Dreams Are Like a Drug in Detroit: Interview with Creative Rights client Justin Mast

Written by Amber Hughson

Justin Mast is a designer, an entrepreneur, a husband, a new father, and a guy who has a lot of hope for the future of Detroit. Justin graduated from Hope College with a degree in business and then completed his education at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In our interview at Lab Café, where some of Justin’s fellow students currently have a wooden installation standing near the door, Justin explained to me how to bend wood. I asked because he designed a gorgeous installation called “Belly of a Whale” using that technique. We also spent a lot of time talking about Detroit and what its future might look like.

When I asked Justin how he describes himself as a designer or an artist, his answer was, “As an architect, I get the most energy creating a system for people to do their thing. Sometimes that’s a building, other times it’s a website or business, or business model. It’s about creating an infrastructure—especially as it applies to small business and art, allowing people to make a living practicing their craft. In a sense, it’s part design, part entrepreneurship, part development.”

Justin cares a lot about people using their talents, especially when something is keeping them from doing that. He talked about the artists and entrepreneurs working as baristas or waiting tables, who either don’t have enough money to pay their bills and also do their craft, or who are  just too tired at the end of the day to create something. Justin says that it’s up to our generation to figure out how that can change. And he isn’t one of those people that talks a lot about something and does nothing about it; Justin is definitely doing his part to make that change in Detroit.

Through the architecture program, Justin was able to join a team of fourteen who built a façade onto the front of Joe’s Auto Body in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. The team designed the façade, cut, folded, and painted the metal, installed and reinforced it. The end result is a gorgeous silver design that juxtaposes the light reflected off of clean metallic shapes with the worn cement exterior of Joe’s garage. Justin says, “The idea was to do something drastic in the neighborhood, something that sort of changed the equation for Jerry, this guy who owns property in the area.” The final result can be seen by clicking here.

As a result of that project, Justin may have the opportunity to transform the 3,800 sq. ft of the garage into a collaborative work space for architects and designers developing in Detroit. The space would be complete with tables, tools, lockers to rent, a café, meeting rooms, and a space to show short films. The space would provide a place for designers and developers to work, who aren’t already working with large firms. The project would combine Justin’s interests in micro-businesses and design. Regarding the project, Justin says, “This is a way to create a place for people who are working part time or full time on architecture projects… I’m designing my dream space, what I wish already existed in Detroit.”

Justin is also working on another project, which isn’t quite ready for publicity yet, that will involve the creation of a cooperative space that includes entrepreneurs, urban gardeners, and a place for locals to congregate. Justin says, “So part of the agenda for the project was to draw a lot of attention to the neighborhood and provide this place with something just awesome,” that will help rejuvenate the area.

Justin talks about his projects as more than development of buildings themselves, but of the revitalization of whole neighborhoods – there is really no question that he cares about the outcome of Detroit.

About his developing love of the city, Justin says, “I grew up in Grand Rapids and I never thought very highly of Detroit, because even back when we were all growing up, Detroit’s always been in rough shape. …but then I went to U of M. It wasn’t until being here and working on projects here that I started to realize that Detroit’s a pretty interesting scene.”

One of the things that most appealed to Justin was the idea that owning your own small business didn’t have to be as much about having a ton of money as it may be in other places, “Because of the way [Detroit is] situated you can do a lot with a little. It very much favors the entrepreneur or the artist more than a place like New York or Chicago does, because to rent a studio in Brooklyn is 3,000 bucks a month or something, it’s insane.” Justin says that a lot of people are mistaken about the idea that there may not be a robust community or an active scene to engage in, “You can be in Detroit, you can get space… and the scene there is awesome. I think it’s the best place in the states to be as far as being an innovator or being an entrepreneur.”

“What I think is interesting now” Justin says, “is that there are so many people in our situation who are doing things that are valuable to society and to our larger cultures – like rebuilding a city, writing great material – we have to figure out how to reward people who are doing things that are valuable so that they can pay their bills —not be millionaires—” Justin clarifies, “But pay their bills. But I think it’s the work of our generation to sort that out. To figure out how to rearrange things so that smart, hard working people, who are making a serious impact and want to do things others care about, don’t have to burn their energy working side jobs, at least not forever.” From personal experience, Justin says, “It’s blowing my mind how hard it is to be financially sustainable. It should not be like this.”

Justin spoke about the talented artists, creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs who are waiting tables or whatever that less-than-dream-job may be, and he has hope: “I think it’s changing. I just read an article in The Economist that in some of the incubators that venture capitalists have set up, they’ve hired artists to come and work with the technology people because they find that the combination of the artist and the technologist ultimately create a more holistic and profitable product. I think things are changing but we have to figure it out.”

Justin has a theory – based on research – that people were thought to be solely motivated by money for a long time, which is what our system currently reflects. However, according to Justin’s research, “Once people discover that their basic needs are met, money drops to the bottom of the pile as a motivator and then we’re free to sort of pursue other things and what [economists] find is that people are looking for an ability to be creative, to think but also make something or do something – for some people it’s working with their hands and for others its getting more expressive, and they see this big shift in what people do once their needs are met. So I always think people who are mainly artists, have such a high tolerance for not having money or their needs met, so what they’re doing, they can put a lot of time into it. I think business people and designers are that way too. What I think is cool about Detroit is that you can more easily meet your basic needs and then you can start to do crazy cool stuff.”

Justin brings up the mass movement of educated people to the United States, believers in the American Dream, which created an influx of artists and innovators that put us on the cutting edge of creativity. He says, “Detroit is kind of a micro-version of that in that it’s super self-selecting. If what you’re interested in spending your days in comfort, Detroit is the last place in the world you’re going to be interested in being. But, if you have any desire to do something — you’re going to go to Detroit. You can’t look around without seeing a hundred people who are architects, or developers, or artists, or writers, or whatever.”

Justin’s biggest concern is for all of the innovators, entrepreneurs, and artists that don’t  necessarily have the business background to be successful and protect themselves. That is where Justin sees Creative Rights coming in for him and for other creatives in Detroit. Justin says, “I’m working with Brandon (Executive Director of Creative Rights) on five or more different projects – the reason I go back to Brandon all the time is that I think there’s a lot of value in taking the time to do good business. What I appreciate about him is that there’s a way of doing law that sets up the need for future law services – writing contracts that are basically going to guarantee that people will end up suing each other down the road. That’s one of the reasons that lawyers have a bad name. But I think what Brandon gets is that there’s a way to make agreements that are in the spirit of collaboration, that are in the spirit of bartering and sharing, but still help bring people through the process of thinking through the hard parts of business. What Creative Rights is offering is starting to formalize some of the new modes of business that are starting to take place, so I really appreciate that.”

After chatting for a while about how exciting Justin’s life is – raising a kiddo, moving to Detroit, starting a new job, designing huge cultural hubs, and basically setting out to save the world – I concluded that he’s a pretty awesome guy, a talented designer, and one of the many reasons to hope for a positive future in Detroit.

With a smile, Justin says, “Dreams are like a drug in Detroit right now I think, it’s pretty wild.”

He seems like a bit of a dream addict himself.