Architect speaks on Detroit installation art project

Architect, critic and curator Jaffer Kolb spoke on his new installation art project, “Home Economics,” in Lawrence Auditorium last Thursday evening. In the talk, sponsored by the art department’s 1960s Scholars fund, Kolb discussed the shop-style exhibition of upscale housewares that he recently created from molds of foreclosed homes in Detroit. The resulting “Home Economics” gallery invites questions about salvage and preservation, interior and exterior, the importance of domestic spaces and Detroit’s deterioration in the cultural narrative. As the creation of the work culminated with the exhibition’s opening only a few weeks ago, Kolb himself is still working through the meanings and messages of his project, completed during his teaching tenure at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture. His interests are in “how architecture embeds itself into quotidian economic and political systems,” and this project overlaps with art and design to make such critiques.

“Home Economics” is a storefront full of high-end, local home products in pop colors with whimsical sensibilities. The pieces, all functional, vary in scale from candies in varied colors but only one flavor, to candles in ironic scents, to furniture including an “otherworldly dining set,” in Kolb’s words, made of high-density foam. Kolb drove around the city taking plaster molds of unremarkable features of the houses, then used these molds, without changing their scale, to shape his exhibition’s products. “Together these products form a dream pop landscape of surrealist capitalism,” Kolb said.

Kolb’s multivalent artistic commentary deals with many issues specific to Detroit and more broadly applicable to the capitalist world. One inspiration was the concept of a $500 house, which is the start price of foreclosed Detroit homes at auction. While Detroit’s housing market has declined, Kolb has noticed upscale home products becoming more expensive, diminishing the shock value of a $500 candle or similar product. “Home Economics” is thus noting partially that the value of the housewares may actually equal or surpass the monetary value of houses from which the molds were taken. In the same vein, Kolb is still undecided on when or if he will sell off the contents of the “store,” and he refused to price the items. He instead created a “jokey price list” that valued each product in terms of numbers of houses, a riff on the $500 house and on his use of a store aesthetic as a gallery.

The work also questions the value of preservation, especially in the context of Detroit’s presumed decline. The city has a “branding problem,” Kolb said, as if authorities’ actions are colored by their “willingness to accept the reduction of Detroit’s image in the cultural narrative.” He also mentioned the classic “scrape” versus “anti-scrape” debate in terms of restoration or conservation of historical objects, critiquing the dominance of anti-scrape as the only acceptable method over the last century. Anti-scrape “overly glorifies weathering,” Kolb said. Furthermore, Kolb’s idea to preserve the shapes of soon-to-be-demolished houses subverts typical notions of preservation by focusing on the unremarkable. He also critiqued the salvaging or upcycling of materials taken from Detroit’s abandoned structures to create expensive products, which contributes to “fetishization” of the city’s decline. “Our fixation on the ruins of Detroit seems to encourage its very dismantling,” Kolb said. “There’s a one-to-one relationship between the destruction of the city and its reappropriation into upscale markets.”

Finally, Kolb’s “Home Economics” explores the public-private and exterior-interior divide, such as “reproduc[ing] an exterior surface into an interior product.” His use of domestic architecture and creation of domestic products question the role and value of domestic life, as these homes are being taken from families and devalued, even deindividualized in the city’s “Blight Bundle” of 6000 foreclosed properties offered for sale as a unit but never actually sold. Again, he is still working to fully understand the implications of his work but intends it to highlight important social questions.

The products in the store are ultimately as multifaceted as Kolb’s commentary itself. As Kolb put it in his talk, “the intention was that they could exist simultaneously as playful innocuous objects while holding this underlying critique of how salvage is leading to further ruination” in Detroit.