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Where Design Lives

Riverwest is widely perceived to be home to many visual artists, primarily because of organizations such as the Riverwest Artists Association, neighborhood galleries, and high visibility events such as Artwalk. There are, however, many other creative individuals living in the neighborhood whose work may be less visible on a strictly neighborhood level. Dancers, musicians, and writers have settled in the area, but not as well known are those who work in the design profession. The products of their creative output are often the everyday man-made objects that are part and parcel of our daily experience. Michael Nickel and Brett Vladika are two such designers who make their homes in Riverwest, though both are employed at the Grafton-based industrial design firm, Brooks Stevens Design. Founded in 1934 by pioneer industrial designer Brooks Stevens, the firm is international in reach and diverse in product output. Actually it is more accurate to describe the efforts of Michael and Brett as “product design,” rather than “industrial design,” simply because their workday assignments consist of items such as portable folding desks, range hoods, personal GPS systems, and crane cabs. I asked them why, when they work in high-style Grafton, do they choose to live in Riverwest? They turned the question upside down by replying that it is more relevant to ask why two Riverwest residents work in Grafton. Well, for one thing, they love their jobs. Their reasons for living in Riverwest reflect the reasons other residents might give: a sense of community, the character of the homes, and an urban environment rich with restaurants, clubs, and other activities. The two came to the design field in a roundabout way: Brett started out in architecture, Michael chose a more art-oriented educational path, and like the vast majority of us, neither were familiar with the profession of industrial design, let alone what sort of work it entails. What they learned when they entered the field is that it often includes re-designing products to improve their marketability, i.e. making the products user-friendly and attractive. Occasionally they have the opportunity to design something completely new, such as the “Digital Dingo” Personal GPS (Global Positioning System) recently designed at Brooks Stevens Design. The profession is one of incredible variety and challenge, and the tools they use are often computers, though they also may explore possibilities through model-making and various research experiments involving ergonomics. Theirs is a world of collaborative effort–a unique hybrid between art, engineering and marketing. One can not interview two designers without asking them to comment on what’s good and what’s bad about design elements in Riverwest. Michael is fond of the “Riverwest” poster reproduction on the electric box on the Humboldt Blvd. median north of Burleigh. Bret dislikes the design of Capitol Drive’s Wal-Mart store. Neither are fond of the streetscaping on East Capitol Drive, however both give high marks to the Snail’s Crossing project on Bremen Street. But what about their personal residences? What strategies did they use to enhance the condition and character of their homes? Michael’s home on N. Bremen St. is a single-family Polish flat, which was badly run down and suffering from ill advised 70s remodeling when he purchased it. His approach to renovation is to restore some of the remaining vintage elements while redesigning some of the more damaged areas into a more open concept modernist style. Brett’s home, a duplex on E. Keefe Avenue, was purchased in better overall condition but in dire need of aesthetic improvements. He focused his efforts on creating additional internal storage and some creative landscaping on the exterior, including a mosaic tile walkway that is a work in progress. The yard, both front and back, has become a visual playground and experimental garden whose colors, locations and plant varieties are modified each year. Generally, designers are an anonymous lot. They almost never receive acknowledgment from their clients, and they almost never sign the works they create, yet they are responsible for much of our visual and material culture. Brett Vladika and Michael Nickel. Two designers. Two Riverwest residents. Remarkable contributors to the rich fabric in our neighborhood. Sculptor and Riverwest resident Mark Lawson directs the gallery scene at MIAD.