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Artisans of Michigan: Metal sculpture with a function

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Alex Porbe at Incite Design holding a sconce he designed and fabricated.

There are people in Michigan who are quietly making pieces of art with a purpose beyond art. 

One of them works in Detroit at a nondescript shop on Mack Avenue. Alex Porbe is with Incite Design, a  fabrication and custom design firm.

Porbe works with architects and project managers, working up designs to complement existing architecture or making a design statement.

“I’m (an) artisan, but you’ve got to put the art in artisan, right? It’s a balance, you know? What we do is functional, so we’re doing lighting, we’re doing handrails, we’re doing shelving units, bars, you name it. It’s just whatever the client can dream up, we can fabricate it,” Porbe said while showing me around his shop.

Designing is a big part of his job. We asked why not just do that. He wouldn't have to get his hands dirty that way.

“Well, what fun is that?" He laughed and added, "You got to get your hands dirty. It’s the end product that, you know, I’m always getting hands dirty first, so when I go to do the design work, I always have to wash my hands or I get smudges all over the presentation drawings. Right? But, that’s where the joy is in it for me. I mean, designing is great and seeing something built, but seeing how you can get your hands into and produce something with your own hands, there’s a lot of pleasure in that,” Porbe said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Sections of a large lighting fixture being fabricated at Incite Design.

Some of the work he’s designed and got his hands on include work on top of Jack White’s Third Man Records store in Detroit’s Cass Corridor. He installed work at the now-closed Coach Insignia restaurant at the top of the GM headquarter’s RenCen building. Recently he designed and built several sconces for the International Banquet Center above Fishbones in Greektown.  

"There's a lot of interesting lighting going into that one. Keep your eyes open for that one," he said.

Porbe says his design, his style varies to the clients’ needs, but there is a theme.

“Obviously, I’m a product of my environment here in Detroit, so I’ve got somewhat of an industrial aesthetic. You know, being in Detroit in the ‘90s scavenging through scrap yards, and abandoned buildings, and stuff you find on the street, there’s inspiration in that as well. And sometimes you would take those components and industrial metal objects and make art out of them. So, there’s inspiration in that. You see it all around you.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The Incite Design shop. Alex Porbe shares the space with other artisans and fabricators.

His shop is full of punches, milling machines, welders, sheet metal benders, cutting torches. It doesn’t look like an artist’s studio. This is a shop. Smoke, sparks, metal shavings, steel pipe and tubing stacked wherever there’s room.

Other artisans and fabricators share the space with Porbe and his team. Unlike a lot of other artisans we’ve talked to, he’s surrounded by people most of the time. But there are times when he needs to be left alone with his own thoughts.

“The lonesome work," he explained, "I stick around after work after everyone’s gone and do that.”

Sometimes designing. Sometimes getting his hands dirty. Not necessarily in that order.

*Stateside originally aired this story on March 17, 2017.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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