Let’s Celebrate the Design Process at Detroit’s New Industrial Exhibit

detroit style car design in the motor city exhibit at dia 2022
Detroit’s New Industrial Exhibit Honors Design Tom Murphy

For those of us living in metropolitan Detroit, most recognize that one of the region’s crown jewels is the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the finest museums of its type in the country.

A few years ago, the museum announced it would expand its collection with works of automotive design and technology. And earlier this year, the DIA appointed Shelley Selim to this position as the Mort Harris Curator of Automotive, Industrial and Decorative Design.

This is exciting news for a number of reasons. There is no other fine arts institution in the US that will have a collection specifically focused on automotive design. Given the DIA’s standing and prestige, this will lend additional credibility to the collection.


And what better place to house such a collection than Detroit—the birthplace of both the industry and the corporate automotive design organization (GM’s Art and Color Section, 1927) as we know it today.

shelley selim dia design curator with long hair in white dress
The DIA’s Shelley Selim.Detroit Institute of Arts

The planned collection will consist of concept sketches, scale models, prints, paintings, photographs, and more. Some material has already been donated.

But with a strong local design community—where designers tend to keep artwork they’ve done in the past—I’m sure the museum won’t have any difficulty finding those willing to fill out the collection.

The Detroit location will work to the collection’s advantage. Given time—and the efforts and funding needed to procure and organize the work—the DIA could become the repository for American automotive design art and supporting work.

I hope Ms. Selim will view the design community as a deep resource as she continues her work. Thanks to their wealth of professional experience, automotive designers are the subject matter experts she will need.

gianna bell shapes clay on a gm prototype
GM clay modeler Gianna Bell was highlighted at DIA’s 2021 exhibit, Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City.Detroit Institute of Arts

Use them to form an advisory group—perhaps several for specific areas—to deal with questions and to shape the goal and mission of the collection.

How can this treasure trove be presented in a way that appeals to all museum visitors? What properties should be part of the collection? What type of shows will eventually emerge from this collection?

Do the initial limits of the collection steer the subject matter or does a proposed exhibit direct what properties should be acquired (or borrowed)?

I do have some concerns, though. Despite the vast potential for this collection, there has been no mention of a dedicated gallery within the museum. Hopefully a permanent display is in the plan, but could much of this collection be stashed away in the museum’s archives most of the time?

And how will the work be presented? The museum has a long history of delivering excellent exhibitions of a particular artist, along with a narrative that put the artwork in the context of the artist’s life and times.

That approach of telling the “story” behind the beautiful painting could apply as well to the automotive art by putting in context, for example, a particular vehicle’s development, part of a period design movement, or even the life’s work of the designer.

Sketches are really just physical representations of the designer’s thoughts—some with perhaps more artistry and drama to sell those thoughts—so understanding the story behind the work will lead to a better appreciation for it.

The DIA has a great opportunity here. Other fine art institutions around the country have hosted automotive design-themed exhibits, generally in the form of classic car displays. The DIA had its own Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City a few years back as well.

race car in room at dia 2021 exhibit car design in the motor city
The DIA’s 2021 exhibit, Detroit Style: Car Design in the Motor City.Tom Murphy

But in general, these were temporary displays—one exception being New York’s MOMA, which has nine cars as part of its permanent collection.

The difference with the DIA project is that it can target American automotive and industrial design work, with an emphasis on the creative design process, not the final result.

dave rand design consultant apr 2023
Tom Murphy

It will take time for the DIA’s new endeavor to be fleshed out in detail and scope. But the promise of a permanent home for design work that would have gone unseen and unappreciated in the past should make many a designer very happy and proud.

I know it does for this one, and with high expectations I look forward to the first exhibit from this significant new addition to the DIA collection.

Dave Rand (pictured right) is the former executive director of Global Advanced Design for General Motors.