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Retro Vision: Warby Parker helps reimagine an iconic downtown mural

At the Warby Parker “housewarming” party

Scott Michalski of ESP

Artist David Rubello sporting his new Warby Parker frames

Color Cubes and Washington Blvd (2011)

The mood was festive on a bitter, wintry night in early December when a few hundred people crowded into a spiffed-up downtown storefront to inaugurate the opening of Detroit's new Warby Parker, an innovative eyewear company known for selling affordable frames in hip, vintage styles.

A handsome new shop selling something both useful and relatively inexpensive is reason enough to celebrate in downtown Detroit. But it wasn't just the promise of retro eyewear in a recently revamped building that brought people out into the cold that evening. In designing their latest store (one of about 50 nationwide), the New York-based Warby Parker invited 82-year-old Detroit artist David Rubello to reimagine his 1973 mural "Color Cubes"—an iconic public artwork that was lost in 2014 when, after decades of deterioration, it was painted over to make room for a billboard.

"Color Cubes," which once adorned an historic high rise just two blocks from Warby Parker's new Woodward Avenue home, had been created under the auspices of Living With Art, an ambitious early 1970s urban renewal project organized by New Detroit, Inc. that resulted in the creation of some 12 public murals and sculptures throughout the city. At a commanding 50 x 25 feet, its scale befitted the lofty ambitions of its commissioners, who believed that public art could help improve quality of life in Detroit and stem the rising tides of disinvestment and decline.

If "Color Cubes" was Rubello's great open-air symphony, a monumental work of vivacious color and geometric play, the new Warby Parker mural—which the artist calls "Blue Echoes"—is more like a piece of chamber music. Rendered in white, black, and seven shades of blue, it measures just 5.5 x 14.5 feet. But, as one attendee put it the night of the opening reception, "It makes the place."

That sentiment is not lost on Matt Singer, who does brand creative work for Warby Parker and led the effort to commission and install the new mural. It's only recently that the seven-year-old company has forayed into physical storefronts (before that, they pioneered a web-based retail model), and they pride themselves on strong, intentional design that is informed by local context. "One of the first things we do when we occupy a building," Singer says, "is to look at the relationship we have with the neighborhood, with the building, with the city itself. We want each store to become a platform for meaningful local storytelling."

Warby Parker's new Woodward Ave. storefront


 
In the case of the 1,300 square foot Detroit storefront, Singer and the rest of the design team focused on two notable "synergies," as he puts it: the fact that the building once contained the original Vernor's pharmacy (shoppers can enjoy the homegrown ginger ale on tap while they browse), and its proximity to Rubello's lost mural.


Singer had seen "Color Cubes" in his previous travels to Detroit. "I always loved the beauty of the geometry," he says. "There was something so wonderful about those shapes. That piece really said something about downtown Detroit."

So when they began planning their Detroit store, Warby Parker got in touch with Rubello, presenting the prolific and inventive artist with a new challenge: to design a piece that referenced his original mural, but that could fit within the central, semicircular wall formed by the space's curved ceiling. Rubello says he spent about six weeks crafting the design, which is essentially an offset close-up of the central section of "Color Cubes"—flipped 90 degrees, expanded, and reimagined in those vivid blues.

Back in 1973, Rubello himself was not responsible for actually painting "Color Cubes"; that job fell to a local sign painter hired by New Detroit. (Living With Art's aspirations were not purely abstract; one of the program's goals was to generate income for both fine and commercial artists in Detroit.) Similarly, Rubello felt that the realization of "Blue Echoes" provided another opportunity to support a local sign painter, so he worked with Warby Parker to hire Kelly Golden of Golden Sign Company to execute the new mural.

Golden, 29, and her partner Jordan Zielke are both graduates of the Los Angeles Trade Technical College, which, she says, is the "last trade school in the country that teaches a full-blown sign painting program." They've done a brisk business since opening in Detroit three years ago, working with a host of companies including Detroit Bikes, Green Dot Stables, Third Man Records, and Carhart (for whom they painted the huge mural that overlooks I-94).

Kelly Golden of the Golden Sign Company


 
Golden worked closely with Rubello and his wife, the artist Mary Keithan, to realize "Blue Echoes," and she says that the precision of Rubello's design—which she describes as "constantly dancing between two and three dimensions"—presented her with a new professional challenge.


Despite the fact that it's hand-painted, there is an impeccable, machined-looking quality to "Blue Echoes," a tendency that it shares with "Color Cubes" and so much of Rubello's art across multiple media. "We rarely work with people who have as close an eye for detail as he has," she says. "Everything we do is by hand and slightly imperfect, but this had to be perfect. I learned a lot from the process."

Golden isn't the only commercial artist who had the opportunity to try her hand at reproducing Rubello's meticulous, hard-edge forms. Warby Parker also hired ESP, an Eastern Market-based screen printer, to produce 300 limited-edition prints of the original "Color Cubes" design, rendered in the new, blue color scheme. (Each was signed by Rubello and given out to a lucky attendee of the opening celebration.) ESP's Scott Michalski, 43, who has been "printing on and off in Detroit for 25 years," says he couldn't believe it when he got the call to be involved. He talks enthusiastically about "Color Cubes" as being a "vital part of the cityscape" of his youth and an "inspiration to me as a person and a maker in the city."

When "Color Cubes" was painted over in 2014, many regarded it as a casualty of the increasing commercialization of booming downtown. In no time in recent memory has there been so much demand for wall space on which to hang billboards.

But with their decision to, in a sense, resurrect "Color Cubes" and make it a focal point of their local brand, our new neighbors at Warby Parker have done something remarkable. Not only have they presented the mural's many admirers with a kind of gift and given Rubello an opportunity to make his distinctive mark on the city once more, they have clearly and succinctly demonstrated how art can be uplifted by business, and business by art.

Watch Mary Keithan's short video documenting both the creation of Blue Echoes and Warby Parker's Detroit housewarming party on Youtube.
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