One wonders how many last-minute gifts have been purchased from Pangborn Design at the Detroit Metro Airport’s McNamara Terminal. Perhaps you have run into people wearing Pangborn’s unmistakable ties – or own some yourself. It’s difficult to live in the Metro area and not have heard of the artist.
Dominic Pangborn arrived in Detroit in the ‘70s as a hotshot 25-year-old designer from Chicago. His studio today is a pretty white building at the foot of Iron Street next to the Iron Street Lofts, and is nearly hidden by bonsai-trimmed Michigan pines and Japanese maples behind an ornate gate. It’s clear that when he first set up shop 30 years ago, it was in anticipation of revitalization. But the old factory buildings still lie empty, and several buildings have gone down since.
After three decades of commercial success and extensive civic involvement, Pangborn is ambivalent about Detroit. His customers and patrons are mostly outside of the city, and he’s watched the area around his studio deteriorate. But the artist-necktie designer-painter-inventor-writer-businessman knows that here in Detroit, he is unique, and that uniqueness has played an important role in his success.
You have a whole range of design products, but are probably most known for your neckties. How did you get into that?
“It was somewhat of an accident. While working for Daewoo in marketing for US automotive components, I happened to be in the same office as their textile manager.
A lot of people don’t know Daewoo was the world’s largest textile manufacturer; that was their bread and butter. Sears, Kmart, and I think Liz Claiborne – all have their textiles manufactured by Daewoo.
The textile manufacturer was stationed here in Michigan across the street from Kmart’s headquarters in Troy. One evening, the manager, Jin Kim, asked me to design some neckties and I brought him 25 designs the next morning. It took me about 30 minutes, and it takes their guys about six months to come up with designs. Kim showed the designs to their team, who said the designs were too good [for their market]. They said these ties needed to be at Saks.”
Pangborn’s tie designs were considered too upmarket for Daewoo’s clients, so with Kim’s blessing, he got a small batch manufactured for Saks Fifth Avenue at the Fairlane mall, which was, at the time “a really premiere shopping mall” in the early ‘80s. Then two weeks later, Saks at Somerset heard about the ties and wanted to order some as well.
Can you remember when you first felt that you were successful as an entrepreneur?
“I guess I never looked at it that way. You’re only as good as the last job you completed, so you have to continuously improve and try to do a better job and every time you have to surprise the customer. Don’t give them what’s expected because sooner or later they’ll be disappointed.”
Pangborn ponders the question more, and then says,
“That moment was when I visited a conference in Colorado. I had left Korea at age 10; all my training, background, etc. was in America. Even here, I had never studied Asian art. In 1981, I went to Aspen, Colorado, for an international design conference where the theme was Japan. I went there and when I saw all the designs they were doing, I thought – oh my God, these are my designs. The colors, the balance – was what I was doing. I felt such a connection to my work. I toured Japan the following year, went to design studios and talked to designers there. The more I looked the more I saw connections – but I was still uniquely me. I joined the Japanese design society and began to win awards, even built a studio in Tokyo.
Until then, I never saw my designs look like anybody else’s. But then all of a sudden I felt I was connected to this group, which happened to be Japanese. I had never studied Japanese or had a conversation with a Japanese – but my designs were literally identical. It almost felt like “you belong here.” You’re part of this group of society – and it’s important to all of us. No different than when you meet that girl and she’s the right person and we belong with each other. There’s a common denominator here, that you’re not alone.”
Any advice for aspiring artist/entrepreneurs?
“Entrepreneurship is really based on the individual having the passion to want to create something. We use the term “entrepreneurship” very loosely, but entrepreneurship is like an artist where you think in a closed room and work out how you will create something, reach a market. Who is this for, what is it, why, when, where? When you answer those questions, then you have something.”
Why did you choose to locate here in Detroit?
“The same reason you’re here. I think we have a vision that we can change things here. We can help out, rebuild. I was your age and said I’m going to have my studio in Detroit. That’s where business should be. So I engaged myself in everything – member of the Chamber, elected to the board, all the nonprofits. I was involved in the government offices, sat on the state committee for Asian affairs – which didn’t even exist; that was all created. I knew Governor Blanchard, Governor Burns. You have to be involved – if you want to do something, have to get involved. It’s not easy, but better than complaining about it and doing nothing.
When I got to Detroit I’d just come out of school and had worked for a design company in Chicago. I had an extensive background in design. I applied for jobs and at every interview, I was told my designs were “so LA” and “so NY,” that there was no designer like me in Michigan. That’s when the lights went on for me.
It’s part of the idea of being an artist – wanting to be unique. I grew up in Jackson, MI, and during my entire childhood never saw another Asian. I think I might have known one other woman. It wasn’t until I went to college that I met another Asian person since I came to America at the age of ten.”
What about the Metro region has been helpful to you as a business?
“Back to the old saying – better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. In a way, I arrived here as the big fish. Within one week or less, so many people in town already knew of me because word got out that this designer from Chicago was here. People started calling me right away to hire, but I wasn’t looking for a job. I was about 25 at the time, and yeah, it seemed like I had a name out there.
Detroit was really wonderful for me because I brought something unique to the city, and the people here accepted that uniqueness, liked that difference. I was able to build a business here a lot easier than if I had tried to do it in NY or Chicago or LA. “
You not only do paintings, sculptures and neckties, but your studio is full of contraptions to improve putters and frying pans, and everything from straws to plastic swimsuit holders to construction materials from Home Depot that you use for your art. What do you like most about what you do?
“I like that I can pretty much do my own thing. If I’m not doing good, I don’t have to blame anybody. Good or bad, it stops right here. We’re too much in the habit of blaming others – government or whoever else. But it’s our own fault, and that’s what I like. If you’ve got an idea, go for it.”
275 Iron Street, Detroit, MI 48207
Written by Sandra Yu / Michigan Korean Weekly
Pangborn Design specializes in graphic design, package design, product design and marketing.