taste this maxim could certainly be applied to the interior design world, where more isn't always more. It seems we have a trend in downtown Detroit, however, that follows more closely in the footsteps of a more contemporary cultural icon, about whom Vogue editor Anna Wintour (allegedly) said, “I have never seen someone try so hard for attention while looking so atrocious at the same time.” Welcome to the new downtown Detroit decorative style, Nicki Minaj design.

Dan Gilbert's real estate shopping spree is on the whole a pretty good thing for Detroit right now. What Detroit has needed for a long time is more people with money investing in it, and as one friend pointed out to me, the last billionaire who went on a real estate binge tore everything down that he bought. But if you're like me, you were caught a little bit off-guard by the design aesthetic that came along with it. I suppose the deliberate and continued use of Comic Sans should have been one clue that DG wasn't going to kowtow to those who would prescribe standards of good taste. But it wasn't until they painted the lobby ceiling lime green in the Chase Tower that I really started to get worried.

Dumpsters full of dark wood paneling were torn out of the former banking offices and they were replaced with, well, how do you describe this? Hi-tech blech? It's a visual cacophony that I suppose is supposed to inspire, but I can't imagine it does anything but distract. “We're Quicken Loans and we LOVE to spice things up!” says the Zing! blog. “It's 2002 on the phone and Karim Rashid wants his graphics back” says I.

Things are a little less upsetting up @ the M@dison Building. Inside what you really have is an editing problem, at least in the fourth floor spaces open to the public. You enter each area and think, “This open space would be really nice if they didn't have that bad foil wallpaper,” or “This auditorium would be really nice if Dan Gilbert could get over his Comic Sans fetish.” But what you end up with are spaces that should be (and almost are) awesome, and instead you just end up annoyed.

Images of the M@dison building interior.

But it's not all just the Quicken family bringing this new look to downtown. Working our way around Grand Circus Park, we have something hypothetical to worry about: The Aloft Hotel going in the David Whitney Building. The Aloft brand also seems to LOVE to spice things up, and in a boutique hotel that can actually be appropriate. Aloft's lobbies tend to be a pretty contemporary mix of “fun” colors and patterns, and they all feature the multicolored “Aloha” desk, so it will be interesting to see if they bring their typical design to a most atypical building.

Aloft hotel decor.

Finally we get to the Detroit City Apartments, f.k.a. Trolley Plaza. Village Green (the people who are bringing the sexy bathroom to Ann Arbor) took over management and redesigned the public spaces, clearly catering to demographic that likes to LIVE, WORK and PLAY downtown. Unfortunately, it's got the most offensive interior design of the bunch.

Images of the Detroit City Apartments.

The building has great assets (location, view, parking, party deck) but the apartments are relatively generic and it had a long decline from its opening in 1981 to a fatal elevator malfunction in 2004. So really any improvement is a good one, and tenants I've talked to are happy with the management and upgrades. But there are a couple problems with the new interior, starting with the fact they clearly spent a ton of money on it and it still looks like the set of The Real World 1998.

We've discussed the Club Room before on Curbed, where they obviously decided that if you mix enough patterns no one will notice they don't go together. The fact that they have a dining table surrounded by mismatched Emeco Navy chairs (at $700+ a pop) only adds to the pain.

The lobby is a completely unbalanced attempt at “eclectic.” The problem with that look is it actually takes skill to execute well, not just a Visa card and a stack of catalogs. You've got modern mixed with neoclassical mixed with glam mixed with rustic, and it turns out that might be one look too many. Silver metallic throw pillows on a camp blanket-upholstered sofa – it happened.

As jarring as all this can be, I try to take solace in the the fact that interior design can be ephemeral. It can be tweaked. It can get dated and it gets changed. It's just such a damn shame that so much money is flowing toward a whole slew of new interior projects where, metaphorically, they look in the mirror and then put on one more thing.

—Kelly Ellsworth

· Previous Posts by Kelly Ellsworth [Curbed Detroit]
· Pattern Disasters: Detroit City Apartment's 29th Floor Sky Club [Curbed Detroit]

Detroit City Apartments

1431 Washington Blvd., Detroit, MI 48226